Earth Day Spotlight: Ansel Adams, A History of Inspiration and Conservation

Earth Day Spotlight: Ansel Adams, A History of Inspiration and Conservation

The acclaimed photographer and conservationist Ansel Adams was one of the first photographers to recognize the importance of preserving the beautiful places he photographed. Adams often credited Sierra Club president John Muir as an inspiration, and his amazing photographs are often paired with Muir’s writings. One of Adams’ first photography books was Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada with text written by John Muir. Adams photos and Muir’s words help convince the US government to protect Yosemite and Sequoia as National Parks. Their passion for Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada will forever be linked.

Adams joined the Sierra Club in 1916 and spent four summers as a custodian at the Club’s LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite Valley. In 1934, Adams was elected as a member of the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club, a role he maintained for 37 years. Despite all his duties, he made time for photography. HIs early years in the park also allowed him to meet and befriend some of the great conservationists of the day, among them Joseph N. LeConte, William E. Colby and Stephen T. Mather, first director of the National Park Service

“Monolith—the Face of Half Dome” remains one of Adams ‘ most compelling photos. “I knew so little about photography then, it was a miracle I got anything. But that was the first time I realized how the print was going to look—what I now call visualization—and was actually thinking about the emotional effect of the image…I began to visualize the black rock and deep sky. I really wanted to give it a monumental, dark quality. So I used the last plate I had a No. 29-F red filter…and got this exciting picture.”

Adams inspirational legacy established him as an influential environmentalist. His photographs continue to awe people with a sense of grandeur and realization of the importance of preserving America’s wilderness lands.

Although his photography was influential in the environmental movement, his commitment to conservation went beyond his photography. When the National Park Service instituted a program called Mission 66 in the 1950s, which was designed to provide more roads and accommodations to promote visitation to the parks, Adams adamantly opposed it. “This a very two-dimensional idea when we consider mood and experience and emotional state-of-being. It never enters these people’s minds at all. They just want everybody to see it; isn’t it beautiful?…something to be seen and note experienced.”

A few years later when the National Park Service and the Bureau of Public Roads began the Tioga Road redesign he adamantly opposed the project and submitted his resignation from the Sierra Club so he could protest without embarrassing the club. The club did not accept his resignation and he continued to oppose the project without success. He later reflected, “Wilderness is rapidly becoming one of those aspects of the American dream which is more of the past than of the present. Wilderness is not only a condition of nature but a state of mind and mood and heart. It cannot be confined to the museum-case status—seen only as a passing diorama from superlative throughways.”

His book The Sierra Nevada and the John Muir Trail was influential in adding the wilderness region north of Sequoia National Park to the National Park System. The park was proposed to Congress as “John Muir National Park.” After a fierce battle in Congress, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a bill March 4, 1940, establishing Kings Canyon National Park. He continued throughout his life to fighting for the protection of the places he loved including Monterey Bay and Big Sur Coast.

In 1984, the year Adams died, the Ansel Adams Wilderness area was established. The Ansel Adams Wilderness Area covers 100,000 acres between Yosemite National Park and the John Muir Wilderness Area. In August 1985 an 11,700-foot peak located south of Mount Lyell at the head of the Lyell Fork of the Merced River on the southeast boundary of Yosemite National Park was officially named Mt. Ansel Adams. This peak had been unofficially named for Adams on a Sierra Club High Trip in 1933 by the climbers who made the first ascent, but because geographic features are never officially named for living people, the U.S. Geological Survey would not sanction the renaming until several months after Adams death.

Adams ‘ photography championed many wild places, but his most famous and popular images are his landscapes of the American West. Most critics would probably agree that in the realm of the grand landscape Adams is in a class by himself.

“I am an artist who also appreciated science and engineering, and I know we can’t keep everything in a glass case—with the keys given only to a privileged few. Nevertheless, I want people to experience the magic of wildness; there is no use fooling ourselves that nature with a slick highway running through it is any longer wild,” Ansel Adams.

In 2017, Yosemite National Park reported an estimated 4,336,890 recreation visits.


Ansel Adams: The Role of the Artist in the Environmental Movement