Sierra Club Books: Exhibit Format Series 2

October 4th, 2012 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Sierra Club Books: Exhibit Format Series

Part Two: The Making of This Is The American Earth

(Continued from the blog post, “Sierra Club Books: Exhibit Format Series 1.”)

Aspens, East Side of the Sierra Nevada off the Tioga Road near Yosemite National Park, California, copyright 1949 by Philip Hyde. A close variation on the photograph of Philip Hyde’s that appears in “This Is the American Earth.” Made with an 8X10 Deardorff large format view camera.

“The Exhibit Format Series put the Sierra Club on the map,” Philip Hyde said in a 2004 interview. The Sierra Club Foundation, founded by David Brower, had the central purpose of operating the Sierra Club publishing program that published all Sierra Club Books and the Exhibit Format Series as it’s mainstay. For more on David Brower see the blog post, “David Brower: Photographer And Environmentalist 1.” The Sierra Club Books’ Exhibit Format Series not only popularized the coffee table photography book, but brought an awareness of land conservation, wilderness preservation and environmental ethics into the national and eventually worldwide limelight.

The oversize photography books in the Exhibit Format Series spearheaded conservation campaigns to create Redwood National Park, North Cascades National Park, to save the Grand Canyon from two dams, to expand Canyonlands and many others causes. Photographer Ansel Adams, Museum Curator, Writer and Art Critic Nancy Newhall and Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower invented the Sierra Club Books Exhibit Format Series.

Life Magazine Photographer, Joe Munroe, interviewed David Brower in 1967 for Infinity, the magazine of the American Society of Media Photographers or ASMP, regarding the new Exhibit Format Series. Joe Munroe asked David Brower, “You’ve called the Sierra Club’s Exhibit Format Series ‘Books with a bias.’ What is the central bias behind these books?”

David Brower answered:

We make it perfectly clear that we like this wild country we’re portraying in our books. We want it saved and we don’t want it paved, or logged, or dammed, or sprayed, or polluted. Our point is that there’s only 5 or 10 percent of the country left in its un-messed-up wildness. If our economy cannot operate on the 90 or 95 percent that has already been changed, that other 5 or 10 percent won’t save it; so our big effort must be in doing better with the land we’re already on. We say let’s pretend this 5 or 10 percent just doesn’t exist, so we can save it for itself for whatever answers there are to questions we haven’t learned how to ask yet. This has got to last for all the generations we expect to be aboard this planet. We’d like to have some of the wild spots left and we’ve been trying to stress this in several ways, one of which is through these books with an extra measure of physical size, the best of reproduction quality, and photographic and literary excellence.

This is the American Earth, the first book in the Sierra Club Books Exhibit Format Series, was a perfect example of just these attributes. This Is The American Earth offered text by Nancy Newhall and photographs primarily by Ansel Adams joined by some of his photographer friends such as Ray Atkeson, Werner Bischoff, Wynn Bullock, Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Garnett, Philip Hyde, Pirkle Jones, Eliot Porter, Edward Weston, Minor White, Cedric Wright and others. All in black and white, the book has both literary and visual eloquence unparalleled in books containing photographs.

The front flap of the Sierra Club Centennial edition published in 1992 said:

First published to acclaim in 1960, This Is The American Earth launched the Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series, creating a revolution in publishing and in conservation action and attitudes. “This Is The American Earth is one of the great statements in the history of conservation,” proclaimed Justice William O. Douglas… Called “terrifying and beautiful” by the New York Times, This Is The American Earth presents eighty-five powerful black and white photographs—fourty-four by Ansel Adams and others by such eminent American photographers as Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde, Edward Weston and Margaret Bourke-White. Accompanying the images is a luminous text in blank verse by Nancy Newhall. Reprinted in rich duotones from new prints supplied by the Ansel Adams Trust, the pictures exhibit the stark contrast between those spaces forever altered by the forces of development and those left unscarred by human presence. As Nancy Newhall explores the intricate threads that unite the earth as an ever-shifting whole, and Adams exults in Yosemite’s rocky peaks, and Porter reveres a single tern in flight, William Garnett despairs at waves of smog and frantic mazes of tract housing that forsake all of nature’s singularity. The images, so bold in their divergence, are an eloquent call for the preservation of wilderness. This Is The American Earth compels us to ask what is the value of solitude, the cost of freedom, the legacy of our ingenuity—and the peril of our unwavering march from nature.

Ansel Adams first conceived This Is The American Earth as an exhibit of photographs, in response to the Natioal Park Service suggestion that something more functional be done with the Joseph LeConte memorial building in Yosemite Valley.  Ansel Adams asked Nancy Newhall to bring in her skill with exhibits and text she gained as curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The exhibition that opened simultaneously at the LeConte Memorial in Yosemite Valley and at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, gained a world-wide audience through the Smithsonian Institute, while a number of prominent publishers and foundations helped the show become a book. The idea of the project was to educate the public about conservation. Ansel Adams said in brainstorming sessions with his wife Virginia Adams and Nancy Newhall later quoted in Modern Photography Magazine:

What about a show on the whole of conservation?… Clear up the confusion in people’s minds, show them the issues at stake, and the dangers… Show the importance of the spiritual values as well as the material ones by making the most beautiful exhibition yet… A lot of people think Conservationists are a bunch of long-haired cranks and wild-eyed mystics. It’s about time they were given a chance to understand the broad principles and the full scope for which we’re fighting…

Ansel Adams raised the money to mount the exhibition himself. Nancy Newhall reviewed thousands of photographs, designed the overall concept and layout of the show and wrote the text. Beaumont and Christi Newhall’s new introduction to the Sierra Club Centennial edition described how the printing and organization of the show came together:

Six photographers made their own prints [including Philip Hyde] for the show, and Ansel Adams, with the help of his assistant Pirkle Jones, made the rest from the photographer’s own negatives. These images were attached to fourteen panels, each seven by four feet. Some of the photographs were mounted with spacers, making them stand out from the panels, and giving a certain visual liveliness to the show. Also displayed were natural objects and geological specimens such as butterflies, mushrooms coral, crystals, and shells, as well as small Egyptian and Greek artifacts. These objects added color, variety, a sense of life, and a sense of immediacy… Labels made from Nancy Newhall’s text were placed together with the photographs where they seemed appropriate, giving the exhibition an even broader scope. Immediately, the show received an overwhelming enthusiastic response.

An article in the November 1955 issue of Modern Photography Magazine stated:

This Is the American Earth is one of the most beautiful and remarkable photographic exhibitions ever put together… Various organizations have proposed to circulate it in reproduction to every community, to make it into a movie for TV and ordinary theater showings, to publish it as a book for distribution in this country and throughout the world. Why all the excitement? There are two answers, one is the theme of the show, the other its execution. The theme stresses the need, the history, the purpose of the conservation of America’s resources. The execution includes the display of some of the most penetrating and beautiful photographs ever made…

Nancy Newhall completely revised the text as the exhibition became a book, “to reflect new thinking and expansion of the original ideas.” Beaumont and Christi Newhall’s introduction explained:

The exhibit had focused on conservation and the “national park idea.” The theme of the book is avowedly ecological and environmental. It embraces an understanding of the interrelation of all resources including man, and the need for reverence and preservation of these resources. The impassioned, poetic text also deals with the tragic effects of man’s greed and ignorance throughout history upon this planet. The book was an instant success. It was chosen as one of the forty-six “Notable Books”  of 1960 by the nation’s librarians, and was selected Best Book of the Year by the American Institute of Graphic Arts. It was reviewed in newspapers and periodicals throughout the country, often accompanied by photographs from the book and large sections of the text.

In Ansel Adams’ last living interview by Art News in 1984, he said, “…It boils down to the fact that the world is in a state of potential destruction. There’s no use worrying about anything else.”

(Continued in the blog post, “Sierra Club Books: Exhibit Format Series 3.”)

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6 comments

  1. pj says:

    These books were where I first came across your dad’s work back in the mid-70′s. It’s fascinating to read some of the history behind these groundbreaking works. I appreciate these posts David.

    That quote by Adams at the end is one for the ages.

  2. Hi PJ, Thank you for your comment and the retweets on Twitter. David Brower, Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall all had a gift for moving and admirable communication, but I agree, that quote from Ansel Adams’ last interview may be one of the greatest.

  3. Greg Russell says:

    This is great coverage on these books, David. I remember spending some time with the format series at the library several years ago, and should do so again soon…they are very lovely, moving, evocative.

    I agree with PJ about Adams’ quote–he really did have a way with words. I think all of these guys did…Adams, your dad, etc…there was a profound connection to the land and the art that came out in a moving way on paper.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Greg, I appreciate your perspective since you are an excellent writer yourself. It is up to us to do the best we can to follow in their footsteps and carry on the tradition.

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