Episode 37: Ansel Adams’ The Tetons and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (1942)
Have you ever driven around the American southwest? I have, but only recently, and it was much overdue. Over the course of a day, I flew into Salt Lake City, Utah, drove the two hours north to see Robert Smithson’s The Spiral Jetty firsthand, turned around, went back to the airport where the airline had finally located my luggage, and then hit the road again for Moab, about a four-hour drive southeast. And if I were to summarize that day in one thought, it would have been gratitude for my windshield and its ability to catch all the bugs that would have otherwise ended up in my awestruck, gaping mouth.
Because it’s the most beautiful, sky-filled, surreal landscape you’ve ever seen. It’s what I’d imagine it would be to take a rover across Mars, except with more mountains and more McDonald’s. And funnily enough, it was actually those highway signs and billboards poking up over the landscape, advertising fast food joints and discount hotels, that particularly struck me. The signs for Howard Johnson’s dotting the vista looked so pitifully wee against the mountains in Salt Lake City; you crane your neck to look up so much higher than the fluorescent lights. And it just made it all the more obvious that this topography was just letting us squat for a little while, that it took effort to carve ourselves into it, and might take almost no effort on the landscape’s part to shrug us off. And I should explain, I’m from Boston, except for the years that I lived in Toronto; I know nothing about integrating oneself into a natural landscape. I mean, the skyscrapers and apartment buildings and multifamily houses might as well have grown up from the soil. And so when I drove across Utah and saw those red rocks in the distance, and then felt them closing in around me, I had three distinct thoughts: 1) how a Bostonian like me, who has to pull the shades down at night because my next-door neighbor is literally closer to my bedroom than my bedroom is to the bathroom, could, in the very same country, drive off the road and not be found for days; 2) how much these views would be worth in Boston, and 3) nature is completely oblivious to how stunning it is. It doesn’t care what we foolish mortals would pay to get close to it. A baby doesn’t know it’s cute, and a purple mountain has no sense of its own majesty.
And when you look at a photograph by Ansel Adams, it’s hard to sense that he, too, was constantly standing with his mouth agape, craning his neck, grateful for his windshield, and standing in wonder at the intense, incalculable beauty of the land around him. Adams was born in 1902 in San Francisco and experienced the power of nature early on – he describes one of his earliest memories of watching the smoke rising from the fires caused by the 1906 earthquake and owes his crooked nose to breaking it during one of the aftershocks. Then, at age 12, his family went to Yosemite National Park, a moment that he later described as beginning a new era in his life. He was gifted a camera, learned the darkroom, joined the Sierra Club, and over the next decade, devoted himself to both the photographing and the preservation of his one true love: nature. The tonal values of cliffsides, close-ups of the veins of a leaf, “the mood of a magical summer afternoon.”
This kind of scalability requires a technique to match. In the 1930s, alongside a group of fellow San Francisco landscape photographers which included Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyke, and Imogen Cunningham, all of whom followed in the footsteps of 19th century landscape photographers like Carleton Watkins, Adams formed Group f/64, named for the small aperture setting on a large format camera that creates intense depth of field. The objectives of the collective were to showcase the best contemporary photography coming out of the West – a bit of a nose tweak to the photography coming out of New York and New England – and, more technically, to emphasize what they called “pure photography”: hard-edged, sharply-focused, and carefully-framed images that offer a clean, unencumbered view of the thing itself, without a whiff of the photographer intervention or manipulation that had come to define 19th century pictorialism, or a photographic style that privileged artistry by using techniques like soft-focus and chemical processes to create an image, rather than simply record it.
But with all due respect to f/64, it’s worth taking a more critical look at what “purity” in photography really means, especially when it holds itself in opposition to the more artistic pictorialism. You can’t deny, for example, that there’s a powerful sense of artistry in Adams’ photographs, pure though they might be. In this photograph, which captures the Teton mountains and the Snake River from Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, the snaking curve of the riverbend pulls us into the image with, it would seem, as much clever compositional torque as the foreground tables in Degas’ Absinthe Drinker or Cezanne’s Mount Saint Victoire – which is to say, with the same deliberateness as a painter can create. It’s harder to do that in photography. And there are other moments in this scene that feel inspired by a painter’s imagination: the smoothly nubbled texture of the river like a snake skin, illuminated in the center of the image as the water reflects the sky. The clean, organized points of the mountain tops as they shift from bright to dark, contrasted against the sun’s cottony glow behind the clouds. The soft, short-haired vegetation that blankets the riverbanks. It’s a magnificent image, made all the more striking by its black and white otherworldliness. We know from history photography how far away from us a black and white image can feel, and here, it serves a similar purpose by taking a place that we can get in our cars right now and go to, and transforming it into a work of art. From this artistic perspective, by photographing in black and white – first a technical necessity and then an aesthetic choice – Adams draws us into the more pictorial part of the image: curves, shapes, monochromatic contrasts, composition. The clouds and water and mountains also become shadows and textures and shapes, without all that showy color distracting us from the stark, voluminous contours of the image being captured.
Furthermore, in the case of pure versus pictorial, there’s a kind of perceived authenticity to pure photography, this idea that the subject is just out there in its splendor, waiting to be recorded. It validates a sense of point-and-click that lets us all fancy ourselves photographers if we have an iPhone and an Instagram filter, and also the idea that the landscape itself is so stunning that it simply can’t take a bad picture. And this doesn’t really do Adams justice, nor does it acknowledge just how constructed and technically sophisticated his photographs are. It takes a deft hand and a brilliant eye to point your camera onto the land and come away with a shot like this.
And even more, it takes a photographer’s active choices. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it countless more times before I’m through: when it comes to photography, even photography that purports itself to be as pure and unmanipulated as freshly driven Teton mountaintop snow, you’re always looking at a constructed image. You’re always experiencing the “objective” narrative as seen through the subjective lens of the photographer, whether it’s Hiroshi Sugimoto’s movie theaters in episode 31 or Henryk Ross’s candids of the Lodz Ghetto in episode 20. And in this case, it’s almost more blatant for its denial. Adams went out of his way to crop people out of his images, positioning his invisible presence as the omniscient mediator between man and nature. The scene itself is isolated, populated with only its own untouched natural beauty. We easily, and maybe deliberately on Adams’ part, forget that a human finger released the shutter. Which makes it a little jarring when we dive into his process and see just how ordinarily human he really was. He wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool mountain man scaling peaks to get these views – there are photographs taken of him standing on his car in the national park parking lot, capturing the same view anyone could have. He talked about photographing these long views to spare himself the mosquito bites. And there’s something in this juxtaposition of the authentic and the artificial, the natural and the constructed, that so squarely places Adams as a quintessential American photographer, and a photographer of America.
You’ll never hear Adams described as anything but an American photographer. Even his slightly less decorated reputation as the essential dorm room poster photographer speaks to the importance of geography – case in point, I went to a Canadian school and he was nowhere to be found. But the larger point stands: even in dorm rooms, Ansel Adams is America. And to be America is to be a huge, contradictory, and impossible thing. Between the authentic exposure and the artificial cropping, the natural beauty of the Snake River and the constructed style of the New York socialite, what does capturing America even mean?
And this question takes us into the incredibly rich world of mid-century American photographers, and photographers of America, who were trying to answer this exact question through completely different lenses – all of whom are crucial to making up the tapestry, and all of whom are incomplete on their own. Because in looking at these black and white images from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, you come to realize that you can’t zoom in and out simultaneously. You can’t tell the story of America’s landscape without also telling the story of the people who occupy it.
And so, in the 1930s, in another part of the country from f/64, America discovered its embarrassment of riches when it came to documentary photographers and photojournalism. Funded by the Farm Security Administration, or FSA, as a part of the New Deal, photographers started to tighten the focus into the faces of its citizens, specifically rural, working-class farmers. The iconic photographs that came from this period aimed to “introduce American to Americans” – Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” Walker Evans’ “Portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs,” both from 1936, and both searing, sharply focused examples of the stark, sharp worry lines and hardboiled demeanor forged by the Great Depression. And while the aim here was primarily a state-sponsored attempt to get wealthier Americans on board a social movement by humanizing a rarely-seen socioeconomic class, the artistry and compassion displayed in these images turned them into an art movement of its own, a powerful record of a period in American history that looked honestly in its hardened face and further shaped who we became.
And who we became, as the century progressed, was stratified, glamorous, decidedly unglamorous, and above all, diverse. And one of the viewpoints that most accurately captured this expansive and contradictory self-image came from outside the house, so to speak. In 1955, the Swiss documentary photographer Robert Frank was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to photograph America through a foreigner’s eyes. In that way, the photo series he ultimately published in 1958, The Americans, always struck me as the photographic equivalent to U2’s album The Joshua Tree: a sprawling attempt by reverent, curious, largely objective outsiders to understand a culture – and here, a racially-heated, class-conscious culture – from its roots on up. Frank shot over 27,000 images on his journeys, ultimately paring the publication down to 83 black-and-white photos that depicted flags, cars, tenements, diners, palm trees, and all manner and race and interaction of people up and down the American chain, but not necessarily living the American dream: factory workers, socialites, rodeo clowns, prostitutes. And while there’s a nod to both the FSA styles of documentary as well as the point n’ click purity of f/64, Frank employed a significantly grainer, looser style, like he could barely catch America sitting still, and adding a dynamic new layer to this idea of objectivity, this attempt to record the image, rather than create it.
But what zooms in must also zoom back out. And it’s there we find Ansel Adams standing, unmoving, on the top of his car, capturing the quiet, solid stillness of America the Beautiful herself. You can practically hear the buzzing cicadas and smell the crushed clover of that magical summer afternoon, as you overlook this vast expanse of supremely photographable manifest destiny from sea to shining sea. We’re a spring chicken of a country without a rich architectural history of cathedrals and manmade wonders, but damn if we don’t have those mountains. And in Adams’ hands, America is her wilderness, her wildness, her national parks, her natural beauty. But even with this objective majesty, we can’t act like Adams’ viewpoint isn’t subjective. We can’t ignore also that Adams the photographer is, as I said, Adams the mediator, and moreover the one who positions himself as representative of postwar America: solid, strong, manly, infallible as the mountains. I mean really, it takes a specific kind of mid-century masculine confidence to claim that your viewfinder is even able to objectively capture something so grand, something that stretches so far beyond the frame.
But like America too, there’s a fragility below the surface that’s being captured as well. Victory in the postwar years doesn’t erase vulnerability during the war, or in the Great Depression before that, and from a very concrete perspective, we can’t let ourselves get so comfortable as to not think that these mountains, so sturdy and tall and able to shrug us off, don’t need our protection. And to that end, it’s impossible to talk about the America depicted in the photography of Ansel Adams without considering the same environment concerns that he had. Environmentalism, and the critical importance of being in respectful conversation with the land itself, was fundamental to his work, woven into the fabric of his craft. And he allowed himself to be as political as he needed to be to get his message across. Adams was a staunch opponent of both President Nixon, whose portrait he refused to take, and President Reagan, believing that a president without support for public lands or knowledge of the vast environmental riches under his purview had no business holding the office. He loudly voiced his anxiety over the extraction economy of the west, the unintended, apathetic consequences of extracting resources and leaving the land in worst shape than we found it. And all of this is to say that we need to revisit this idea that the land is just out there in its splendor, waiting to be recorded, so beautiful and so oblivious of its value, and lacking any sustained ability, really, to defend itself against manmade destruction. This is a dangerous lens to see our land through. And while it was in fact this very photography that helped to create the indelible imagery, and therefore awareness, of America’s national park system – its wilderness, wildness, and natural beauty – these elements aren’t just there for our taking. And these photographs can’t end up being all we have left of them.
And look, you don’t need me, or an art history podcast, to tell you that these are environmental concerns we still need to have, desperately. We should know by now the cost of our own active impact, our own passive apathy. Park rangers are projecting that the damage to national parks caused by the most recent government shut down will take decades to undo. Think with a longer view; these parks are our cathedrals. Our presence, those McDonald’s and Howard Johnsons and billboards and highway signs, it all matters. And you also don’t need me to tell you stop what you’re doing, put in the request for that vacation time, pack up the kiddos, and just go. Take that drive through the Southwest, hit up those parks, and see these magnificent places for yourself. Go because these photos have inspired you to keep this landscape alive in all its robustness and all its delicacy. Go to repair the damage we’ve done to the parks, and to America itself, by being apathetic. Go to take pictures, leave footprints, and bask in the wildness, the wilderness, as you and so many subsequent generations after you can crane your neck, mouth agape, and grateful for the windshield.
Special thanks to Jillian Apatow, and the intrepid museum goers at the museum of fine arts, Boston. For more information and past episodes, go to theLonelyPalette.com, or you can follow us on Twitter @lonelypalette, or follow us on Instagram @thelonelypalette, or like us on facebook, and there’s nothing better in the world than leaving a rating and review on apple podcasts, except maybe supporting the show on Patreon at www.patreon.com/lonelypalette. And check out an upcoming issue of the Bello Collective to read all about why I think supporting independent creators like this is so important in the podcast industry today. And that’s at bellocollective.com.
And speaking of Patreon, and of Jillians, today’s Patron of the Day is a super fun one, because she herself is exceptionally fun, especially when you put a guitar in her hands. I met Jillian Matundan at my beloved songwriting retreat, and it was love at first B minor. She’s been a tireless supporter of the show, and knowing her has been the best time ever. So Jillian, my darling indigo girl, thank you so much.
And here’s some exciting news that just came over the transom: I’ve been nominated by Boston Magazine as one of Boston’s Best Podcast Hosts! It’s a really small and distinguished short list and I’m so thrilled just to be nominated. But since winning would be even better, here’s the website that you can cast your vote on, and unlimited times, I might add. So vote, vote early, and vote once a day, at www.bostonmagazine.com/readers-poll-2019. Or you know, just google Boston Magazine 2019 readers poll.
The Lonely Palette is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a collective of Boston-centric, idea-driven podcasts. And even though spring is sprunging and Thanksgiving is long in the past, it’s absolutely worth it to dive into Charles Gustine’s Iconography series on The First Thanksgiving and the Mayflower, both of which offer his characteristically insightful views on what this New England lore meant to its time and continues to mean to us, complicated though our relationship might be. Listen at Hub Spoke audio.org, or directly at iconographypodcast.squarespace.com.