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National Geographic Live! – Peter Essick: Ansel Adams Wilderness Revisited | Nat Geo Live

National Geographic Live! – Peter Essick: Ansel Adams Wilderness Revisited | Nat Geo Live


( music plays ) ( guitar music ) Peter: The times we live
in today are radically different from those of
the young Ansel Adams. Does it still hold true
that art and nature can be inspirational? I believe there will
always be the human need for affirmation and
inspiration of the kind immortalized by Adams
in his photographs. Our spirits, our own
inner beauty, spring from the same source
as these rocks, trees, and reflecting waters. ( audience applause ) Tonight we’re going
to talk about a place, sort of the different
components, about this place. The first is the actual,
physical geography of it. It was designated one of
the first wilderness areas when the Wilderness
Act was passed. Most of this wilderness is
in the higher elevation, what they call the High Sierra. The second part I
wanted to talk about was the early work
of Ansel Adams that’s associated with
this particular area. This was where Ansel Adams
developed his love of nature, was an employee
with the Sierra Club, and, kind of, where he mastered
his craft of photography. The third part, I
wanted to try and show some of my work. How he influenced me. This was a picture
that I took in 1977. I had read a lot of the
Ansel Adams basic manuals and sort of learned a
lot about photography and the love of
landscape photography from reading those
Ansel Adams books. Then the fourth part was
of this, the new work that I’ve done, this
landscape series. This picture I just took. We’re sort of in a helicopter
hovering over June Lake and looking back and up the snowy part in
the back there, is the Ansel Adams Wilderness. I just had a few of
the color pictures. This is the most remote
area in the North fork of the San Joaquin River. The year that I was there,
it had almost 50 feet of snow. The mountain in the
foreground there, is Mount Ansel Adams. There’s actually, also,
a mountain named after him. What’s unique about a lot of
the Ansel Adams Wilderness, it’s metamorphic rock. There’s this one
little area that’s not the typical granite that you
find in a lot of the Sierras. This amazing water, the very
clean crystal clear blue water. Dana Lake. The storms that come
from the Pacific and then they hit the mountains and form these
afternoon thunderstorms. Of course the water
is the main theme. This is Rainbow Falls. And the forest. This is one area that is aspens. Also a lot of evergreens. I wanted to give a
little bit of the history of how Ansel Adams got
involved with this area. This is a picture with
his father on the left and his mother and Ansel
when he was 14 years old, and his Aunt. This is his first
trip to Yosemite. In his autobiography,
Ansel Adams said, if he was a kid today
he would be described as a ADD child. Whatever it was, he
didn’t do well in school and his father took him
out of school in the 8th grade and gave him
some private tutoring and bought him a
piano and he gave him some piano lessons and
he sort of took to that. But he also gave
him a Brownie camera and went to Yosemite. He kind of fell in
love with the place and by the time he
was about 20 years old he had gotten this
job as a caretaker of the LeConte Memorial,
which is sort of the stone house that was
sort of the club house of the Sierra Club
in Yosemite Valley. It’s still there. He also started going on trips. He bought his own burro
to carry his camera equipment and that’s kind of the way
they did it back then. He was one of the
early rock climbers. The man on the left is
David Brower, who was the long time
head of the Sierra Club. Back then they wore
Keds tennis shoes and just tied a rope
together and they said, if one person fell all it
meant is that both of them would die. ( audience laughter ) There was no
security or anything. It was pretty precarious.
The ties… But this was like 1930’s. His job was to sort of
be the logistics person for these summer High Sierra
trips, they called them then. It was primarily well-to-do
business men from San Francisco who really liked the Sierras and they would
take a whole month off and they would come and
basically camp out in
the High Sierras. Amazingly, Adams would
take care of everybody but he would get up
early in the morning and take pictures. So a lot of the pictures
that I’ll show you were taken, actually,
during these 1 month trips. So, he came of age in
an area of pictorialism. This picture was one
of his very first. It looks kind of
strangely modern, now. Sort of the selective focus. Pictorialism was seen
as sort of a imitation of painting
and that’s eventually what people like Adams
sort of rebelled against. We actually know now
that, even before that, it was the painters
who sort of copied the camera obscura, which is
a form of photography. That’s sort of what
really happened. In this era, they used
a lens that induced these spherical aberrations
and made sort of a soft focus and was
seen as sort of imitation of painting. He soon switched, and
this is one of his first kind of straight pictures. During this time they
used glass plates and the emulsions
were only sensitive to blue light so all the skies would turn
this sort of white color. It kind of gave
atmospheric effect. In 1923 they switched
to the emulsions where you could actually
photograph by moonlight. Longer exposures. Then the big advance
was you could actually photograph clouds, which
was real important part of the Sierras, these
afternoon clouds that build up in
the summer time. Also, it seemed to me
in reading about it, there was this big change, sort of in his
intellectual thinking. He went from sort of
being the school brat to writing things like this. This is some of his
words from 1923. Said, “I was climbing
the long ridge west of Mount Clark. I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path by an exceedingly pointed
awareness of the light. I saw more clearly
than I’ve ever seen before or since, the minute detail
of the grasses. The small flotsam
of the forest. The motion of the high clouds
streaming above the peaks. I dreamed, that for a moment,
time stood quietly and the vision
became but a shadow of an infinitely greater world.” The other thing that I thought
was sort of interesting was he had a belief
that dead trees were more expressive
than live ones. So he took quite a few
pictures of dead trees. This is kind of a
hostile environment when you get into
high elevations. This is a foxtail pine,
may have been dead for 100 years or so. It just stays there. He also embraced not only
a rejection of pictorialism, but this embrace of modernism. Alfred Stieglitz had
a saying that said, “Art should be the
affirmation of life.” Throughout his whole career
he always hung to that, that it should be affirming. He also had a belief,
he called it extracts. He didn’t like when somebody called this picture abstract. He thought that the
role of the photographer was to extract a part of nature. He called it, to make
form from shapes. He thought all nature was
just shapes and it was up to the artist to
make form out of it and to extract. This was sort of a
radical view for the time. If you think of a picture
like this, compare it to the 19th century
photographers who were survey photographers. Would go out and their
job was mainly to go out West, survey, take these pictures,
and come back East and show people
what was out there. Adams really thought
that you should sort of project your emotional state, feelings toward the environment
or toward the landscape. There’s a little bit of a
story behind this picture. It’s called the Michael Minaret and one of those well-to-do,
early Sierra Club members was named Walter Star. He had a son
who was a avid climber and he liked to climb solo. Unfortunately he fell
to his death on this Michael Minaret and
so he asked Ansel Adams if he would put together a
book of his best pictures of the John Muir Trail
because his son, his dream was to write a guide book
of the John Muir Trail, which stills exists. It’s called the Star’s
Guide to John Muir Trail. That was what made this
book happen in 1938. It’s really the only book that’s totally written
by Ansel Adams and has 50 of his photographs. The book was sold
for $15 at the time, which is quite a bit, and
there was only 500 copies. This whole early work was from the period of
around 1920 to 1938. And then after that
World War II came about and Ansel
Adams had this idea that he would try
and do pictures of all the beautiful places
in America to make people feel patriotic
about their country. He got commissioned. It was called The Mural Project. He bought this car,
which he called Helios and he…instead of… He turned in the burro
for the car and got the large format
8×10 camera and did a lot of the pictures
that he’s really famous for. In some ways they’re
a grander scope, I think, than the earlier work. He also got a
Guggenheim fellowship to photograph the
National Parks. Mount McKinley. Probably one of his more
famous, Clearing Winter Storm
in Yosemite. So, I’ll kind of move
to the third part to show you some
of my early work. This was a picture
that I took in 1975. I took a photo class when I was
a senior in high school and I had a really good photography teacher
and we actually went on a field trip up to
Yosemite and this was, really, one of my
first pictures. It was taken … I had bought a 4 by 5
camera with black and white. I went to Death Valley
because that was another one of Ansel Adams’
favorite hang outs. This one’s sort of a
detail that I tried. I look at these pictures,
they’re not anything that I’ve sold or
think are my best work, but it really makes
me feel that this was the type of work that
I was originally drawn to. The landscape of the Western US. So what I did, sort of naively, I was just a first year
in college and I’d only been photographing for a year or two. I wrote to Ansel Adams
and asked if I could come show him my portfolio
up in Carmel. ( audience laughter ) To my surprise, he
wrote a letter back. Which, I learned that he wrote
over 100,000 letters in his life and he had a philosophy that he always answered
every letter and that anybody that wanted to come
see him could come at 5:00. He had a cocktail
hour at that time. ( audience laughter ) As long as he had his
drink he would talk to you. So I actually went there
and he signed my book. This was in 1977. One thing that I remember
from it succinctly was when he looked
at this picture he said that he
thought that I should
crop it differently and said that it’s
real important along the edges to always have the clean edges. He said to kind of go like that. It’s a very small
difference but if you look, it sort of makes it a little
cleaner along the edges. I think that’s sort
of the modernism eye that he had through
all his work. Any young photographer,
you really can’t go wrong learning that. It’s kind of like
learning classical music or something, it’s timeless. His work sort of stands
because of the way he did his compositions. What happened after that was
I went to journalism school at University of
Missouri and was selected as a summer intern and
started doing some stories for the Geographic. This was one of the first ones. It was on the California
Desert Protection Act. I felt like this was
back, sort of, in the old stomping grounds of
California desert. I’ve trained as
a photojournalist but I’ve used landscape
photography a lot of stories and this is in Grand Canyon. There’s not too many
journalists who’s going to have a background in
landscape photography. This is a story
about Wilderness Act, the wilderness system. This is up in Alaska, up in
the Tracy Arm Wilderness. This is way up in Devon Islands. Some of these people
will go up there to study about going to Mars. High elevation impact crater. One of my favorite places
down in Torres del Paine, National Park in Patagonia. Way down in Tierra Del Fuego. This was a story about
the anniversary of Darwin’s expedition
on the Beagle. Darwin went to this Pia Bay. We did a story about
the 40th anniversary of the National Trail System. This was Ozark Highland Trail. And Fraser Island Australia. Finland. The Oulanka National Park. This is a moonlight,
that they call the candlelight spruce. This was actually for a
story on the carbon cycle. How the carbon and the calcium
carbonate in the shells. These pictures sort of all had a journalistic side to them. This was a story about
the climate change. This was in Switzerland, sort of the melting glacier
and the bathtub ring. The drying Lake Powell. Again, you can see the
bathtub ring in the desert. Called this Viking
weather because Greenland was getting warmer
and that was why the Vikings had to leave. Then it got colder. I’ve also used it on some
environmental stories. Story about hard rock mining. This was a superfund site. Water pollution in China. Even in a Home Depot
parking lot in Baltimore. This was, we were talking about the nonpoint source
water pollution that runs off the parking lot
into the Chesapeake Bay. These are depleted
uranium canisters, the nuclear waste from Paducah. The oil sands. The scraping of
the Boreal forest for the oil. This is for the drought. Sort of a landscape of a marina where there’s no boats
or no water. And the Yoho National Park. Just the other side of
the Rockies from Banff and Lake Louise. It’s really a great park
in the Canadian Rockies. Okay so now we get sort
of to the last part. I’ll just try to
explain a little bit of some of the creative process about this story
that I went through. This was the lead
picture that was in the Geographic article. I went through kind
of a lot of thought about how to do this. How to sort of do a
tribute and sort of show that I had really been
inspired by Ansel Adams but not, sort of,
copy it or not do what sometimes is called “stand in
the same tripod holes as Ansel,” and stuff like that. (audience laughter) So the first thing I had
to decide was whether to do it in black
and white or color. If you shoot in digital
you have a raw file and you can make it color or black and white. I really liked the way
the black and white, the granite just seemed
to really come out much more forceful
and the sculptural qualities… To me it really was
the right way to do it. Then I still had to
kind of figure out. I didn’t want to do it
exactly like Ansel Adams had shot 75 years ago. I just kind of came
up with this idea of sort of referencing
some of his pictures for people who were
real fans of his work. They could look at
it and sort of see that there was a
connection but also see that it was a little more
up to date version of it. The other thing I did
was, a lot of nature books are divided by the seasons. We decided to just do it
by the type of scenery that you would see
if you went there. Just so you’d sort of
focus on, instead of just the summer time or a
vacation, it would be like you’re looking at certain
peaks or lakes and things. These are just kind of
the peaks and the lakes. This again, that’s
the black and white. The Ansel Adams. Mount Ansel Adams. This is called Cabin Lake. This was another
one of those that, when you looked at it in color, it was actually
taken before sunrise and it was actually
sort of flat. But when they’re all the
same tone in black and white it brings out the granite. I was surprised. You can actually see
little white caps. This was up about 10,000 feet so about a 30 mile
an hour wind. There’s also what’s called
the Sierra High Trail, it sort of follows
the John Muir Trail. It’s just this 211 mile
trail through the Sierras. Someone came up with
an idea to sort of go that same route but
not have any trail. So this is the part
that’s called Nancy Pass and actually, with your
pack and everything, it’s sort of a scramble
to get up there. But it had a nice
view of the minarets. Another thing that Ansel
Adams had, this philosophy that climbing to the top
of the mountain you don’t get the best view. And the very bottom
of the mountain you don’t get the best view. You sort of get the
best view partway up. This was sort of
about a third way. Some of the meadows. These are trees that
have been pushed over by the heavy snow in a lot of avalanches
that take place. This was sort of an idea
I had of referencing back to some of Adams’ work. He took pictures of
similar subject matter. This was in the water. Wilderness area is
very important for the state of California
because the watershed, one side comes
all the way down and ends up being the drinking water
for Los Angeles and the other side, this
is the San Joaquin River, this flows down into
the central valley and this is the water
that’s used for the irrigation. This water ends up,
60% of it, ends up watering lawns
in Los Angeles. There’s one area on
the East side and it actually started snowing. I went there for the fall colors and the fall colors
weren’t even out yet. So I ended up coming
back a little bit later. This was a Sierra juniper. The largest trees
in the wilderness. This was shot by moonlight. It’s the kind of picture that was really only possible
with a digital sensor. That’s why I really
thought that digital was the best way to
do a story like this. Because I think if Ansel
Adams were alive now, he would be using
the latest technology. I actually always
thought of fall colors as color photographs
but I really, more and more, like the way they photograph
in black and white. The right side is sort
of between the orange
and the yellow you get just a slight
delineation in the print. This is the creek that comes out
of Parker Lake. And I did go there
in the winter. This was actually when
I went on the fall trip. It started sleeting on
those same aspen trees. I think we were
probably the only people in the wilderness in
this time in February. We had to do what’s called this all terrain skiing
which is sort of a hybrid of cross country
and downhill skiing. I timed it to go
in during a storm, which turned out to be
good for photographs but sort of difficult
to move around. So we saw this. This is what they call
a Sierra wave cloud. And this kind of means, “Uh oh.” When you see, it’s
about a 50 mile an hour wind up on this Mount Lyell there. I could just barely stand
up, taking this picture, holding the tripod down. Then it got even worse. And then it got even
worse than that. ( audience laughter ) This was about 70 mile an
hour winds and we ended up having to dig a snow cave,
which is something I had never done
and I was glad I had the people with me that
knew how to do that. We stayed in there for
2 nights and I actually just climbed out long enough
to take this picture. It was about 50 feet
away from the opening of the snow cave and
that’s about all we could go it was really like
a whiteout conditions. I wanted to see what
it looked like after, so when we got back
out they hired a plane and took some
pictures from the air. So, I wrote an afterwards
so I just wanted to read a little bit about that. “The times we live in today
are radically different from those of the young
Ansel Adams, who photographed
the Sierra Wilderness. Times were hard
in the 1920’s and 1930’s. But Americans believed that
things would get better and progress would come. Technology was seen as a way to make life more comfortable
and exciting. Artists devoted to modernism focused on form
as the ultimate expression. Alfred Stieglitz summed
it up by saying that, ‘Art should be
the affirmation of life.’ Adams agreed
and he also believed that man could live
in harmony with nature. So what are we
to make of Ansel Adams in our era of cynicism? Does it still hold true that art and nature
can be inspirational? I believe there will
always be the human need for affirmation and inspiration
of the kind immortalized by Adams
in his Sierra photographs. Our spirits,
our own inner beauty, spring from the same source
as these rocks, trees, and reflecting waters. It has not even been a century
since Ansel Adams carried his camera on a burro along the trails of
the Sierra High Country. In the world of nature, that was only yesterday.” Thank you. ( audience applause ) ( music )

11 thoughts on “National Geographic Live! – Peter Essick: Ansel Adams Wilderness Revisited | Nat Geo Live”

  1. I just happened to be at Barnes & Noble yesterday and saw the book based on this article. The photographs shown in the video are better represented in print (as all photos are) and I would suggest everyone interested in this kind of photography take a look at the printed version. While I think Adams' photos are better, the work of Essick is excellent.

  2. Many thanks to Peter Essick and National Geographic for making this salute to Ansel Adams. Ansel has been a tremendous influence on the photographers of this age, my self included, and deserves all the kudos he has received. Brilliant work Peter! 

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