National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version

Spring 2005


Published in Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council 6:1, Spring/Summer 2005. Copyright © 2005 by the National Collegiate Honors Council.


Wallace Stegner once hailed the legacy of Ansel Adams as bringing photography to the world of art as a unique “way of seeing.” What Adams saw through the lens of his camera, and what audiences see when looking at one of his photographs, does indeed constitute a particular way of seeing the world, a vision that is almost always connected to the natural environment. An Ansel Adams photograph evokes more than an aesthetic response to his work—it also stirs reflections about his involvement in the natural world that was so often his subject. Audiences experiencing his work participate in a deliberate conception of wilderness, the national parks, and especially Adams’s ultimate inspiration, Yosemite. Much has been made of Adams the “legend,” the “master,” and the great icon of creative photography, but this aggrandizing obscures the man behind a mask of greatness. While Adams was undoubtedly a master of both the art world and environmental activism by his middle age, during his youth he was a great equivocator. He bounced from school to school, from music to photography, from mountaineering to poetry. At different points in his adolescence and early adulthood, it seemed as if he might devote himself fully to any of these pursuits. Why then did he choose photography? Why did the natural world become the most recurrent subject before his camera? How did these choices influence Adams’s cosmic vision of the natural world, a vision that would shape the minds of generations of Americans?