Ansel Leads the Way

Georgia O’Keeffe, the Rockefellers, and Ansel Adams Go Camping

(The Ansel Insider)

Ansel Adams’ photography introduced generations of Americans—even those who would never visit the park themselves—to the grandeur of Yosemite National Park. Through his photographs, hundreds of thousands would come to know the splendor of its rugged summits and polished valleys.

Ansel photographing in the High Sierra. Photograph by Ron Partridge

For many Americans, Ansel acted as a sort of liaison to Yosemite itself, welcoming viewers into the park with the intimacy that only his deep familiarity with its natural beauty could provide. It was a role that he would inhabit regularly throughout his life, and indeed, Ansel often found himself serving as a guide to Yosemite for many notable artists of his time. These excursions into the High Sierra with other artists were particularly uplifting for Ansel, who took great pleasure in sharing his beloved wilderness with friends.

It was on September 11th, 1938 that Ansel set out into Yosemite for a ten-day pack trip with four friends in tow: David McAlpin, a grandson of William Rockefeller and a notable philanthropist; McAlpin’s cousin, Godfrey Rockefeller, and his wife Helen; and Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the most celebrated painters of the American West.

Photograph from the trip published in “Looking at Ansel Adams”

When one goes camping with three Rockefellers, one does not pack light. The five campers enjoyed four hired hands—a highly luxurious ratio—and fourteen mules to carry all their gear. McAlpin and Godfrey Rockefeller—both amateur photographers—had purchased cameras specifically for the trip. Working with a large-format camera and eight-by-ten-inch negatives, Godfrey often had to rely on Ansel for technical assistance, which Ansel was happy to provide.

Ansel Adams, American, 1902-1984, “Untitled” (Godfrey Rockefeller) and “Untitled” (David McAlpin), c. 1938.
Courtesy of the National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, WY, Gift of Sarah S. and David H. McAlpin

But it was Georiga O’Keeffe who attracted the majority of Ansel’s attention. Ansel had first met O’Keeffe in 1929 at an artists’ retreat in Taos, New Mexico. As kindred spirits and fellow lovers of the American West, they quickly sparked a lasting friendship.

Photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe by Ansel Adams during their camping trip, 1938
Photo courtesy of The Carnegie Museum of Art

According to Andrea G. Stillman in her book Looking at Ansel Adams: The Photographs and the Man,

“Adams was in awe of O’Keeffe. Not only was she the wife of his idol, Alfred Stieglitz, but she was also a widely-recognized artist.”

On that 1938 trip, Ansel was highly preoccupied with showing O’Keeffe a good time. In his autobiography, he writes,

“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.”

O’Keeffe even left behind a souvenir for Ansel and family from the camping trip: her hiking boots. The Adams family has a photograph of Michael, Ansel’s son, sporting a rake and her boots, and looking rather serious about his new look!

Michael Adams in Georgia O’Keeffe’s hiking boots
Photo Courtesy of the Adams Family Memorabilia Archives

For her part, O’Keeffe was often playfully sarcastic with Ansel, and loved to poke fun. Ansel had designed the excursion himself to show off the best that Yosemite had to offer, taking the group to his favorite locations and vistas. But after leading the group up to the distant peak that would one day come to be known as “Mount Ansel Adams,” O’Keeffe is reported to have quipped,

“Oh, now I see why you brought us up here. You just wanted to show off your mountain.”