David Brower: Photographer And Environmentalist 1

January 15th, 2011 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

In Honor Of The One Year Anniversary Of The Launch Of Landscape Photography Blogger…

David Brower: Photographer, Filmmaker And

Father Of Modern Environmentalism Part One

Storm Over The Minarets, Yosemite Sierra High Trip, now the Ansel Adams Wilderness, High Sierra Nevada, California, 1950 by Philip Hyde. One of Philip Hyde's signature images that came from the 1950 Summer High Trip that started and ended in Tuolumne Meadows and explored the North side of Yosemite National Park and the Ritter Range in the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

(See the photograph full screen Click Here.)

David Brower, an excellent photographer and filmmaker in his own right, did more to help popularize and show the political power of landscape photography than any other single person in the 20th Century.

In light of this, in the year 2000 the North American Nature Photography Association at its national convention honored both Philip Hyde and David Brower with lifetime achievement awards. David Brower, as the first Executive Director of the Sierra Club and leader of its most ambitious conservation campaigns, was in large part responsible for helping to establish Philip Hyde as a leading landscape photographer, along with many others including Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter.

Life Magazine called David Brower the “Number one working conservationist.” The New York Times said he was, “The most effective conservation activist in the world…” The Los Angeles Times said he was, “…America’s most charismatic conservationist.” David Brower dropped out of U. C. Berkeley his sophomore year, yet he holds nine honorary degrees. David Brower changed the course of history and the way we view wilderness and the environment, yet today his accomplishments are not particularly well-known. Even though he was nominated three times for the Nobel Peace prize, he is seldom credited for his impact on activism world-wide. Why? Who was this enigmatic figure?

David Brower: High Sierra First Ascents Climber

Born in 1912 and raised in Berkeley, California, David Brower first started climbing boulders in the Sierra Nevada on a car trip to Lake Tahoe at age six. He went on to become a renowned mountaineer of the Sierra Nevada and far beyond. As a young man he was nearly killed by a loose rock while climbing in the Palisades area of the High Sierra. He met legendary mountaineer Norman Clyde, who gave him climbing lessons. Not surprisingly, it was a climber friend, Hervey Voge, who first introduced him to the Sierra Club in 1933.

In 1934, David Brower and Hervey Voge set out on a 10 week climbing trip in the high Sierra from Onion Valley to Tuolumne Meadows. They scaled 62 peaks and made 32 first ascents. In 1939 David Brower and a number of friends, some of whom also were Sierra Club leaders, climbed Shiprock. The previous 12 attempts to climb the volcanic column had failed.

David Brower Invites Philip Hyde To Photograph Sierra Club High Trip

David Brower led Sierra Club High Trips and managed the whole program from 1947 to 1954. Ardis and Philip Hyde met David Brower in Tuolumne Meadows in 1948 when he came through leading a Sierra Club trip. Ansel Adams later more officially introduced David Brower and Philip Hyde and David Brower asked Philip Hyde to join him for a Sierra Club High Trip in the Summer of 1950. That was the High Trip that Philip Hyde made his photograph of “Minarets From Tarn Above Lake Ediza, Sierra Nevada” that Ansel Adams said he liked better than his own. It was also the Summer of “Split Boulder Near Lake Ediza, Sierra Nevada” that saw major exhibitions including the famous San Francisco “Perceptions” show of Group f.64. Several other Philip Hyde signature photographs were born that summer, “Glacial Pavement, Lodgepole Pine, Sierra Nevada” “Storm Over The Minarets, Sierra Nevada” and a number of Tuolumne Meadows.

At the time David Brower was the editor of the University of California Press and had edited the Sierra Club Annual since 1946. The 1951 Sierra Club Annual gave Philip Hyde his first publishing credit with a signature of 12 of his black and white photographs of the High Sierra Nevada from the 1950 Summer High Trip.

The Sierra Club Sends Philip Hyde On The First Photography Assignment For An Environmental Cause

Richard Leonard and David Brower sent Philip Hyde to Dinosaur National Monument in 1951. In 1952 David Brower became the first Executive Director of the Sierra Club. Within one year he had convinced the reluctant Sierra Club Board to expand the scope of the Sierra Club from a California focused defender of the Sierra, to a national, or at least regional organization with battles and interests in Oregon, Washington, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and expanding to the East Coast. David Brower pushed for the first book produced for an environmental cause, This Is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country And It’s Magic Rivers.

This Is Dinosaur eventually landed on every desk in Congress and other Washington leaders with the goal of convincing them it was a place too beautiful to destroy. The two dams proposed in Dinosaur would flood 97 out of 106 river miles inside the national monument. David Brower and a growing coalition in the Sierra Club and outside made up of various environmental groups, developed to defend this invasion of the National Park System.

David Brower and the coalition of environmental groups behind him took the position that as long as Glen Canyon Dam would be built anyway, building the dam higher would result in a reservoir that would hold enough extra water to exceed the capacity of both of the proposed Dinosaur National Monument dams. A higher Glen Canyon Dam would thus render the Dinosaur dams unnecessary. David Brower proved in Congressional testimony, using 9th Grade math not only that the higher Glen Canyon Dam would store more water, but that it would also evaporate less additional water. At the time time few people outside of the locals had ever seen Glen Canyon.

David Brower, Ansel Adams And Nancy Newhall Launch Conservation Photography History

In 1960, David Brower, Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall made a significant contribution to photography of the natural scene or landscape photography as it is now called. They re-invented and popularized the large coffee table photography book. This Is The American Earth with text by Nancy Newhall and photographs by Ansel Adams and some of his friends including Philip Hyde, was a song to nature writ large. America embraced This Is The American Earth and others in the Sierra Club Books Exhibit Format Series.

Another major advance came to photography in 1962, also brought to you by David Brower. He introduced color to landscape photography through Philip Hyde and Eliot Porter and the Sierra Club Books Exhibit Format Series in 1962, the same year Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. Eliot Porter illustrated the gorgeous and artistic In Wildness Is The Preservation Of The Earth with quotes by Henry David Thoreau. Philip Hyde illustrated Island In Time: Point Reyes Peninsula, more of a rushed documentary project to help make Point Reyes National Seashore.

Photographers And Other Creatives Sent To Save The Grand Canyon

By 1964, again making a historical advance for photography, David Brower organized a river trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park. With Martin Litton as river guide, filmmaker and photographer, photographer Eliot Porter, photographer Philip Hyde, writer Francois Leydet and a number of other Sierra Club board members and artists of various types, the trip promised to be creative. Martin Litton brought the group to the proposed dam sites in the Grand Canyon, to Vasey’s Paradise, to Redwall Cavern, through hair raising and often capsize causing rapids for the purpose of making a book that would be called Time and The River Flowing: Grand Canyon. The book that would be part of the campaign to stop the Grand Canyon from being dammed. David Brower remarked at the time:

The dams the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation plans to build in Marble Gorge and Bridge Canyon, within the Grand Canyon proper, would destroy not only the living river but also the unique life forms that through the ages have come to depend upon the river’s life. The major part of the canyon walls would still be there, but the pulsing heart of the place would be stopped. A chain of destructive forces would be begun in what by law was set apart as part of the National Park System, to be preserved unimpaired for all America’s future.

And needlessly. Looked at hard, these dams are nothing more than hydroelectric power devices to produce electricity and dollars from its sale to pay for projects that ought to be financed by less costly means. The dams would make no water available that is not available already. Indeed they would waste enough to supply a major city and impair the quality of the too little that is left: water already too saline is made more so by evaporation, to the peril of downstream users, especially of neighbors in Mexico. All this on a river that already has more dams than it has water to fill them.

Philip Hyde and David Brower also worked together on many other campaigns with the help of many other environmental activists. Philip Hyde made photographs for David Brower led campaigns for the Oregon and Washington Cascade Mountains, Kings Canyon, Redwood National Park, the Wind River Range, Navajo Tribal Parks, Alaska and many other smaller skirmishes. To read about one of Ardis and Philip Hyde’s travel adventures on behalf of David Brower and the Sierra Club see the blog post, “The Making Of ‘Rainbow Bridge From The Upstream Side.'” Future Blog Posts will share more stories and other points of interest of David Brower’s life and work in conservation…

The river trip through Glen Canyon on the Colorado River proved to be one of the most historically significant events that David Brower and Philip Hyde experienced together twice, once in 1962 and once in 1964 after the gates of Glen Canyon Dam closed and “Lake” Powell began to fill. To read Philip Hyde’s tribute to Glen Canyon see the blog post, “Glen Canyon Lament By Philip Hyde 1.”


For Earth’s Sake: The Life and Times of David Brower by David Brower

Work in Progress by David Brower

Wikipedia article on David Brower

Wildness Within Website

The History of the Sierra Club 1892-1970 by Michael Cohen

Sierra Club: 100 Years of Protecting Nature by Tom Turner

(Continued In Another Blog Post…)



  1. pj says:

    Interesting post David. I recently read his book, ‘let the mountains talk, let the rivers run’. His thoughts on environmental issues were light-years ahead of most.

    He was a visionary, and truly a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately his kind are all too rare.

  2. Appreciate your input, PJ. “Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run” is a very inspiring book. I would recommend it to everyone who is interested in the outdoors, nature and wilderness.

  3. Steve SIeren says:

    The only thing I’ve heard of David Brower before this post was proposed renaming of the palisade. Well, the name was never changed but at least I know a little more about the person who could of had his name on the peak but more importantly what he did and why his name was chosen.

  4. Derrick says:

    Happy birthday for your blog, David. I’ve really enjoyed the last year of reading and learning.

  5. Richard Wong says:

    Enlightening post, David. David Brower did so much for the environmental movement that’s its almost impossible to quantify.

  6. Richard Wong says:

    Hey David. I’m curious to know what your dad’s opinion on the Hetch Hetchy was? Did he photograph that for the Sierra Club too?

  7. Hi Derrick, thank you for the Landscape Photography Blogger happy birthday wishes. I appreciate your readership and have also enjoyed reading your blog which is also historically interesting on a different subject: the old forts and ruins in Texas. Quite interesting.

    Thank you Richard, for your comments. It sounds like you know some of David Brower’s background too. Great question about Hetch Hetchy. Dad was always for restoring it. He was one of the more active members of Restore Hetch Hetchy and I believe he was on their board at one time. The current people running Restore Hetch Hetchy don’t seem to have any sense of that history and didn’t even know who Philip Hyde was when I talked to them last year. Lots of people have never heard of Dad, but his photographs of Hetch Hetchy have been widely used all over and have been a cornerstone of the movement to restore the valley ever since the origination of the idea. In fact I’m sure that Dad helped originate the idea. If you type into a search engine “Hetch Hetchy Philip Hyde” you will get the 1955 vintage black and white photographs on the Sierra Club website. Dad’s photograph, “Hetch Hetchy, Field of Stumps” was used by Restore Hetch Hetchy for years and appeared not too long ago, probably around 2004 or 2006, on PBS TV’s Jim Lehrer News Hour. See “Field of Stumps” here: http://www.philiphyde.com/index.php#mi=2&pt=1&pi=10000&s=31&p=9&a=0&at=0 “Field of Stumps” and the other vintage black and white photographs from 1955 were made when Dad discovered the reservoir was very low. As soon as Dad saw how low Hetch Hetchy reservoir was, he raced to the Sierra Club Headquarters in San Francisco and told David Brower. David Brower dropped everything, grabbed his movie camera and raced back to Hetch Hetchy with Dad. Up until recently and perhaps still, Restore Hetch Hetchy used David Brower’s 1955 film as their primary film to promote the idea of restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley. Dad is in the film briefly, walking around with his view camera and making photographs. When we had the Philip Hyde exhibition at Mountain Light Gallery I had an interesting conversation about Galen Rowell, Philip Hyde and conservation with Nicole Rowell Ryan, Galen Rowell’s daughter. It was enlightening to hear some of Galen Rowell’s views on various environmental issues, straight from his own daughter. I was surprised to find out that Galen Rowell was actually not a supporter of Restore Hetch Hetchy. He felt that tearing down the dam and restoring the valley would disrupt the ecosystems that have stabilized and are thriving as they are now that the dam is there. Nicole made her father’s strong argument come to life and make sense to me. I have myself personally supported Restore Hetch Hetchy for many years. Galen Rowell’s stance coupled with the indifferent response I received from Restore Hetch Hetchy (the Executive Director to this day has still not returned my call but wrote me a two sentence note saying, “Sorry for the mixup,” whatever that means) I decided not to renew my support for now. We’ll see what the future holds. I have mixed feelings about the costs of restoring Hetch Hetchy. Because I donate to 17 environmental organizations, I need to cut back on the number of environmental groups I back anyway. I still support the removal of dams in most cases as they are just plain bad for rivers and rarely accomplish the goals they promise. I most definitely support the Glen Canyon Institute, that advocates the restoring of Glen Canyon. As photographer and environmentalist Grant Johnson wrote me recently, “With all the emphasis on the water level of Lake Mead, it seems like an oxymoron keeping two half-full (Colorado River) reservoirs and doubling the evaporation loss. Each year enough water evaporates from Lake Powell to supply the residential needs of the LA basin.” Nowhere near the same kind of numbers apply to Hetch Hetchy. Nor do I believe that politicians in San Francisco will ever buy that just by saving water they can replace enough to remove the Hetch Hetchy Dam.

  8. Richard Wong says:

    The ignorance of people in positions of power is really surprising. It’s embarassing that they can go about using Mr. Brower’s film and your dad’s images yet not know who he is. I think that is more evidence that what you are doing by continuing to promote your dad’s legacy is the right thing to do.

    That is an interesting view from Galen. I’m surprised that he didn’t write about those views in his books since I recall reading him talk about the history of the Hetch Hetchy.

  9. I appreciate the sentiment about Restore Hetch Hetchy, Richard. I don’t think they are still using Dad’s photographs now, but they ought to know who he was. The previous director was a big fan of Dad’s and understood who he was in relation to conservation photography in general and his strong feelings and support of Restore Hetch Hetchy. I think they even have a new film now and they might think David Brower’s hand-held movie was somewhat hokey, but it was an impassioned plea and had historical significance for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the ugliness of the devastated valley at historically low water in 1955. What is your position or thoughts on the Hetch Hetchy controversy?

  10. Paul Grecian says:

    Thank you for the past year of informative and stimulating reading David, as well as great imagery!

  11. Thank you, Paul. I would say the same about your blog. I have gained and grown from my reading there.

  12. Richard Wong says:

    Hey David. I’m no expert on the subject but as for my own opinion, I’m aware that it’s not quite as simple as removing the dam because it was built for a reason a long time ago and you can’t remove it without being prepared for the changes. On the other hand, if Yosemite Valley were to suffer the same fate say ten years from now, I don’t know if I could ever take another pretty picture again. I’m sad that a generation or two of people have come and gone yet never had the opportunity to see the Hetch Hetchy in it’s natural state but at least we have the Valley still. At worst, let’s hope we learned and not do something so destructive again.

  13. What is strange to me is that Gifford Pinchot, who the Forest Service people generally claim as their number one hero and major environmentalist, was for the dam. Gifford Pinchot transformed Forest Service policy to a certain extent, but the Forest Service essentially is still anti-environment, or to be more precise, they are pro-logging and consider it their duty to get out a certain level of board feet each year. While we need wood for building structures, and trees are the most sustainable and renewable building resource, loggers are still cutting more each year on public lands than is sustainable long-term. Most dedicated environmentalists are aware that the Forest Service environmental stewardship, while better than it used to be is still a farce. Furthermore, if they know the history of the Hetch Hetchy battle, they understand that there was a major rivalry over Hetch Hetchy between John Muir, the true conservationist, and Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service’s “environmentalist.” To this day, most Forest Service “environmentalists” have never even heard of people like David Brower and Edward Abbey, who are environmental “cult” heroes because they helped change the way we perceive and treat the Earth.

  14. Richard Wong says:

    That reminds me of the Ken Burn’s National Parks series. One of the episodes focused on the relationship between Pinchot, Muir and I think Teddy Roosevelt if I remember correctly. I need to buy the DVD set at some point.

  15. Thank you, Richard. I did miss the boat with Ken Burn’s National Parks series. Dad should have been featured prominently in it. I keep hearing about it now, but I haven’t even seen it. In the conversation I had with the lady from Ken Burns’ office, it sounded like most of the series would be on the early history of the National Parks, Roosevelt, Lincoln, Yosemite, Yellowstone and so on. We got off the phone each of us thinking we didn’t have any overlap or need to talk further. My bad, I didn’t know who Ken Burns was at the time and let it pass by.

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