From the David H. Arrington Collection:

Ansel Adams

The Sierra Club Photographs

Photographs from this collection are not for sale.
All images this page © 2014 Trustees of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

In the history of American conservation, few have worked as long and as effectively to preserve wilderness and to articulate the “wilderness idea” as Ansel Adams. Through his photographs he has touched countless people with a sense of that mystique and a realization of the importance of preserving the last remaining wilderness lands.  
—Robert Turnage

Ansel Adams was fourteen years old in 1916 when his parents first took him on vacation to Yosemite National Park.   Stunned by the grandeur of the place the boy made his first photographs with a Kodak Box Brownie given to him by his parents. He would later write: “That first impression of the valley—white water, azaleas, cool fir caverns, tall pines and stolid oaks, cliffs rising to undreamed-of heights, the poignant sounds and smells of the Sierra . . . was a culmination of experience so intense as to be almost painful. From that day in 1916 my life has been colored and modulated by the great earth gesture of the Sierra.”   

Adams's  passion to record Yosemite's soaring granite cliffs, glorious waterfalls and rivers, and intimate details of grasses, ponds, and meadows would remained undiminished throughout his life.

Two years later he returned to Yosemite to go camping with his mentor “Uncle Frank,” Francis Holman. A naturalist and 1877 graduate of MIT  interested in ornithology and vulcanology, Holman had climbed some of South America's highest volcano cones.  He was also a member of the Sierra Club, a group of people dedicated to preserving the world's natural wonders and resources.   In Holman's "trail-wise" company the young Adams explored Yosemite,  scrambling up dangerous slopes tied to his guide by a window sash cord that might have proven disastrous if one of them had fallen.  "In a sense," wrote Adams, "it’s a miracle I’m alive because we did have some hazardous experiences and didn’t know anything about climbing technique.”  All the while he was taking in the incredible vistas of Yosemite.  "I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks. There are no words to convey the moods of those moments.” 

In the summer of 1920 Adams took a job as the custodian of the LeConte Memorial Lodge, the Sierra Club's headquarters in Yosemite, a position he held for four summers.  During those years he befriended many of the club's members, including some of the great conservationists of that era like Joseph N. LeConte, William E. Colby and Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service.  In 1925 the 23 year old Adams accompanied the Joseph LeConte family on a nearly two-month camping trip to King's River Canyon where he was in charge of cooking, campfires and pack animals.  In spite of his considerable duties he still managed to pack in glass plates, cameras and photographic equipment strapped to one of the mules.  

John Muir, the Sierra Club's first President, believed that "if people in general could be got into the woods, even for once, to hear the trees speak for themselves, all difficulties in the way of forest preservation would vanish." In this spirit the Sierra Club began hosting Outings in 1901, an annual event that still goes on today.    Before embarking on the first outing, the 96 participants were advised to read John Muir's The Mountains of California and Joseph LeConte's Journal of Ramblings Through the High Sierra, as educational inspiration for the trip. In Adams's time the Outing had come to be called the High Trip.

In 1927 Adams not only participated in the High Trip but  created a portfolio of 19 photographs he had taken in the High Sierras over the previous six years. Dubbed "Parmelian Prints" (a name coined by Adams to describe silver gelatin prints on extremely thin Kodak Vitava Athena Parchment T)  they were photographs of distant peaks,  trails in the wilderness and  scenic campsites.  The following year Adams became the High Trip's official photographer.  His expenses were mostly covered by his friends in the club's administration and in return he agreed to produce a comprehensive album of trip photographs that Outing members could purchase.

The Sierra Club proved to be vital to Adams's growing reputation as an artist and an environmentalist.  Besides fostering his outdoor skills as a lodge caretaker, trail guide and campsite scout, it published his first photographs and writings in the Sierra Club Bulletin and later used his photographs to influence  government policies to protect wilderness areas.   Adams was elected as a member of the Sierra Club's Board of Directors in 1934, a role he maintained until 1971.  Due in part to his fame as an artist and environmentalist, the club became a powerful national organization that lobbied to create national parks and protect the environment from destructive development projects.

In the 1930s the Sierra Club's priority was the creation of a national park in the Kings Canyon region of the Sierra Nevadas.   Armed with his photographs Adams went to Washington to lobby Congress to create the park and in  1938 he  produced an impressive limited-edition book, Sierra Nevada: The  John Muir Trail.  His  efforts helped convince Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and President Franklin Roosevelt to form the Kings Canyon Park  in 1940.  

In 1960 Adams's photographs and prose that had appeared in the club's Bulletin  grew into the Sierra Club's first Exhibit Format (oversize) book This Is The American Earth, a collaboration by Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall. This  landmark classic contributed to the reawakening conservation movement of the 1960s and 70s.   


"LeConte Memorial Lodge, Yosemite"
Negative Date: 1920s ca.
Print Date: 1920s ca.
5.5" x 3.25" Silver Gelatin Print

In Adams's photograph the LeConte Memorial Lodge, a small Tudor revival building nestled in a forest clearing below steep cliffs, looks like something out of a fairy tale.   Constructed of rough-cut granite its main feature is a conical pointed roof mirroring jagged cliffs above.  Its architect, John White, believed a building's design should be determined by its environment and materials with an emphasis on its exposed structure rather than decorative details.   

In 1898, the Yosemite Valley, not yet included in the boundaries of Yosemite National Park, was operated by the State of California through the State Board of Yosemite Commissioners. That spring, the Commissioners asked the Sierra Club, founded in 1892, to provide a public reading room and information center for Yosemite visitors.  Sinning's Cottage was a small building located on the southside of the Valley  near Sentinel Bridge and  easily accessible to visitors.  The club furnished the cottage with a small library, an herbarium, photographs, and maps, and hired an attendant for the summer season.  Sinning's Cottage functioned as a reading room and visitor's center until the LeConte Memorial Lodge was built in 1903-04.  Adams would later spend time reading through their "meager collection of books” and pouring over the snapshot albums of assorted mountain travels and climbs. 

"Commissary At Garnet Lake Camp"
Negative Date: Ca. 1929
Print Date: Ca. 1929
5.5" x 7.625" Silver Gelatin Print on Parmelian Paper 
from Sierra Club Outing 1929

To make this photograph of the 1929 Sierra Club Outing Adams set up his camera high above scores hikers milling around a commissary tent on the edge of Garnet Lake.   The photograph's primary feature is the massive, snow patched escarpment rising in the distance, remote and undisturbed by the ant-like human activity below.   This photograph was printed on Parmelian Paper and numbered  20/25.   Adams said:  "To commemorate the outing, I made a portfolio of photographs that I sold at cost, thirty dollars, to other members of the trip."  

"William Edward Colby, 1929"
Negative Date: 1929
Print Date: 1929
7.25" x 5.5" Silver Gelatin Print on Parmelian Paper
from Sierra Club Outing 1929

William E. Colby was a young law school graduate specializing in forestry and mining issues who was selected by the Sierra Club to be the first attendant of the LeConte Lodge and would go on to  serve for 60 years as a Sierra Club leader.   As Secretary he convinced the club's Board of directors to launch an annual outings program that would be far more than just an enjoyable hiking trip.   In the words of Francis Farquhar,  it  should "lead them to know and appreciate the beauty and inspiration of the mountains, and to educate them to become defenders of the wilderness."

Adams was 26 when he accompanied Colby as he led the 1928  High Trip. The following year he made a  dynamic portrait of the Sierra Club leader. Colby looks like a Native American with his fierce, weathered features and feathers tucked into his hat brim which, combined with  a neat shirt and bow tie suggest qualities of organization, vision and passion for the natural world.  


"Ascending Banner Peak"
Negative Date: 1929 Ca.
Print Date: 1929
5.5" x 7.625" Silver Gelatin Print on Parmelian Paper
from The Sierra Club Outing 1929

To make this photograph Adams set up his camera equipment in rugged terrain to get an overview of his companions.  Dwarfed by soaring escarpments and a massive snowfield, the hikers pause to regard the spectacle of Banner Peak.  There is an elemental simplicity to this composition made up of triangular black and white shapes.  

Just as the photographer Edward S. Curtis had begun his career with a mountaineering club in the late 1890s, Adams's career was launched through his contact with energetic and adventurous businessmen and politicians who enjoyed taking risks in the wilderness.  The year before in Canada Adams, himself, had nearly met with disaster. According to William Colby, Adams "uncomplainingly carried his equipment, weighing unspeakable pounds. His only regret was that the pace required to keep up with the climbing parties did not afford opportunities to photograph all the wonders about him. He was with us one moment and then far away seeking a vantage-point - only photographers were permitted to leave the rope. On one occasion, although he had neither ice-axe nor alpenstock, he tried a direct return from the midst of a series of crevices. Sensing danger, he tried the ice with his tripod. This precaution resulted in the tumbling of a great mass of ice down into a previously hidden cavern. The guides noted his predicament, and one of them went quickly to his rescue."

 "Down Bishop Pass"
Negative Date: 1930
Print Date: Later
5.875" x 7.875" Silver Gelatin Print
from Sierra Club Outing 1930

In a mountain top landscape as desolate as the moon a group of riders and burros laden with gear slowly make their way under the fierce midday sun. Giant outcroppings in the distance are softened by blazing light shimmering off a cascade of rocky debris.  This photograph describes very well the extraordinarily challenging conditions Adams was accustomed to working in.

"Dan Tachet"
Negative Date: 1930
Print Date: 1930
5.875" x 7.875" Silver Gelatin Print
from Sierra Club Outing 1930

In his autobiography Adams describes his arduous duties of being the Assistant Manager of the Sierra Club outings:  "I selected the next day's campsite, the route and the possible climbs on the way, arranged for the evening entertainment around the campfire, and cared for the lost and found.  Each travel day I would arrive at our destination usually before the first pack train, designate the men's camp, the women's camp, and the married camp.  Location of the commissary and that of the two latrines was fairly easy.  I would then vanish into the wilderness with my camera.  Dinner was usually served at the most magical time of day for photography, and I often returned to camp too late for anything but a few desolate snacks and cold tea."  

Adams photographed the High Trip's chef, Dan Tachet, preparing a rustic meal using a stump as a cutting board.  Although he would later eschew the Pictorialist style in favor of sharp focused photography Adams sometimes used Pictorial techniques. We see the cook,  his outdoor kitchen, the woodpile and foliage as if through a gauzy curtain and the dreamy, softened light creates a romantic, timeless quality.


The David H. Arrington Collection

This exhibition of The Sierra Club Photographs was selected from the David H. Arrington Ansel Adams Collection, the most comprehensive, stunning group of original Ansel Adams photographs ever assembled by a private collector.  Its contents range from Adams's first photograph made at the age of 12 of the 1914 Pan Pacific Exposition in San Francisco to a substantial group of photographs made in Yosemite in the 1920s and 30s, to the earliest examples of his most famous photograph, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941. The collection not only includes superlative examples of Adams's masterworks but also showcases hundreds of unknown images that convey the full scope of  Adams's genius.

David Arrington is a Texas oil man whose passion for Ansel Adams began when he was a young photographer studying Adams's methodology and avidly reading his books. Along with his friend, Richard Knarr, Arrington formed a photo club called Group f.32 in homage to Adams's Group f.64, a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that they were never going to be as "sharp" as Adams. Over the years Arrington turned his energies to collecting photographs by the master with the intention of sharing them with the public. 

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