First, there was Ansel Adams . . .
Standing at the Snake River overlook in Wyoming, the first thing a true Ansel Adams fan will tell you is that the trees weren’t there when the legendary landscape photographer took his iconic photo.
What they mean by that is that the trees obstructing your view of the Snake River weren’t there in 1942. It’s obvious looking at Adams’ famous image, “The Tetons and Snake River,” that there were trees along the river back then, just not as thick as they are today.
I have to admit that I’m not a student of Adams’ work and had no clue that the shot I was composing was roughly from the same spot Adams was standing as he pointed his camera at the Teton mountains and the winding Snake River.
My brother-in-law who drove us to that spot knew, and so did the older fella who was explaining the importance of that location to his two friends.
“The trees weren’t here back then,” the old guy said. “In Adams’ photo you can see where the river bends back toward the mountains. Now, it’s all grown over.”
For many amateur photographers (and I’m sure some of the less jaded professionals, as well), standing in Adams’ footsteps has sort of the same significance as visiting Mount Vernon and being able to say, “George Washington slept here.”
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Adams, who died in 1984, may be the most flattered photographer in history.
Go to Flickr and search for “Tetons and Snake River” and you’ll get a sense of just how often Adams’ work has been emulated by the thousands of photographers and people with cameras who drive through Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming on any given day. An even better example is what happens when you Google “Moulton Barn” and try to discern which image of the famous Wyoming barn belongs to Adams among the countless copies. Now, multiply that by the hundreds of other iconic landscape photos that Adams took during his lifetime and you’ll realize how deep his influence on photography runs.
Unfortunately, Adams’ ubiquitous presence on calendars, post cards and coffee table books may be one reason some art aficionados turn their noses up at the mention of his name, as if Adams was some sort of Thomas Kinkade huckster. Getting his work printed on millions of calendars probably never crossed Adams’ mind back in the 20s, 30s and 40s when he produced his most famous photographs. He didn’t even own the rights to many of his images, such as “The Tetons and Snake River,” which he shot as part of a series of photos for the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Adams was certainly a businessman, making a comfortable living by taking on commercial assignments, but he also considered himself an artist. And truly, his work elevated landscape photography into fine art. Photographer Thomas Hawk says that Adams’ proudest moment was when he was given a show at Alfred Stieglitz’ New York City art gallery. Stieglitz’ documentary photography and portraits in the early part of the 20th century helped define an era. Hawk writes:
According to Michael [Adams’ son], his father thought the world of Stieglitz and his endorsement with a solo show at Stieglitz’s prestigious gallery in 1936 was probably the thing he was most proudest of, even more than all of his later significant achievements and accomplishments.
Not only did Adams have an incredible eye for composition and detail but he was a master in the dark room, where he changed the game with ground-breaking techniques that are taken for granted in today’s Instagram culture.
Still, I was far from an expert on his work when I visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks at the end of August. What I did know was that his work was an important part of the conservation movement in the 20th century. As a young man, he joined the Sierra Club, where he is still revered. From the Sierra Club’s website:
Adams was often criticized for not including humans in his photographs and for representing an idealized wilderness that no longer exists. However, it is in large part thanks to Adams that these pristine areas have been protected for years to come.
Adams, himself, scoffed at the notion that his work was lacking because it didn’t include people:
“To the complaint, ‘There are no people in these photographs,’ I respond, There are always two people: the photographer and the viewer.”
I’m torn on whether I wish I had studied Adams’ photos before I took my trip to Wyoming. On the one hand, I think it would have given me a valuable perspective as I traveled through the parks. On the other hand, I was able to look at the scenes without a preconceived notion of what the photos should look like. That, however, is probably just fanciful thinking.
The truth is, you can’t really take a landscape photo in the American West without paying homage to the master.