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.”

Light from a Distant Mountain

(The Ansel Insider)

“Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California” by Ansel Adams, 1944

In 1943, Ansel Adams began to document the Manzanar War Relocation Center, an internment camp for over 10,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II. Ansel used his camera to capture the strength, determination, and spirit of the people there amidst the hardship that had been thrust upon them. Immersed in the community of displaced Americans, Adams produced Born Free and Equal. It was a project that would prove to be surpassingly prescient towards the impacts of its own historical moment, and one of Ansel’ only forays into photo-documentation. In more than 100 images, he captured the nature of life in the camp, the humanity of its residents, and the monumentalism of its surroundings weaving them together to form a mosaic of natural beauty and human perseverance.

When Ansel completed his project at Manzanar, he had created a body of work dedicated to the human dignity he found there that was as profound as his iconic photographs of the surrounding landscape.

And as it turns out, it was one mountain in particular that stood out as an agent of hope among the unsurpassed beauty of the western landscape that encompassed Manzanar. Mt. Williamson. On the floor of the Owens Valley, Manzanar is bordered to the west by the soaring Sierra Nevada and the east by the great arid expanse of Death Valley National Park. Ansel believed that this surrounding western landscape was one of the few American cultural symbols the internees could still lay claim.

Photograph of the landscape outside of the Manzanar Relocation Center. Image courtesy of the Ansel Adams family archives

In a poignant passage written in Born Free & Equal, Ansel describes the sublime geography of the region that is empowered by a spirit originating from the granite wall of the Sierra Nevada: Mt. Williamson, only a distance of ten miles west of Manzanar, rises against the sky so magnificent and shimmers under the clear sun.

“The acrid splendor of the desert, ringed with towering mountains, has strengthened the spirit of the people of Manzanar. I do not say all are conscious of this influence, but I am sure most have responded, in one way or another, to the resonances of their environment…The huge vistas and stern realities of sun and wind and space symbolize the immensity and opportunity of America.” — Ansel Adams, Born Free & Equal

It was in 1944, on one of his later trips to Manzanar, when Ansel captured his extraordinary photograph of Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California. The image, taken from a platform mounted to the roof of his car, portrays Manzanar’s most important landmark rising from the foothills in the far distance. The mountain stands central in the image, its enormous form erupting from a sea of boulders resting on the floor of the newly made desert. Arguably, Ansel’s inspiration that enabled him to make such an iconic, moving image as “Mt. Williamson” came from the impact of his experiences observing the coping and fortitude of the Japanese-American internees. He believed the grand landscape transcended the everyday existence of internment. Ansel received criticism for photographing the surrounding landscape, and responded to such criticism in Ansel Adams: An Autobiography:

“I have been accused of sentimental conjecture when I suggest that the beauty of the natural scene stimulated the people in the camp,” he wrote. “No other relocation center could match Manzanar in this respect, and many of the people spoke to me of these qualities and their thankfulness for them.”

Ansel photographing the sweeping views near Manzanar. Photo courtesy of the Ansel Adams family archives.

Ansel’s Mt. Williamson reminds us of the deep-seated relationship between the landscape and its inhabitants, its cool mountain peak radiating an air of possibility in contrast to the heat of the desert floor where the camp lay. Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California is breathtaking in its portrayal of the Owens Valley environment. In another passage from Born Free & Equal, Ansel expresses:

“It is the magical mountain, the dominant accent of the world of Inyo…No summit of the Sierra looms so impressively above its immediate base as Williamson. Mary Austin speaks of its ‘seven-mile shadow.’ In the same mood Horace wrote of the ‘great shadows falling from the high mountains.’ Yet the shadows of the Sierras are not somber; they make space definite with glowing light.” — Ansel Adams, Born Free & Equal

By Reily Haag, Creative Writer for The Ansel Adams Gallery

The Artists of the Manzanar Relocation Center

At Manzanar, every 20-by-25-foot room held eight detainees. Few furnishings were provided. Cots with straw mattresses, an oil stove, and a single hanging light bulb were all that decorated the rooms. And yet, in spite of the harshness of their environment, and in spite of the injustice of their circumstances, the prisoners managed to find inspiration, extract beauty, and create art.

Yosemite Valley & Your Smartphone With Dillon Engstrom

Learn how to photograph your next Yosemite experience like a pro, all with the camera you always carry: your mobile device!

Dillon Engstrom, staff photographer at The Ansel Adams Gallery, has created an empowering workshop that guides participants of all skill levels to make the most out of their cameraphone.

Dillon’s smartphone photography class in the field going over composition and light

“In the Field: Creative Smartphone Photography” takes participants on a fun adventure throughout breathtaking Yosemite Valley. Dillon’s class shares step-by-step processes on how to capture, edit, and produce professional looking photos, all in the field and on the go.

Dillon delves into the more intricate technique capabilities of your cameraphone, and shares pro tips on both shooting and filming practices to truly document the essence of your Yosemite experience. He guides his students to explore ways on how to bring the vitality out of the photos they take.

Dillon’s class plays with reflections and Black & White camera settings (photograph taken and edited with smartphone)

“In the Field: Creative Smartphone Photography” builds confidence and aptitude in its participants, along with showing them how to create photographs that accurately represent how the scene looked the moment they took the photo. This class helps participants elevate photos to the level they deserve, and shows each student how to actualize their creative vision.

Dillon guiding his student through quick editing techniques

After exploring Yosemite Valley and practicing what you’ve learned amidst the mountains and meadows, you’ll head back to the gallery workshop for a lesson in editing and photo production. Here, you get to be creative with post-processing techniques, and play around with the artistic capabilities of a free professional photo editing app.

Half Dome compositions with an iPhone camera

When you step away from class, you’ll leave with a clear understanding of the principles of mobile photography, along with how to personalize them for your own unique vision. You’ll be excited and prepared to capture that special moment when it strikes, in Yosemite and beyond.

Practicing smartphone waterfall photography following Dillon’s techniques

Virginia Adams Spreads Native American Art from the Southwest to Yosemite

(The Ansel Insider)

Ansel Adams’ trips to the Southwest—often with his wife, Virginia—were as much about connecting with people as they were about connecting with landscapes. Through the traders and locals that they met, Ansel and Virginia connected with a number of Native American artisans and craftsmen. And it was Virginia who first decided to include the work of those Southwestern artisans in the gallery in Yosemite.

Virginia at the University of Arizona in front of pottery by renowned artisan Maria Martinez gifted from her and Ansel’s collection 

“Starting in 1929, she started buying for her family business—her father’s business at the time,” says Michael Adams, Ansel and Virginia’s son.

“She bought Indian rugs, and jewelry, and she was very careful about what she bought—only high-quality, authentic items.”

Virginia began collecting jewelry, pottery, blankets, kachinas, and other items. She would continue her buying trips to the Southwest on an annual basis—taking trips to meet with her favorite traders in Arizona and New Mexico, from Flagstaff to Gallup, and purchasing Native American folk art for display in the gallery.

The Ansel Adams Gallery still represents Native American artisans first introduced by Virginia Adams. Photo taken of beautiful handmade jewelry in the gallery, May 2019

In and of itself, this was remarkable act, and ahead of its time. Today, questions about inclusivity in the gallery are common, but in the early 20th century, the notion that Native American handiwork would find its way into a gallery space was far from a foregone conclusion.

“Those early trips were very important to the later years of what the gallery came to stand for,” says Adams.

Virginia (right) with friend and writer Ella Young on a trip to the Southwest, 1929

Of his mother’s attraction to the Southwestern aesthetic, Adams offers this simple explanation: “She fell in love with it.” And that love extended into their own home. “We decorated our home with it,” remembers Adams, “We had wonderful Indian rugs on the floor, slung over chairs. They were always showing us beautiful new things that would come in.”

Virginia’s decision to display the wares of Native American artisans was not merely aesthetic, but economic as well. For many visitors to Yosemite, the gallery was their first exposure to the work of Southwestern artisans, and the handcrafts were an immediate success. The sales of their goods enabled many Southwestern artisans to ride out leaner times during the Great Depression.

“That’s the ethic of wanting to support quality work, wanting to have quality work on your wall” says Adams, “You want to make sure that good artisans survive and continue making that quality work.”

Current represented Native American works in The Ansel Adams Gallery

It’s a conservationist impulse. In the same way that Ansel Adams felt the need to conserve the natural environments that provided the fodder for his photographs, Virginia recognized the need to preserve and sustain the people who created these beautiful crafts.

“Good things happen to good people,” says Adams, “If you find someone who’s doing an exceptional job, you do what you can to support them. And because of our position in Yosemite, we felt a particular obligation to support Native American handcraft.”

By Ethan Simon, Creative Writer for The Ansel Adams Gallery

Secrets of the Southwest: Locals Point the Way

(The Ansel Insider) 

For Ansel Adams, the project of cataloging the American Southwest was as much about finding beauty as it was about photographing it. But Adams did not have to look far for friends who were eager to help him uncover the secrets of that landscape. Entrée to the Southwest—insider knowledge about special sights and locations—was provided by enthusiastic local traders. On Adams’ trip to Arizona in 1941, it was Cozy McSparron, a trader who ran a post at Chinle who took him up to the Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto.


Cozy McSparron at Thunderbird Lodge

“They were old friends,” says Michael Adams, Ansel’s son, who joined his father on the 1941 trip. “They sat on the porch and drank whiskey. I drank Coca-Cola.” – Michael Adams

According to the younger Adams, the three went up the canyon in a four-door Chrysler open-top convertible. “It had great big oversized tires on it, so that it wouldn’t get stuck easily. But he said every now and then he would get stuck and he’d have to get horses to pull him out.”


“Canyon de Chelly” by Ansel Adams

McSparron, born in Gallup, New Mexico, learned to speak Navajo at an early age. “He brought with him to that trading post, a knowledge of native culture, and a supportiveness of that culture,” says Adams. That knowledge endeared him to the community, and his knowledge of the landscape would prove invaluable.

“He knew about all these small places—more intimate places—that my dad would have never known on his own, but was led there.” -Michael Adams

Ansel photographing petroglyphs and Rainbow Bridge in AZ

McSparron was far from the only trader that Adams would rely upon for insider knowledge. Harry Goulding, a trader in Monument Valley, was another remarkable resource.

Harry Goulding in Monument Valley. Image from

“He had a wonderful clientele with the film industry—with the people who filmed movies in Monument Valley,” Michael Adams says with a chuckle.

The punchline is this: it was Goulding himself who first drove to Los Angeles with the album of Josef Meunch’s photographs of Monument Valley, strolled into the United Artists studio building, and insisted on a meeting with John Ford. Goulding’s determination assured that Monument Valley would, for many, define the look of American West—both in Ansel Adams’ photographs, and in Hollywood Westerns.

“Monument Valley, Arizona” by Ansel Adams. Image from the National Gallery of Art

Traders also provided hospitality and a “home away from home.” At Wide Ruins, Arizona, Michael Adams recalls staying with a younger couple who had gotten into the trading post business. “Once they knew I could ride a horse safely, they’d let me take a horse every day and wander off across the reservation.”

Without his relationships to the traders and locals, Adams’ work in the Southwest would have been markedly different. It was only through the cultivation of strong friendships that Adams’ camera was able to find its now-iconic subjects.

Ansel photographing petroglyphs and Rainbow Bridge in AZ

Adams’ work cataloging the natural beauty of the American Southwest is not just an environmental project. It’s a human project as well.

“The traders facilitated Ansel getting into places that he might not have gone otherwise,” says Adams, “They showed him places, and they enabled him to explore those places through his photography.”

By Ethan Simon, Creative Writer for The Ansel Adams Gallery