Ansel Adams; Protecting the Environment with a Camera
Carmel Highlands, Calif.
The house overlooking the Pacific seems small and unpretentious at first. Ferns, orchids, and hanging plants bloom around it, creating an atmosphere of cool serenity.
Even in the spacious living room its feels like being outdoors. But then, it seems logical that Ansel Adams would try to live outdoors, even when he is indoors. The natural-colored room is massive -- two stories high, with a beamed ceiling and hardwood floors. Enlarged black and white photographs of Yosemite, the California coastline, and the Southwest form an exquisite stripe around three walls of the room. Flowers are everwhere -- orchids, african violets, sweets peas -- and pots and pots of green houseplant. At one end of the room stands a grand piano. At the other end are two immense windows that look out over the picture-perfect Carmel and Big Sur coast. The seasonal fog hasn't rolled in yet, and the rugged undeveloped coastline with its vast redwood forests and steep canyons can be seen for miles.
It is an appropriate setting for a photographer who has spent the last 65 years capturing the beauty, majesty, texture, and tranquility of man's natural environment on film. The wilderness and mountains have been Ansel Adams' stomping ground throughout his life. His love for nature and his unparalleled gift perceiving landscape images and capturing the effects of these images have been translated through his photography into impressive statements of the earth's grandeur.
The works of Ansel Adams have been instrumental in both establishing photography as an accepted art form and inspiring Americans to recognize the importance of preserving their continent's wilderness areas.
The popularity of both the photographer and his photography continues to grow. In 1979 Adams' grizzled visage became the first photographer's to grace the cover of Time magazine. His latest book, "Yosemite and the Range of Light," sold 30,000 copies in its first six weeks of distribution. Recently, an Ansel Adams print sold for $71,500.
The Adams photographs express the photographer's other great love and his current primary concern: the environment. Adams's artistic career has interwoven with and significantly influenced the environmental movement in the United States:
* He was instrumental in the growth of the Sierra Club and served on its executive board for 37 years.
* He utilized his photographs as an invaluable lobbying tool in bringing about federal legislation in 1940 to preserve California's King Canyon as a national park.
* As the Interior Department's official photographer in the 1930s, he traveled throughout the US, photographing wilderness areas for the department and for national parks.
* He lobbied extensively in the US Congress and with Presidents Ford and Carter in support of Alaska wildlife legislation that now protects some 104 million acres in the 49th state.
* In 1980 President Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his "visionary . . . efforts to preserve this country's wild and scenic areas both on film and on earth."
*Earlier this year, Adams suggested that a petition drive be initiated for the removal of Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt. The Sierra Club has taken up the idea, and the targeted 1 million signatures are expected to be in hand by Sept. 1.
Today, the bristly bearded, wide-eyed photographer-conservationist remains a central figure in two major controversies: the Reagan administration's environmental policies, particularly the activities of Mr. Watt: and the conversion of the 90-mile Big Sur coastline into a federally controlled national scenic area.
Just as there is no mistaking the clarity and crispness of an Ansel Adams photograph, so there is no mistaking the clarity and forthrightness of the Ansel Adams positions regarding conservation. As he sits comfortably on a blue-green couch in front of his living room windows, he minces no words about his concern over the present administration's environmental activities.
"You can put me down as being very vigorous and very mad," he asserts. "The present administration assures us that the total environment is that which is in the greatest peril. . . . I'm leveling my guns at Mr. Watt for the things he's said, and done, and intends to do. . . . I'm afraid to get up and tell the President he has the most dangerous administration in history."
Adams vigorously opposes such programs as Mr. Watt's plan to sell oil and gas drilling leases off the California coast and to open more public lands for mining.
Writing in a 1980 public letter about his conviction regarding Big Sur preservation, the photographer states, "The greatest joy I will ever find in my lifetime is the opportunity to protect the unsurpassed natural beauty of our coastline. . . . If we join together to accomplish [it], I will feel I have had a life fully lived . . . I [will] have fulfilled my responsibility to my children and my friends."
Adams is not a passive spectator, either as a photographer or as an environmentalist. Rather than simply witnessing a spectacular image, he captures that image on film, recreates it majestically, exquisitely on paper, and then actively seeks to preserve that image. He writes letters, lobbies in Washington, talks to presidents, speaks on television, and launches organizations to implement his positions.
"He's the conscience of us all," says William Turnage, executive director of the Wilderness Society and Adams's former business manager. "He calls me up almost every other day and asks, "What are you doing about Watt today? Why is it taking so long?'"
Being an active environmentalist comes easy to Ansel Adams -- he's been one all his life. Ever since his first visit to Yosemite in 1916 as a 14-year-old with a Brownie box camera, he has traipsed through the trails and back roads of California and the Southwest.
"My love for nature has shaped my life," he says reflectively. "It's been very important to me since about 1920."
As he speaks, his thick, gnarled hands -- which for years have adeptly set up tripods, focused camera lenses, adjusted f-stops, and snapped masterpieces -- dance in front of him, complementing his words. He is dressed casually in an olive green jacket, a light green shirt, and dark pants, giving him the appearance of being color-coordinated with his plantfilled room. His trademark beard nestles into his shirt collar. Occasionally as he speaks he twists sections of his beard between his thumb and forefinger.
It was in 1919 that Adams' 52-year association with the Sierra Club began. That summer and during the four succeeding summers the teen-age photographer worked as a custodian in the Sierra Club's LeConte Lodge in Yosemite. He joined the club that year, and the following year his first published photograph appeared in the Sierra Club "Bulletin."
In 1928 Adams was asked to be the official photographer for a Sierra Club expedition in the Canadian Rockies. The enthusiastic outdoorsman had been a welcome addition on several previous outings because of the witty mock Greek tragedies he wrote, produced, and directed around the evening campfires. Among his most popular satires on life on the camping trail was the epic "Exhaustos," starring King Dehydros, his daughter Clymenextra, and a chorus of Weary Men and Sunburnt Women. The production was so popular that it inspired a sequel performance the following season of "The Trudgin' Women."
Sharing a common love for and fascination with nature, Adams and the Sierra Club continued to deepen their ties. In 1934 he was elected to the club's board of directors, replacing his wife, Virginia, who wanted to devote her full attention to raising their first child, Anne.
Adams considers one of his key accomplishments to be the federal government's establishment of the 454,600-acre Kings Canyon area of California as a national park in 1940. Representing the Sierra Club, the photographer traveled to Washington in 1936 to show his 26 photographs of Kings Canyon on Capitol Hill and to lobby for a stalled bill that would preserve the area as a national park. When these first efforts proved unsuccessful, he published a book of his Kings Canyon photos, "Siera Nevada: The John Muir Trail." Tactfully, he sent a copy of the "white elephant,' as he calls it, to Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes. Secretary Ickes helpfully passed it on to President Roosevelt. The result was that in 1940, after substantial presidential support and arm-twisting, the bill passed Congress and was signed into law.
Secretary Ickes was so impressed with what Adams could do with a landscape and a camera that he commissioned him to photograph national parks throughout the country for photo murals at the Interior Department headquarters and for various parks.
In addition to promoting conservation of wildlife areas, Adams, with six other prominent photographers, formed the group "f/64," devoted to stimulating interest in photography as an art form and encouraging new talent. He was instrumental in establishing photography departments at both the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the California SChool of Fine Arts. One-man shows of his works had been held at the SMithsonian Institution, San Francisco's M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, and at museums and galleries in Dayton, Ohio, and Buffalo , N.Y.
Yet environmental concerns continued to motivate him. In the 1950s, when the National Park Service notified the Sierra Club that its Yosemite LeConte Lodge should be converted into a geological museum, Adams organized a photo exhibition in the lodge to illustrate its utility as a conservation center. The exhibit, "This is the American Earth," was so successful that it traveled throughout the country for seven years as part of the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service and the US Information Service. The photos were incorporated into a book of the same title, which received wide acclaim as "one of the greatest statements in the history of conservation."
Through such graphic presentations of nature's sublimity, Adams has inspired countless individuals to become more active conservationists. "I'm the director of the Wilderness Society because of Ansel Adams," William Turnage confirms. "His books and photographs interested me in conservation and led me to work directly for him. This gave me the training for my work now."
Similarly, Brock Evans, vice-president of the Audubon Society and former head of the Sierra Club's Washington office, stated in a letter to Adams, "You are in a most direct way responsible in large part for my love of the land, and my passion for my job. I was born and raised in Ohio, and never really had much contact with raw, wild nature until the spring of 1961. I was just finishing my first year at the University of Michigan Law School, and I happened to pick up a copy of "Yosemite". . . . It was like another world, and the words and pictures stunned me and moved me more deeply about nature than I ever had been before. . . . That beautiful book helped to change my life in ways that I still only vaguely understand."
Today, Ansel Adams continues to actively press for protection of wilderness lands. Although no longer a member of the Sierra Club board of directors (he resigned in 1971), he has served on the Park Service's civilian advisory board for the new master plan at Yosemite and has lobbied extensively on Capitol Hill and in the White House for the federal government to reduce development in national parks.
Adams is outspoken in his feeling that conservation movements need to become more vocal, more active, and more persistent.
"The tragedy is that for so many years the whole conservation movement was just too gentlemanly," he says. "They'd never speak up against anything or anybody very strongly. There was never that real impact. Now, when you present people [opposed to conservation eforts] something diametrically opposite to what they believe in, and you do it forcefully, that's very convincing."
Adams makes no bones about his positions concerning current environmental issues:
* Regarding Yosemite's new master plan to eliminate traffic congestion, he quips, "One of the most expensive stupidities imaginable. Over $1 million went into that plan. That's all Yosemite needed to be cleared up! . . . But the valley is far more beautiful today than it was 10 years ago. It's better taken care of."
* About nuclear power, he remarks, "I'm not opposed to it if it's controlled. But we've been very remiss in that."
Adams' closest attention at the present time, however, is focused on the heated controversy over preservation of the 700,000-acre Big Sur. Still a firm believer in the ability of the national park system to conserve wilderness areas and prevent massive commercial development, he says, "you have to protect these things or you won't have them."
The photographer would like Big Sur to be designated a national seashore under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Major development and construction would be stopped. The Park Service would have initial rights to land that becomes available for sale and could either buy the land outright or purchase the development rights that would forbid substantial building. To prevent overcrowding on the narrow, two-lane California Route 1, which snakes through Big Sur, Adams proposes forbidding tourist traffic through the 90 miles of redwood groves and shoreline. Buses would be available at each end of Big Sur to shuttle visitors in and out of the forest area.
To promote this plan, Adams and several local residents established the Big Sur Foundation in 1977. "It's primarily a planning organization and a fund-raiser," he explains, tugging at his coarse white whiskers. "We didn't get out into the grass roots as I'd hoped we would," he adds.
The organization that has drawn the support of nearly 80 percent of Big Sur's artist, writer, and rancher population is a group strongly opposed to any federal intervention in the area. The Friends of the Big Sur Coast shares the same ultimate goal as the Big Sur Foundation: preservation of the spectacular redwoods, deep ravines, and wild, rock-laden coast that are the "gran pais del sur", as the Indians called it. Yet the "Friends" group argues that local control has successfully prevented large-scale development so far, and there is no reason why the people who live in the area cannot continue to protect their own environment.
"There's no point in our being federalized," James Josoff, director of the Friends of the Big Sur Coast, says. "In 1960 a group of citizens here came up with the state's first master plan [to formalize protection of the coast], to protect this glory. . . . Experience has shown that when an area becomes federalized, the number of visitors increases three to four times. We feel that the record of the government can't stand on its own. The record of the Big Sur people can stand on its own."
The Friends of the Big Sur Coast maintains that "local coastal plans" -- specified in the Coastal Act of 1976 as programs to be developed by local communities, which, if approved by the state Coal Commission, are legally binding -- would be sufficiently stringent to save Big Sur from overdevelopment and overtourism.
Adams' rebuttal to the Friends position: "They know nothing about big money and politics."
Politicians have become involved in the Big Sur dispute. Congressional bills calling for federalization of the region have been introduced during the last two legislative sessions by Sen. Alan Cranston (D) and Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D), both Californians. But Sen. S. I. Hayakawa (R), another Californian who opposes any federal intervention, stymied the Panetta bill last November. Senator Cranston's bill, essentially the same as Mr. Panetta's, is languishing in committee.
"We'll just keep going," Adams says, referring to future plans for the Big Sur Foundation. "We may be opposing their wishes [the Big Sur residents who oppose federalization], but we're saving their skin and saving the countryside."
As far as Adams's plans regarding environmental protection in general, his intent is unmistakable. "Keep fighting," he proclaims.
What in particular needs protection?
"Everything!" And he adds that each individual could, and should, become involved in preserving the environment. "It's a matter of making yourself heard ," he says. "Write letters to government people, influential friends, business people. Join organizations that are available, like the Wilderness Society, The Sierra Club, or the Audubon Society. There are many local groups too. . . . If you take photographs, make the photographs useful."
He pauses again, pulls his thick-rimmed glasses off his crooked nose, and exhales a puff of air onto the lenses to clean them. Looking up at the greenery surrounding him inside and through the window outside, he adds, "The environment begins right at your front door."