Posts Tagged ‘Old Faithful’

Ansel Adams On What A Mountain Means

June 13th, 2013

An Excerpt And Commentary On Ansel Adams’ Short Essay, “What Can A Mountain Mean?”

Last Light On Mt. Hough, Plumas County, Northern Sierra Nevada, California, copyright 2009 David Leland Hyde.

Last Light On Mt. Hough, Plumas County, Northern Sierra Nevada, California, copyright 2009 David Leland Hyde. Nikon D90.

(See the photograph large: “Last Light On Mt. Hough, Indian Valley, Northern Sierra, California.”)

Within a few years of John Muir’s founding of the Sierra Club in 1892, charter members formed a committee to oversee the writing, compiling and production of a Sierra Club Handbook. The handbook went to all new members as an overall orientation, an introduction to outdoor etiquette and a guide to Sierra Club philosophy. Half a century later, David Brower became the editor of the handbooks, as well as the Sierra Club’s first Executive Director. The 1957 edition of the Sierra Club Handbook included on its Editorial Committee such renowned environmental leaders as Ansel Adams, William E. Colby, Charlotte E. Mauk, Harriet T. Parsons and Blanche Stallings.

David Brower wrote in the introduction:

America’s resources of scenery that we explore and enjoy today are not set aside through accident. National Parks and forests, state and county redwood groves and beaches, wilderness areas and primeval regions—these are not now open to free public enjoyment just through happenstance, just because the country is so big and its resources so limitless that no one has yet got around to fencing them in. These areas, to which millions go each year for escape, exercise, or rest, are available only because people have fought for them. We who enjoy the mountains today owe a debt to generations of those now gone, or now no longer able to be fully active, who have thought in terms of long-range public use and enjoyment rather than immediate development and exploitation.

The Handbook told the reader the story of the Sierra Club, educated about the Sierra Club’s conservation role, provided information on mountaineering, wilderness outings, Sierra Club lodges and lands, winter sports, administration of the Club, trails, the human need for tranquility, the library, scientific background, new films, how to contribute, folklore, directors, chairmen and honorary members, publications, Sierra Club Books, periodicals and the Sierra Club by-laws, but the highlight of the handbook was a signature of 16 glossy black and white photographs by Ansel Adams. The series included such famous plates as Moon Over Half Dome, White House Ruin, Yosemite Valley From Valley View, Old Faithful and The Grand Tetons from Oxbow Bend. The irony is that these locations have now become like treasure map stops on checklists kept by some of today’s landscape photographers.

Accompanying his photographs, and equally as moving, Ansel Adams wrote a brief essay titled, “What Can A Mountain Mean?” This short plea for people to look more deeply at nature applies today even more than when written. The following is an excerpt:

We are seeking a closer contact and deeper understanding of the natural scene in both its vast and delicate aspects. Our ultimate function was never the mere making of maps and the collation of physical data; rather it was to interpret the assembled facts in terms of enjoyment and spiritual experience, and to assist others to seek and comprehend the heart of nature. After all, in the strictly materialistic sense, a mountain is simply an object of inanimate stone garnished with vegetation. It can be measured, weighed, climbed, and even removed or destroyed. Gravity, weather, geologic processes determine its form and the flow of the rivers at its base. These streams posses potential water power, provide irrigation, and contain fish. The timber on the slopes may be salable, and on the surface and inside of the mountain valuable minerals may be found and mined. Obviously the corpus and the spirit of the mountain are two very different entities. A mountain provides an impressive symbol of the wonder and beauty of the natural world, of contact with the primal purities of nature, of the cleanliness and the emotional stimulus of the realities of the earth.

At the time Ansel Adams wrote his short introduction to accompany his photographs in the Sierra Club Handbook, the term ‘landscape photography’ had not yet come into common use. Ansel Adams and his associates called the outdoor photographer who photographed wilderness, a ‘photographer of the natural scene.’ Whatever term you use to describe photography of the landscape, flora and fauna; today many practitioners of it, including myself at times, approach it more like those who are making maps or collecting data, rather than with the intent to impart joy or share a transcendent experience stemming from a more developed connection with the land.

While the internet is a superb tool for showing, viewing and critiquing landscape photography, it sometimes encourages the photographic sport of trophy hunting. Some online photographers objectify nature like pornography and subliminally sexual advertising objectify women and sometimes men. If one photographer has a photograph of a Grizzly Bear, the Aurora Borealis, Antelope Canyon or another trophy that others also have, then we feel we must bring home similar big game to hang on the wall and join the icon club. In contrast, to create photographs with meaning and make a contribution to the art, we must examine our motives. Are we purely profit or recognition-driven? Are we grabbing and bagging moments rather than living them? Are we carving notches in our camera cases? Or are we embracing nature; studying, living and breathing our subjects? Are we getting to know the places we portray, or are we defacing rock art, trampling flowers, stomping on and digging up the mountain, like destructive miners only interested in a payoff?

Until a photographer experiences and imparts the intrinsic values of a natural scene, he or she will not obtain the same long-term satisfaction with his or her images. There is nothing wrong with photographing an icon from time to time, but if they dominate a portfolio, it may be time to re-evaluate. Perhaps the commoditization of landscape photography will continue. Maybe digital photography will be more of an industry than an art, but why be part of the problem? Why not set your own sail, calibrate your own gyroscope by what fulfills you from the inside? Each person sends out a ripple effect. The world needs more sensitivity to nature, not more objectifying of natural subjects. In fact, this adjustment in perspective, this shift in vision, may be exactly what can save us. Photography is much more powerful than many realize. Through it the vision of an entire society is examined, determined and cast. What version of society will we choose? Will future generations see us the way we wish to be seen? What kind of civilization and what kind of people are we?

Relevant Blog Posts:

The Trophy Shot – A Nature And Landscape Photographer’s Dilemma by Gary Crabbe

A Big Light Night – Are You Too Old for Trophy Hunting Photography? by Darwin Wiggett

Aboutness by Guy Tal

What do you think? What is your opinion about exploitation versus inspiration?

Covered Wagon Journal 3

February 16th, 2010

Covered Wagon Journal 3

Extracts from the Summer 1955 Journal of Travels Through the Western National Parks and Monuments. (Partly on freelance assignment from the Sierra Club)

By Philip Hyde

(CONTINUED FROM BLOG POST, “Covered Wagon Journal 2” For an introduction to what the Covered Wagon is see “Covered Wagon Journal 1“)

Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 1983, by Philip Hyde. The Yellowstone River, a tributary to the Missouri River, is the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states.

July 16. At Hell’s Half Mile the water is so low that the beginning of the rapid is a waterfall of about six feet. Our party is scattered on the stream-side rocks to watch what proved to be the first successful folbot run of Hell’s Half Mile. The victors, Ray Simpson and Dave Allen, were properly feted when we reached camp, and each was presented a special medal of tin-can top with bread-wrapper laurel wreaths.

July 23. We have headed east into the Rocky Mountains from Dinosaur National Monument and are based for a few days at Georgetown, Colorado. Today, we have been up into the alpine country above Georgetown, winding through the Engelmann spruce forest on a dirt road that emerges above timberline onto a meadow whose upper limits are defined by the weathered wood walls of houses and stores. Mixed freely with the fields of blooming wildflowers are the blights of other years: abandoned mine buildings and random spaced mounds of tawny tailings. Beholding such a scene, I cannot help thinking how much of this I’ve seen in the Rockies. And, I cannot help but reflect on the good fortune of Sierrans, that an accident of geography kept our high country clean. A benevolent providence placed our gold-bearing ores on the flanks of the foothills rather than on the crest, so we may enjoy both the color of the old mines and the inspiration of high-country wilderness left intact.

July 25. The air is perfectly still as we watch the sun change the hues of the distant wall of the Wind River Range. Our camp is just north of the celebrated old South Pass by which so many emigrants crossed the Continental Divide in their covered wagons. As we crawl into our bunks in our own rubber-tired covered wagon, we can imagine we see a faint line of dust rising on the horizon.

July 26. Yellowstone-bound, we stop to watch two trumpeter swans with three young in a slough of the marsh in Jackson Hole Wildlife Refuge. Beyond them in the distance, looking at first like sticks, are a pair of sandhill cranes.

July 27. After evading at least a half dozen tourist traps the mother bears have set up along the south-entrance highway. Continuing beyond them, we arrived at Old Faithful, just in time for a playing of the geyser. We had come to Yellowstone National Park almost reluctantly, not expecting to enjoy it much because of the usual summer crowds. But something happened to the mood of the place while we were waiting for Old Faithful to play. It began as we looked around at the eager, expectant faces and built up as we began to hear a naturalist giving his introductory talk: even the public-address system became a benign presence, as we realized that we were hearing the pure gospel of conservation preached to this multitude. By the time the geyser had reached its full height, we were transformed by its sermon. Even in a crowd, its radiance glowed undimmed, and, through some kind of magic, that experience set the tone for the rest of our stay in Yellowstone.

July 29. At the suggestion of a naturalist at Mammoth Hot Springs, we took the old road part of the way to Tower Junction from Mammoth, Wyoming. Traffic had been heavy when we turned off the highway, but we met no cars during the hour and a half we spent driving leisurely down this dirt-road entrance to the Yellowstone wilderness. Even the six pronghorn antelope we came upon seemed a bit surprised to see us.

Though there are so many complaints of overcrowding in Yellowstone National Park, the wilderness is still just beyond the highway, as few visitors go far from the parking lots. The loop highway has become a slow-motion race track, with many visitors making the 160-mile circuit in one day. Many of them refuse to walk even a few yards from their cars to see a geyser or the Terraces.

July 31. A mile away from the parking lot the Black Dragon’s Cauldron bubbles and hisses, and sends its “eruptions” of charcoal-gray mud 30 to 50 feet into the air. It is the more interesting when you learn that it suddenly appeared in the middle of the forest, in 1948. Since then, it has gradually killed the forest around it, encasing living trees in the dark mud until they are suffocated.

August 6. We have been sitting around a fire, quite comfortable, in a tepee of Teton Indian Village, near Jackson, Wyoming. The rain which beats on the canvas slopes of the tepee forced cancellation of the Indian dance tonight. Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Laubin, well-known interpreters of Indian dance, and long-time students of Indian life and culture, are sitting opposite us, telling us about some of the authentic Indian objects with which the tepee is furnished. They have introduced us to some of their Indian friends who dance with them. Red Robin, a Zuni artist now living in New York, is seated next to Mr. Old Man, a large man, whose twinkling eyes betray his good nature. Next to him is his wife; then Mr. Good Friday and his wife. The Old Mans and the Good Fridays are Arapaho Indians. There is continuing good-natured banter as we begin to play the old Indian hand game. We are divided into two groups, each group appointing a “guesser” and a “hider.” One side takes the ring, and the “hider” will conceal it in one of his hands. The other side’s “guesser” will try to determine which hand has the ring, and Mr. Old Man beats accompaniment with a small hand drum. In the lulls after a guess, the Indians tell jokes, usually making the white man the butt of them. When we leave, after Mr. Old an has sung us several songs in Arapaho, we remember that we didn’t get to see the dances.

August 7. After dinner and preparations at the roadhead for the High Trip that begins tomorrow we drive back to the Indian Village to see the dances we missed last night…

(CONTINUED IN BLOG POST, “Covered Wagon Journal 4“)