When the light, shadow and stars aligned: Standing where Ansel Adams stood

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When the light, shadow and stars aligned: Standing where Ansel Adams stood
Ansel Adams (American, 1902–1984), Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1937. Gelatin silver print. Cantor Arts Center. The Capital Group Foundation Photography Collection at Stanford University, 2019.42.20. Used with permission of and © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

by Kim Beil

NEW YORK, NY.- Ahead of me, an arc of 12,000-foot peaks corralled the top of a canyon. On my left, the white crags of Glacier Ridge were colored by the setting sun. Only an hour of daylight remained. I was looking for a rock feature that goes unnamed on most maps, but is known by climbers as Horn Peak. It should have been just north of Elizabeth Pass in California’s Sierra Nevada. But with barely 2 miles until I reached the top of the trail, it was nowhere to be found.

I had originally seen Horn Peak in a lesser-known Ansel Adams photograph called “High Country Crags and Moon, Sunrise, Kings Canyon National Park.” In the black-and-white image, a band of toothy gray rock is drawn through the middle of a wide black expanse. The moon, just days past full, floats in the darkness above the cliff. The landscape itself seems lunar: no trees, no clouds, just emptiness. The foreground is lost in shadow. But it’s the “sunrise” of the title that’s hardest to reconcile. I mistake the dark sky and the silver moon for night every time I look at the picture. Only with conscious effort can I see the foreground shadow as an effect of the rising sun.

These visual puzzles had drawn me to the photograph. But it was another mystery entirely that compelled me to find the scene in the wild. The negative bore only the vague date of “circa 1935,” but Adams didn’t print the image I saw until 1979. Would dating the negative more precisely explain this long delay? Or was there something at the site in Kings Canyon that would help me understand the photographer’s motivations? Hurrying toward Elizabeth Pass at sunset in the middle of a four-day, 50-mile backpacking trip, I was trying to find out.

The enigma

When I first saw the photograph, I didn’t recognize it as an Adams. Josie R. Johnson, a curatorial fellow at the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts at Stanford University, in Stanford, California, where I teach, planned to include it in an exhibition. She’d chosen the image for its otherworldly qualities. “It sticks with you,” she said, “for being such an enigma.”

Although Adams is perhaps the most famous of all American landscape photographers and is revered for his work in the national parks, he was also well known as a teacher. In workshops, instruction books and articles, he emphasized his technique for making perfect exposures, called the Zone System. The practice, which he formalized around 1939, allows a photographer to balance the tonal values in black-and-white images ranging from the deepest shadows to the brightest highlights. Although “High Country Crags and Moon” features a fine gradation of gray in the rock face, the impenetrable shadow in the foreground seems to break Adams’ own rules.

Rebecca Senf, the chief curator at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, and the author of a book on Adams’ early career, suggests that he eventually developed a style that was “both widely comprehensible and spectacular.” Initially, she says, Adams was making pictures for fellow climbers and hikers: people who would recognize the strange terrain. Eventually he became more concerned with representing the landscape in a way that did not rely on firsthand experience. These later pictures brought him fame in his lifetime, and they remain the ones that are best known today.

“High Country Crags and Moon” bears some marks of early Adams, but even as an art historian and avid backpacker, I find the image hard to understand. Without any detail in the foreground, it’s impossible to know what’s hidden in that shadow. Is it a wide plain? A deep chasm? Scale is also hard to judge. The camera is pointed up at the cliffs, but it’s difficult to get a sense of their relative size and distance from the photographer.

The title is only a little less vague than the picture itself. Kings Canyon National Park is an area of more than 460,000 acres. It is managed jointly with Sequoia National Park by the National Park Service. Together the two parks cover more than 1,300 square miles. The terrain includes the deepest canyon in the country, the largest trees in the world and Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. Within this region of superlatives, where exactly was the picture made?

I posted inquiries on online message boards for Sierra adventurers, asking for help in identifying the location. Soon I found Daniel Jeffcoach, a biology instructor at Fresno City College, in Fresno, California, and a dedicated hiker, climber and backcountry skier. I sent him a link to the photograph, and he replied with pictures of a friend climbing the rocky outcropping. Jeffcoach pointed me to the nearest named feature on Google maps: Elizabeth Pass. Nearby was Horn Col, a dip in the ridgeline that serves as the boundary between Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. It was thoroughly disorienting to see the location in color. Adams’ black sky was bright blue, set off by chalk-white cliffs.

The timeline

Now I knew roughly where the picture was made. But I still needed to figure out exactly when. Museum documentation at Stanford and in the Ansel Adams Archive, which is held at the Center for Creative Photography, both dated the negative to circa 1935. There was no further information.

Adams, born in 1902, had been photographing in the mountains since he was a teenager. Soon he became involved with the Sierra Club, which was founded in 1892 and whose first president was naturalist John Muir. The club’s original mission statement outlined its purpose: “to explore, enjoy and render accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast.” Their annual trip, called the “Outing” or the “High Trip,” combined all three aims.

In Adams’ time, the trips took more than 200 members on nearly monthlong journeys through the mountains. Dozens of horses and mules carried gear. Hikers were served cafeteria-style meals prepared by a cook. They performed original plays and music with bonfire footlights.

Adams attended his first full-length Sierra Club Outing in 1927. He was invited back the next year to serve as the trip’s official photographer.

I scoured the Club’s publications and archives for photographs of trips they took over Elizabeth Pass in the 1920s and 1930s. Maybe, I thought, this picture was made earlier than 1935, before he’d established the exposure guidelines that would define his career. As Senf told me, “Having a date attached to that photograph makes it a more useful data point.” Placing it within Adams’ artistic chronology might help us understand it in a larger context. I flipped through page after page of peaks and valleys in the Club’s albums without finding anything similar.

The sleuth

Several other Adams photographs have been dated by astronomers using the moon, including the famous “Moonrise Over Hernandez, New Mexico.” When I emailed one of these researchers, he replied almost immediately. Donald Olson is a self-described “celestial sleuth” and a professor emeritus of physics and astronomy at Texas State University in San Marcos. He has used calculations of the sun, moon, stars and planets to accurately date and locate artworks, including Impressionist paintings, as well as historical events.

Olson quickly assembled a team of experts to work on the Adams photographic research. The group included Roger Sinnott and Dennis di Cicco, editors at Sky & Telescope magazine, and Ava Pope, who studied physics at Texas State University with Olson. They consulted Mary Street Alinder and John Sexton, onetime assistants to Adams, for help determining the negative size and other crucial details about its printing. Olson told me that to uncover the date of “High Country Crags and Moon,” they would need GPS coordinates and timed star field photographs made on site. These had to be high-resolution images, made using a tripod to steady the camera during the long exposure, so that the faint light of stars would register clearly.

The tilt of the moon helped the team determine that the original photograph was most likely taken during late July, August or September. To recreate that photograph, I would have to visit during one of these months. The photographs had to show stars in conjunction with the cliffs, so I would need to wait until moonrise illuminated the rocks. I made some practice pictures of the moon from my backyard and sheepishly sent them to the team for advice. By late summer I was as ready as I could be.

The hike

The most direct route to Horn Peak follows a series of creeks through rolling forest to the Roaring River Ranger Station, a little more than 13 miles from the trailhead. When my husband, Pat Turner, and I set out on Sept. 13, the sky was gray and the air smelled of rain. Thunderstorms had already delayed our start. The tall fir trees lining the trail were still bundled in fog. We needed clear skies to make the star field photographs, and I needed to avoid camping above the tree line in a lightning storm. We had just six more nights to catch the waning gibbous moon.

When we reached the Roaring River station that evening, Laura Pilewski, a ranger, warned us about two brazen bears that had been making nightly rounds. One of them had found an unattended food sack a month earlier and remained convinced that there would be a second helping. Pilewski headed back to her cabin and almost immediately we heard her making noise to scare off the bear, which had returned yet again.

I vetoed our dinner plan for hot couscous topped with tuna, and instead we ate soggy sandwiches. They were a far cry from the stews served on Sierra Club trips in Adams’ time.

At dark we emptied our pockets and backpacks of anything that smelled like food, stuffed it all back into our bear-resistant canister, stowed it far from the tent and zipped ourselves into our sleeping bags for the night, noise makers near at hand.

The next morning dawned clear, cold and quiet. The bear had not returned. Over mugs of steaming coffee we watched the moon weave through the treetops.

We repacked our gear and followed large bear tracks up the trail into Deadman Canyon, named for Alfred Moniere, a sheepherder whose long-ago burial is marked by a carved wooden sign. We emerged into intense sun at about 8,500 feet. A green meadow lined the valley ahead of us, interrupted midway by a stand of trees. Even late in the season, after a drought-stricken summer, icy water was running down the canyon toward Roaring River. I could picture Moniere’s sheep browsing the expanse.

The sun, at the ideal flat horizon, was scheduled to set just after 7 p.m. Here in the high mountains, we would lose sight of it at least an hour earlier. We needed to find the tripod location in the daylight, so that we could match the rock features in Adams’ picture before setting up the nighttime shots.

We walked as far as we could to find what appeared to be the last protected campsite, tucked into some cottonwoods in a sandy wash. Pat laid out our tent, and I retrieved a bag of instant potatoes for dinner from the bear canister. We would hike back here after making the pictures, rather than camping farther up the exposed canyon.

I returned to the trail with a lighter load on my back and the panic of sunset in my legs. Cold, blue shade was steadily rolling up the trail behind us. I’d been studying the view in Adams’ photograph for months now and expected Horn Peak to be visible for miles. Yet nothing looked familiar. The trail twisted upward through wet rocks and sodden grasses. I tried to memorize the slick spots, since we’d be retracing our steps in the dark.

As we climbed, a vast wall came into view to the west. Several hundred more steps took us up another set of switchbacks and onto a sloping rocky shelf. The Horn broke the horizon just north of the setting sun. I dropped my backpack and headed out farther onto the rock, following the remnants of an old trail. Pat called me back. Right at the intersection, where trail crews had placed knee-high boulders to funnel hikers to the modern route, the view nearly matched Adams’ photograph. The sun sank behind the ridge, and we inched the tripod around until all the striations on the rock lined up with Adams’ picture. We’d found it. Now we just had to wait for the moon.

The moonrise

We heated water and stirred it into the potatoes, warming our hands as we took turns holding the bag. The temperature was dropping quickly, but there was still sunlight packed in the granite. The white crags lit up with pink alpenglow. A hawk circled high above, pointing to the first star that had blinked on in the twilight.

We still had at least three hours until moonrise when clouds began spilling into the valley. They swirled lightly around the peaks at first, like milk in tea, until we reached a cold, wet equilibrium. We shrank into our sleeping bags, now soaked with dew. I struggled to pull my gloves on over damp, freezing fingers. There was a silent flash in the clouds far down the valley, but I felt a boom like thunder in my heartbeat. I suggested we pack it in.

But neither of us moved. We would wait a few more minutes. And then a few more. There was no more lightning. Within an hour, the clouds dissipated and a powdered-sugar dusting of light appeared in the sky overhead. Everything was brighter and bigger. The stars pinned the sky back. Shooting stars flared as they hit the atmosphere.

Around 10 p.m., my NightSky app revealed that the moon had risen, far down in the valley. I was trying to ignore the outline of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, drawn on the screen, when Pat said, “It’s gone. The Horn’s gone.” I groaned, thinking he was kidding. But when I turned to look, there was nothing. The ridgeline across from us was a flat black canvas. For about half an hour I’d been nervously tracking what looked like thin white clouds clinging to the cliff. I had tried to stay optimistic, thankful that at least we could still see the Horn. Now it, too, had disappeared.

Pat stood up for a better view, still wrapped in his sleeping bag. “They’re not clouds!” he said. The light band I’d been watching was actually the white cliff face, glowing as it was slowly illuminated by the rising moon. The Horn reappeared as the moon tracked higher in the sky.

I made several photographs, stunned by the clarity of the view and the densely packed stars. We now had half the pictures we needed.

We headed back down the slippery switchbacks just before midnight. I hugged the camera close in my sleeping bag, trying to protect it from the damp night air.

There was frost on the tent when we awoke at 5 a.m. As we climbed back up to the tripod location, the landscape felt newly familiar. All the uncertainty of the dark dissolved, like shadows in a nightmare.

Now I saw the view as Adams had seen it. Although I couldn’t yet know for sure, I suspected he had been heading up to Elizabeth Pass when he was surprised by the sudden view of Horn Peak cutting into the blue sky. As the sun rose behind me, a black curtain of shadow slid down the cliff. The wonder I felt at discovering the peak at sunset, hidden at the top of the canyon after many miles of invisibility, must have been punctuated for Adams by the perfect placement of the moon.

The date

Back at home, I sent the photographs to Olson, who set to work.

“Knowing the date and time of the modern star-field photograph,” he explained in an email, “we identified the constellations and calculated the altitudes (height above the horizon) and azimuths (compass directions) of many visible stars.”

Once the team identified the region of the sky included in the Adams photograph, they used “computer planetarium programs to search the 1920s and 1930s for dates and times when a waning gibbous moon, with illuminated fraction near 85%, passed near this position in the sky,” Olson wrote. The search had originally turned up four possible dates. Using documentary evidence in the Ansel Adams Archive and lunar libration, a phenomenon that “affects the visibility of lunar surface features,” according to Olson, they narrowed down the possibilities. They concluded that Adams had made “High Country Crags and Moon, Sunrise, Kings Canyon” at 6:47 a.m. on Aug. 6, 1936.

On that date, the Sierra Club’s High Trip was nearing its end. Louise Hewlett, the trip recorder that year, wrote, “Leaving Elizabeth Pass was like closing the door upon the High Country — for another year, at least from that moment we moved steadily on, over improved trails, toward our starting point — toward automobiles, roads, houses.” Adams, too, was moving steadily onward with the Sierra Club toward home, but also toward new heights in his career.

The significance

1936 was a pivotal year for Adams. In January he’d traveled east to lobby members of Congress in support of Kings Canyon’s designation as a national park. From Washington, he headed to New York, where he met the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer who also ran the much-admired gallery An American Place.

On that visit, Stieglitz offered Adams an exhibition for late October 1936. It was the highest stamp of approval for an American photographer. It’s not hard to imagine that the upcoming exhibition was on Adams’ mind as he was making photographs that August in Kings Canyon.

Even after the astronomers’ calculations revealed the date of the negative, I was left with one further mystery. Why had Adams not printed it until the late 1970s? I suspected that he may have dismissed the negative earlier in his career because it didn’t render the scene “comprehensible,” as Senf, the curator, puts it. After seeing the site myself, I now know how tremendously large Horn Peak appears in person. Perhaps Adams initially felt that the picture didn’t match his experience of the location?

Alinder, Adams’ former chief assistant, estimates that of the 40,000 negatives the photographer stored in a vault at his home, he’d only made prints of about 2,000. One of the major projects during Adams’ final years was making proof prints of all those negatives. Alinder believes it was during this process that Adams rediscovered “High Country Crags and Moon.” A print of it was included first in a major solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, called “Ansel Adams and the West,” in 1979. Then the image reappeared in a portfolio of 75 prints, called the Museum Set, which Adams considered the definitive works of his career. The photograph I’d seen was in one of these portfolios, printed just five years before Adams died in 1984.

Forty-three years passed between Adams’ early-morning photograph of Horn Peak and the year it was printed for the Museum Set. Something in that time had shifted the way he saw this picture. The Sierra Nevada is millions of years old. Glacier Ridge, opposite Horn Peak, is not just a place name on a map; it also describes a geological origin story. The deep canyons were scraped away during long periods of glaciation. When I was there in September, only a trickle of water drained through the grassy crevices. But fallen boulders scattered on the valley floor notate a historical soundtrack of ice and water and wind.

Against this symphony of geologic time, the span of 43 years is a mere grace note. But for Adams, it was more than half his life. His photographs would be seen not only at Stieglitz’s gallery, as the young artist may have been imagining while he climbed toward Elizabeth Pass in August 1936, but they would come to be seen around the world. The book Adams gave to the secretary of the interior on his lobbying trip would end up in the hands of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Kings Canyon would be established as a national park in 1940. When the art market began taking a serious interest in photography in the 1970s, the value of Adams’ photographs would increase exponentially. He would accept honorary degrees and be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A wilderness area in the High Sierra would be named for him.

As I surveyed the dark canyon in September, time seemed impossibly long. When the clouds cleared, the rocks and the moon presented the same faces to me that Adams had seen some 86 years earlier. Then the dawn broke and everything seemed changed. Adams saw thousands of these cycles in his lifetime. Alinder recalls that, near the end of his life, he and his wife, Virginia, hosted a regular happy hour at their home in Carmel, California. Visitors, acolytes, friends and assistants gathered at windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean to take in the view of the setting sun. Together they watched for the green flash, that strange optical phenomenon that occurs when the sun slips below the horizon and its light is briefly refracted by the atmosphere.

Since I began this project, the moon has seemed like a special emissary. Each time I see it, whether at night or lingering in the wan blue morning, I feel a blaze of recognition. It’s almost the same day after day, but it’s also always different. It doesn’t take change on a geological scale to look back on life with a new perspective. It takes only a moment, like a green flash, to see something made long ago with entirely new eyes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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