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In Ansel Adams’ photography, you can’t unsee wildness

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The Tetons and the Snake River (1942), a photograph by Ansel Adams taken in Grand Teton National Park. IMAGE COURTESY OF NPS/NATIONAL ARCHIVES

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Columnist

How many words is a picture worth?

While most of us are familiar with the canned answer, seldom do we reflect upon who invented the proverb. That honor goes to an advertising executive named Fred R. Barnard who, in 1921—a century ago—touted the phrase to promote book dust jackets. He said using photographs instead of written narratives were far more powerful in telling us what we need to know.

I’m thinking about this anecdote today, reflecting on the Feb. 20 birthday of Ansel Adams, who, were he still alive, would be 120 years old in 2022. Adams, of course, is long gone but his photos of natural beauty remain his legacy.

How many words are they worth?

Adams is best known for his association with the Sierra-Nevada mountains and, in particular, Yosemite National Park. Yet it was an image he took in Jackson Hole during the early part of America’s involvement in World War II that conveys the spirit of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and one of its crown jewels, Grand Teton National Park.

In 1942, he stood on a moody day, with his camera mounted on a tripod, and took “The Tetons and the Snake River.” The drama in the scene resonates at the gut level, conveying a sense of mystery capable of dwarfing any human-sized ego. That’s what timeless nature photography does.

If it ages, it’s only for the better and unlike a pricey bottle of wine it’s not meant to be consumed for ephemeral physical pleasure; rather it provides sustenance for self-reflection.

What you don’t find in the vast majority of Adams’ photos are people or structures. He was not anti-human, but he believed that humanity—our species—had already exacted its presence over the vast majority of the country and needed no mention nor celebration of conquest.

Adams’ biographer William Turnage writes: “Reviewers frequently characterize Adams as a photographer of an idealized wilderness that no longer exists. On the contrary, the places that Adams photographed are, with few exceptions, precisely those wilderness and park areas that have been preserved for all time. There is a vast amount of true and truly protected wilderness in America, much of it saved because of the efforts of Adams and his colleagues.”

And yet, Adams concluded that in the grand scheme of things there wasn’t very much “wilderness” at all because given the finite nature of untrammeled landscapes and that they continue to dwindle, that we ought to be extremely cautious with the way we continue to treat them as expendable.

It’s indeed ironic in Greater Yellowstone today that developers often disparage environmentalists, or artists like Adams, making up silly and sophomoric arguments that those trying to protect the wild character of places were or are anti-economy, anti-freedom, anti-progress. What they themselves often fail to disclose is their own self-interest in seeking to monetize, i.e., exploit nature be it on private or public lands. Their “success” comes at a cost to things that cannot be replaced.

Indeed, it isn’t rude to wonder: how often do they reflect upon the paradox that the wildlands they wish to constantly exploit are homes to animals whose presence enhances the allure of the region, and it is this very allure they are marketing to sell more real estate, trinkets or outdoor experiences? Were they the grizzly bear mother with cubs trying to keep her clan alive and out of conflict with people, or an elk relying on an ancient migration path through the mountains to survive or a moose in need of wetlands, would they be so enthusiastic about the expanding human footprint?

Great art, if you spend enough time with it, taps in our humility: “Adams channeled his energies in ways that served his fellow citizens, personified in his lifelong effort to preserve the American wilderness,” Turnage observes. “Above all, Adams’s philosophy and optimism struck a chord in the national psyche. More than any other influential American of his epoch, Adams believed in both the possibility and the probability of humankind living in harmony and balance with its environment.”

Adams would not be impressed with what we are thoughtlessly doing to Greater Yellowstone. Nor would he be a legend today were it not for the fact that generations of Americans have expressed their appreciation for unspoiled backcountry.

Are we losing that reverence amid the blinding sheen of abject materialism which proclaims that it’s more virtuous to stay in a guest lodge and spend thousands of dollars a night than to let the immersion of an extraordinary wild region like Greater Yellowstone sink in?

What does our preference for choosing to engage in self-indulgence and prize the making of money over maintenance of priceless things say about us? Maybe we need to spend more time standing in front of Adams’ black and white images which move us out of our superficial, knee-jerk way of thinking into more contemplative, meditative musings on the natural world.

Once you let wildness into your heart, you can never look the other way and feel good about its destruction again.

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and a correspondent for National Geographic. He authored the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by famed wildlife photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen, about Grizzly Bear 399.

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