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Ansel Adams….Yosemite, Manzanar and beyond

Deborah Savage, Librarian, History & Genealogy Department,
Looking South On Hill Street, 1940
Looking South On Hill Street, 1940

While many books by and about photographer Ansel Adams are in the Art Department, the History Department also holds many books he wrote and illustrated. Born in San Francisco a few years before the 1906 earthquake, Adams achieved fame for his beautiful black and white photographs of Yosemite Valley. However, his photography took him all over the country and into Canada. Adams is not known for his photographs of Hawaii, yet there is an entire book full of them.  He worked closely with the Sierra Club from the age of sixteen, eventually serving on the Board of Directors for nearly forty years. Adams published a variety of books and guidebooks for the Sierra Club, representing wilderness throughout the country. He took photographs of many national parks as well as open spaces he felt should be national parks. His photographs of the Manzanar War Relocation Center are currently being exhibited at the Skirball Center here in Los Angeles.  Adams captured California during the 1930’s and 1940’s, showing the state as it was before the population boomed and suburbs overtook open space.

For many years, he supported himself with commercial photography. The Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection has the great honor of holding an extensive group of photos of Los Angeles commissioned by Fortune magazine in 1939, with an emphasis on the local aerospace industry. Adams donated these to the library, stating that “none of the pictures were very good.” Luckily, the Photo Collection staff disagreed and now everyone can view these pictures on the L.A. Public Library web site.

Ansel Adams is a tremendous success story, a shy young boy who never completed school yet grew up to achieve worldwide fame for his photography and his conservation work. If you are not familiar with Ansel Adams, spend some time with his Yosemite photographs, by all means see the Manzanar exhibit, but treat yourself to his entire spectacular and moving body of work. 

My Camera in Yosemite Valley, Ansel Adams, 1949. This is a very personal introduction to Ansel Adams and to his beloved Yosemite. In addition to the 24 plates of photographs taken throughout Yosemite, Adams wrote a foreward outlining the geological features of Yosemite. Each plate also includes a brief introduction by Adams describing the subject and explaining in detail how he took the photograph. It is impressive to see, for example, a photograph of Nevada Fall and to understand that in order to take that photo Adams had to hike over three miles up the steep Mist Trail carrying tripods and other cumbersome equipment. He advises the reader to "not be content to stop at the popular viewpoints: walk in the cool forests and by the river and streams, and watch the great rocks and waterfalls reveal themselves." 

My Camera in the National Parks, Ansel Adams, 1950. This text includes images of thirty national parks, from Mount McKinley National Park in Alaska to Acadia National Park in Maine. Adams explains how he selected and photographed each viewpoint. His introduction is a passionate plea emphasizing the importance of setting aside lands as national parks or national forests: "It is necessary to penetrate the illusion of mere 'scenery' to achieve a more profound understanding of the world about us."

Born Free and Equal, Ansel Adams, 1944. In 1943, Adams went to the Manzanar War Relocation Center, located about 100 miles south of the eastern entrance to Yosemite. The director of Manzanar was a good friend of Adams, Sierra Club member Ralph Merritt. Adams hoped his 240 photographs would demonstrate the loyalty and humanity of the Japanese-Americans who lived at Manzanar. He saw his work as "an important historical document," showing "how these people, suffering under a great injustice and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and despair by building for themselves a vital community." The book had a very limited circulation, in part due to politics, but Adams later donated the photographs to the Library of Congress. They are now on exhibit at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles.

An Introduction to Hawaii, narrative by Edward Joesting and photography by Ansel Adams, 1964. Color and black and white photographs capture the wild beauty of Hawaii. You will not see pictures of resorts or beaches full of tourists in these pages. This book serves as a testament to a Hawaii that is increasingly hard to find. 

The Tetons and the Yellowstone, Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall, 1970. Adams' photographs grace the pages of this history of the Tetons and the Yellowstone region. One of Adams' most famous images, "Tetons and the Snake River," is featured in this book. 

Death Valley, Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall, 1954. Nancy Newhall wrote a short history of Death Valley, followed by color and black and white photographs by Adams. As he did in most of his books, Adams included notes on taking photographs in Death Valley. A guide by Ruth Kirk concludes the book and includes advice on travel, points of interest, and flora and fauna.

California, Ansel Adams, 1997. This work pairs Ansel Adams' photographs with classic writings about California. The plates capture California from the 1930's through the 1950's. Here are orchards in Santa Clara, where one can now find an amusement park and a football stadium. One can see the Golden Gate before the bridge was built. The hills south of San Francisco feature only open space and farm land, where now there are housing developments. The pictures take the reader all over California, from the mountains to the coast.

Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, Ansel Adams, 2006. In 1937, Adams was approached by San Francisco business executive Walter Starr about publishing a book of photographs in memory of his son, who died mountain climbing in the Minarets. Adams suggested a book on the John Muir Trail, which stretches over 200 miles from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney. Adams had already taken many photos of this area, using a pack mule to help him carry his equipment up and down the rugged peaks. The result of their collaboration is this book, originally published in 1938. The fifty plates show stunning mountain scenery. The book was given to Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and President Roosevelt and helped lead to the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park in 1940. 

"Life is your art. An open, aware heart is your camera. A oneness with the world is your film." -Ansel Adams

 

 


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