Ansel Adams On What A Mountain Means

June 13th, 2013 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

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?



  1. pj says:

    Excellent post David. So many profound questions to chew on that I honestly wouldn’t know where to start.

    To me here are the key points you brought up:

    “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.”

    This is where honest, meaningful photography starts. To slavishly follow trends and fashions, to follow along imitating the well-known works of others is a dead end.

    You’re right — we need more sensitive expression of the natural world, not more objectifying it and commodifying it..

    Great post.

  2. Well said, PJ. Thank you. More sensitivity and depth. Less repetition of formulas to please crowds.

  3. Hugh Sakols says:

    Modern landscape photography is a double edged sword. The flooding of landscape images on the internet has made these generally iconic views available to the whole world and hopefully makes the public more aware of preservation issues. On the other hand, the masses are driven by what is popular. An example today is everyone wants to climb Half Dome. Give them another choice to somewhere less crowded and just as beautiful and most are not interested. I’m am simple amazed at how many now come to Yosemite to capture horsetail falls in Feb. It has become something like a sporting event and the park service now has to close part of the road for more parking. Everyone wants the same image. As photographers we now have the responsibility to inspire others while not taking away the concept of self discovery. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for the iconic landscape, but I have to be careful. For me the most satisfying images have come from deep exploration. At some point you have to find it on your own and not on a GPS. Great article David!

  4. Hi Hugh, I appreciate you bringing up such events as the Horsetail Falls sunlight stampede. Nothing wrong with it, per se. I believe it is actually the development of a completely different category of outdoor photography. It is not landscape photography, as it has been known, in a strict sense. I don’t know what name to give it. Perhaps one of the participants will come up with a name for this kind of outdoor “sporting event,” as you call it. It’s like a rodeo, the state fair, or a photography meetup, or all three combined.

  5. Irisa Cielena says:

    Thanks for this article. Your comment “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?” really resonated with me in that I often see photographers crossing fence lines, standing in the middle of the meadow (middle of the road, but that is their personal safety, not the wildflowers), etc.I encourage photographers in recognizing the fences/rules/laws/preservation apply to them as well. Thanks again for your blog.

  6. Good points all, Irisa, thank you. Many photographers are abusive of land and improvements. To also be fair to the photographers that deserve it, one of the saddest developments in the last 30-50 years is a tremendous decrease in access to the land. Many people build fences, not because people are trampling their land, but just because they don’t like the idea of sharing their land with others, even those peacefully passing. Even many national parks and wilderness areas have resorted to fences and railings, whether necessary or not. It’s even sadder when they are necessary. The worst part is that photographers and others never learn any sort of land ethic, by which they might learn to treat the land and other’s property with respect. If people were respectful, then we could all recall the ultimate truth of open spaces and landscapes as spoken by various Native American elders: ‘the land does not belong to us, we belong to the land.’

  7. Greg Russell says:

    David, you and I have talked extensively about the lack of “meaning” in most landscape photography today, and this post really drives home so many of my own thoughts and opinions.

    Thanks for sharing this bit from Adams too–I like it a lot and want to read the rest!


  8. Hi Greg, Ties into some of our discussions, doesn’t it? Ansel’s early writings in the Sierra Club Bulletin were incredibly inspiring. This particular essay was quite short though, only about three times as long as that quote.

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