Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Rollover text informationAmerican Experience Logo
Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film
The Film and More
Film Description
Primary Sources
Further Reading

Special Features
People and Events
Teacher's Guide

spacer above content
Primary Sources: A Magical Union With Beauty

Though he was not the first American wilderness photographer, and certainly not the last, Ansel Adams' name is synonymous with nature photography. For more than six decades, he worked to capture on film America's spectacular wild places, and the depths of feeling he experienced in them.

Early Memories
...A spring morning in about 1910 came clearly to me. I was up early and out in the sand dunes near our home. A gale blew out of the northwest, difficult to stand against. It was cold and clear, and the grasses and flowers were shivering violently in their shallow little spaces above the ground. The brittle-blue distances, including the horizon of the sea, were of crystal incisiveness. The ocean was flecked with whitecaps that appeared as countless white threads in a blue tapestry. My experience that day was a form of revelation that in some way became part of my creative structure.

I constantly return to the elements of nature that surrounded me in my childhood, to both the vision and the mood. More than seventy years later I can visualize certain photographs I might make today as equivalents of those early experiences. My childhood was very much the father to the man I became. (p. 4)

From Dusk Til Dawn
It is easy to recount that I camped many times at Merced Lake, but it is difficult to explain the magic: to lie in a small recess of the granite matrix of the Sierra and watch the progress of dusk to night, the incredible brilliance of the stars, the waning of the glittering sky into dawn, and the following sunrise on the peaks and domes around me. And always that cool dawn wind that I believe to be the prime benediction of the Sierra. These qualities to which I still deeply respond were distilled into my pictures over the decades. I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite. (p. 67)

Loafing in the Wilderness
[Adams' first letter to his future wife, Virginia Best (pp. 97-98)]

Lake Merced, Yosemite National Park
September 5th, 1921

Dear Virginia,
You cannot imagine what a really delightful time we are having up here in the wilderness. Excepting a rather severe thunderstorm, the weather has been perfect, and we have done nothing but "loaf" the last three days away.

Tomorrow we start for the Lyell Fork Canyon (of the Merced) and will spend perhaps five days thereabouts. This lofty valley is one of the most remarkable regions of the park, and the grandeur of Rogers Peak, the ascent of which is our main objective, cannot be described...

If I only had a piano along! The absurdity of the idea does not prevent me from wishing, however. I certainly do miss the keyboard; as soon as I am back in Yosemite I shall make a beeline for Best's Studio, and bother your good father with uproarious scales and Debussian dissonances. I certainly appreciate the opportunity offered me this summer to keep up my practice, and I am very grateful to you all indeed. I shall go back to the city feeling that I have lost little in music during the summer. A month, I'll wager, will find me completely caught up.


The Spirit of the Mountains
[article in the Sierra Club Bulletin, February 1932 (p. 143)]

Mid-afternoon... a brisk wind breathed silver on the willows bordering the Tuolumne and hustled some scattered clouds beyond Kuna Crest. It was the first day of the outing -- you were a little tired and dusty, but quite excited in spite of yourself. You were already aware that contact with fundamental earthy things gave a startling perspective on the high-spun unrealities of modern life. No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied -- it speaks in silence to the very core of your being. There are some that care not to listen but the disciples are drawn to the high altars with magnetic certainty, knowing that a great Presence hovers over the ranges. You felt all this the very first day, for you were within the portals of the temple. You were conscious of the jubilant lift of the Cathedral range, of the great choral curves of ruddy Dana, of the processional summits of Kuna Crest. You were aware of Sierra sky and stone, and of the emerald splendor of Sierra forests. Yet, at the beginning of your mountain experience, you were not impatient, for the spirit was gently all about you as some rare incense in a Gothic void. Furthermore, you were mindful of the urge of two hundred people toward fulfillment of identical experience -- to enter the wilderness and seek, in the primal patterns of nature, a magical union with beauty. The secret of the strength and continuance of the Sierra Club is the unification of intricate personal differences as the foundation of composite intention and desire.

Sand Dunes
I remember many sunrises in Death Valley, especially one near Stovepipe Wells in 1948. After sleeping on the camera platform atop my car, I woke before dawn, made some coffee and stoked my stomach with beans reheated from last night's supper. I then perched my camera and tripod across my shoulders and plodded heavily through the shifting sand dunes, attempting to find just the right light upon just the right dune. The sun floated above the margins of the Funeral Range, promising a very hot day. Just then, almost magically, I saw an image become substance: the light of sunrise traced a perfect line down a dune that alternatively glowed with the light and receded in shadow. (p. 247)

Excerpts from Ansel Adams, An Autobiography. With Mary Street Alinder. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985.

Site Navigation

The Film & More: Film Description | Transcript | Primary Sources | Further Reading | Acknowledgements

Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film Home | The Film & More | Special Features | Timeline
Gallery | People and Events | Teacher's Guide

American Experience | Feedback | Search & Site Map | Shop | Subscribe | Web Credits

© New content 1999-2002 PBS Online / WGBH