At the de Young, an Ansel Adams Exhibition Looks Beyond the Iconic

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Black-and-white photo of dramatically lit mountain with curving river in foreground
Ansel Adams, 'The Tetons and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming,' 1942. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

For many people, the images they hold in their minds of Yosemite or other Western U.S. landscapes probably overlap quite a bit with photographs by San Francisco–born photographer Ansel Adams (1902–1984). As one of the most prominent artists in the history of photography, and certainly within landscape photography, Adams’ work has both circulated widely around the world and influenced how generations of photographers have represented land. As an active member of the Sierra Club, Adams and his photography have also been linked closely with environmental and conservationist movements.

Ansel Adams in Our Time, a major exhibition at the de Young Museum, takes a look at Adams’ extensive career, but the exhibition also resists canonization or the impulse to depict Adams as a unique genius. In fact, while the exhibition is not overly critical of Adams, it creates the space to examine his art, and its relationship to environmentalism, with nuance and art historical context.

Many of Adams’ most iconic photographs feature soaring towers of rock isolated from their surroundings or expansive landscapes often devoid of human presence — see Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park (1960) and The Tetons and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (1942), respectively. Though these may seem like natural ways of depicting mountains, valleys and rock formations, Adams’ approaches have their own histories.

Sepia toned photograph of rushing river between two high mountainous walls
Frank Jay Haynes, ‘Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Falls’, circa 1887. (Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

The de Young show includes work by several of Adams’ 19th-century influences: Carleton E. Watkins (1829–1916), John K. Hillers (1843–1925), and Frank Jay Haynes (1853–1921), among others. These three artists share a common history of making photographs for colonial or industrial projects. Their clients included the US Geological Survey, the California Geological Survey (CGS), mining companies and railroad operators.

As a result, their photographic projects had a special interest in representing the lands of the Western U.S. as emptied of people and full of natural resources. We can see similarities to Adams in Haynes’ Grand Canyon of Yellowstone Falls (c. 1887) and Watkins’ Mount Starr King and Glacier Point, Yosemite, No. 69 (1865-1866), which was made while working for the CGS.


What does it mean to borrow a form of representation that itself is steeped in the history of manifest destiny, conquest and extraction? Adams’ photographs can be seen as celebrations of and warnings against what might be lost due to human activities. But what we don’t see in Adams’ most famous photographs are the causes and culprits of these activities — or the people who live or once lived in these places.

Installation view of ‘Ansel Adams in Our Time,’ at the de Young with color photographs by Abelardo Morell. (Photo by Gary Sexton; Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

This becomes clear in Ansel Adams in Our Time with the inclusion of nearly two dozen contemporary photographers who have been influenced by Adams but also push landscape photography in different directions. Mark Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire series (1994–2006), for example, borrows a visual language from Adams and 19th-century surveyors, documenting rural landscapes devoid of people and bisected by deep chasms. However, these chasms represent land that was carved up and blown up for now-abandoned railroads across the Western U.S.

Ruwedel reminds us that survey photography saw land not for its inherent value but for its potential use, and in his work we see one of those uses. The series title recalls several similarly named 19th-century paintings that championed manifest destiny, often with railroads serving as symbols of progress and civilization.

Bryan Schutmaat explores the legacy of manifest destiny through the contemporary lives and landscapes of former mining communities. In one photograph, we see the outskirts of Tonopah, Nevada, with debris, a rusted car, ramshackle buildings and scattered trailers occupying the foreground, with the historic Mizpah Hotel and nearby mountains looming in the background.

With subjects ranging from suburban sprawl to industrial development, Mitch Epstein and Victoria Sambunaris similarly turn their cameras to the human imprint made on the landscape. Adams, too, explored this in lesser-known photographs on view, such as one showing a housing development zig-zagging up San Bruno Mountain in San Mateo County.

Composite images of two vertical of Yosemite, left in focus, right out of focus
L to R: Carleton E. Watkins, ‘Mount Starr King and Glacier Point, Yosemite, No. 69,’ 1865–66; Catherine Opie, ‘Untitled #1 (Yosemite Valley), 2015. (Both images courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Catherine Opie takes an entirely different approach in her photographs of Yosemite by embracing the park’s iconic status while trying to reimagine the dominant landscape iconography. “With Watkins and Adams,” she has said, “there’s no doubt what you’re looking at.” But in her ethereal and abstracted photographs of Yosemite, clarity is elusive. One is meant to question what they are looking at.

For Opie, these photographs offer a feminist perspective on the landscape; they are reminders that, from Adams to Opie, all representations of land are shaped by tradition, values, ideology, and aesthetics. This nuance can be lost while viewing a single, well-known photograph, but it’s brought to the foreground while looking at the true expanse of Adams’ work — and the artists with whom he shares a place in the history of photography.

‘Ansel Adams in Our Time’ is on view at the de Young Museum in San Francisco through Aug. 6, 2023. Details here.