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Yosemite 1938: On the Trail with Ansel Adams and Georgia O'Keefe

May 22 - August 22, 2004


The Adams album documents a wonderful excursion through Yosemite, but it is more than a typical photo album; it is a work of art in and of itself, carefully laid out and assembled by hand by Adams. The forty-eight photographs on forty-two pages present highlights of the trip, with a fine combination of broad landscapes, earthy close-ups, and posed portraits. The album gives a clear sense of the journey, while it also reveals Adams's philosophy on photography, art, and life.

Adams, O'Keeffe, McAlpin, and the Rockefellers departed for the High Sierra on Sunday, September 11, 1938. With them came a pack-string of fourteen mules, enough animal-power to haul all the camping, kitchen, and photo equipment, with a few extra mounts for those who wished to ride. The ten-day trip through the high country was not particularly arduous, outfitted as they were with plenty of blankets, food, and hired help. Assisting the group were local back-country experts Al Kay, Alvin Rhode, Robert Barnett, and Lile Pierce, who assumed the duties of guiding, packing, unpacking, setting up camp, and cooking. Five campers with four hired hands is a luxurious ratio when it comes to wilderness treks. Adams had arranged everything with convenience in mind, so the campers could photograph, hike, or relax as the mood struck them.

It was reportedly quite cold on a number of evenings, particularly after the group climbed to 10,000 feet and camped near Tuolumne Pass. Ever positive, Adams recalled that everyone considered it a "prime adventure." Mornings began with hot coffee and a good breakfast. Adams was an early riser, who liked to be up with the sun so he could take advantage of dawn's dramatic light. During the day, the party made small excursions from their base camp or trekked to their next campsite. Gas lamps enhanced the light of the campfire at night and the party scheduled dinner for after sunset, to allow for more photography at dusk.

To have the group in Yosemite, seeing and appreciating the land that he loved, must have been uplifting for Adams. His later reports of the excursion are glowing. In his autobiography, he wrote, "O'Keeffe loved campfires and would stand close to them in her voluminous black cape, her remarkable features and her dark hair gleaming in the flickering light. She never seemed bored or tired and enjoyed every moment of the trip."

Adams often captures the drama of gathering cumulous clouds, towering over a beautiful landscape. In the Echo Peaks (Top photograph), the peaks, fill the bottom third of the picture, while the rest of the image is dedicated to the tumult above. In these wide shots, the pattern of sunlight on the landscape is an important compositional element. The sun shines on the peaks in the background, while the foreground elements are cast in shadow. The bright peaks in the background form a band of light in the picture which balances the dark foreground and darkening sky.

YOSEMITE 1938, the album and the trip, tell a number of important stories about Ansel Adams and his relationships with friends, patrons, artists, and nature. The photographs show us many of Adams's favorite spots in the Sierra, from the Tuolumne Meadows and the Cathedral Peak region, to his beloved Lyell Fork of the Merced River. Adams designed the excursion to show off Yosemite at its best for some of his best friends. He hoped that the restorative and spiritual power of Yosemite would affect his companions the way it had affected him. We will never know the conversations that happened around the campfire or be able to recreate the feeling of looking at Half Dome for the first time with Adams at our side, but we can experience the pleasure of looking through this album, a remarkable record of a singular journey through the Sierra with one of its greatest proponents.

The album presented here was given to friend and supporter David McAlpin. In 2000, McAlpin's second wife, Sarah Sage Stewart McAlpin, kindly donated the album to the National Museum of Wildlife Art, thanks to the efforts of local museum supporters Robert and Geraldine Dellenback. Mrs. Dellenback was David McAlpin's niece. The Dellenbacks have generously sponsored the conservation and framing of the album, the exhibit, and the catalogue.

  • Funded in part by the National Advisory Board of the UW Art Museum. On loan from the National Musseum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Images:

Left: Echo Peaks, Silver gelatin print mounted 11-1/4 x 10 inches, 1938, On loan from the National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, WY

Center: O'Keefe - Tree. Photograph by Ansel Adams. Used with permission of the Trustees of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. All Rights Reserved.

Right: Untitled, Silver gelatin print mounted 11-1/4 x 10 inches, 1938, On loan from the National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, WY, Top: David McAlpin, Al Rhode, Helen Rockefeller, Godfrey Rockefeller, and Georgia O'Keeffe, Bottom: Barnett, Rhode, and Pierce


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