Picturing Alaska

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In the summer of 1947, Ansel Adams and his 14-year-old son, Michael, undertook a six-week journey through Alaska that would have notable consequences for the history of conservation. Adams was already close to a household name for his masterful landscape photography, particularly the powerful shots of Yosemite Valley. A 1941 visit to Glacier National Park had sparked his interest in the north country. “Imaginatively inclined,” Adams recalled in his autobiography, “I felt Alaska might be close to the wilderness perfection I continuously sought.” On this relatively short trip, he would take one of his most iconic photographs and do much to encourage Americans of all stripes to visit Alaska and persuade them of the value of the National Park System.

From San Francisco he and Michael drove up U.S. Highway 101 to Seattle, where they boarded the SS Washington for Juneau by way of the Inland Passage, stuffing themselves on buffet food, just as had the pioneer preservationist John Muir decades earlier. A convulsion of thunder and bolt of lightning enthralled them, as if witnessing a divine fireworks display. “I was deeply affected by my first glimpse of the northern coasts and mountains,” recalled Adams. “The rain did not depress me; it was clean and invigorating, and the occasional glimpses of far-off summits gave promise of marvels to come.”

He did not travel light. Wherever he went, he took his large 8-by-10-inch camera, lenses, filter sets, Graflex cameras, and three specially designed pods—in all, a roster of accessories that would fill a page. 

Eager for the publicity that Adams could bring, Gov. Ernest Gruening put a two-engine Grumman Goose amphibious plane at his disposal—though the pilot, a wildlife officer, having endured decades of wind, rain, and dizzyingly high altitudes, called it “the Flying Coffin.” After a shaky takeoff, Ansel and his son’s nerves steadied. They were soon enjoying low passage over the coastal waters, coming down in bays where their pilot inspected commercial fishing craft to ensure that the crews hadn’t exceeded catch limits. The gadget-loving Adams was fascinated by the instrument panels; the cockpits of planes flying the coastal areas were quite different from those operating in the interior and the Arctic. From this bird’s-eye view, he took a series of distant color shots of Mount Saint Elias Floating in the Clouds. These “personal” photos remained, as late as 2010, in Michael Adams’s private collection, never shown to the general public. (Some of them are here published for the first time.)

However deep he ventured into the wilderness, Adams often wore a Brooks Brothers sports jacket, white shirt, and plain tie; he didn’t like people turning native. His broad, balding forehead was perhaps his most recognizable feature. The well-trimmed beard suggested a tweedy college professor. Alaskans soon learned that the ever-alert Adams was a master at interpreting the landscape’s endlessly shifting moods; he would break off conversations to point out the droop of a cloud, the sudden fierceness of the sun. The Earth had been created long ago in the flash of a starburst, he thought, and his calling was to turn the Creator’s awesome intensities into framable high art. “The quality of place, the reaction to immediate contact with earth and glowing things that have a frugal relationship with mountains and sky,” he wrote, “is essential to the integrity of our existence on this planet.”

In Juneau and Fairbanks, many stories would be told of Adams’s Goose slipping into remote Alaskan inlets. The six- to eight-passenger plane regularly put down on lakes and bays for Adams to compose brilliant snapshots. He ordered his pilots to swoop toward the ground so he could capture fine angles on sunsets and wildfires. One afternoon the plane nearly crashed when the right landing gear malfunctioned. But as he had predicted, that particular death-defying maneuver helped find the perfect pink and purple rose light, which infused the blue/green/gray/white landscape with unforgettable grace. “We crisscrossed the Coast Range many times, exploring deep valleys, lakes, passes, and peaks,” Adams wrote. “The shadows lengthened and the golden light on the snowy mountains intensified.”

A great photographer will spend weeks, even months, in search of the perfect picture. Shooting Mount McKinley presented a particularly formidable challenge, its immensity stubbornly denying any access to its secrets. The perpetually snowcapped, wind-bitten, 20,000-foot peak simply defied the power of Adams’s 35 mm Contax lens. Even given perfect conditions of light, shadow, and wind, a photographer would find it hard indeed to capture such bulk, however wide the lens. It would demand extreme patience and the ability to shake off the dizziness that thin air often causes. But Adams took joyfully to the rock and ice giant. He did not want so defining a photograph to be taken from the air but rather to capture the spiritual essence of the entire Denali wilderness from the ground. Because McKinley is three times higher than Yosemite’s Half Dome, he figured that it would be thrice as difficult to capture its ultimate image in a photograph.

Everything about the mountain proved difficult. On the train ride to McKinley Station, for example, a steady rain made the rails slippery, and the engineer almost collided with a full-grown moose. “The rain finally stopped,” Adams wrote later, “the rails dried, and the brakes worked. We passed several busy repair crews; the melting permafrost frequently causes the rails to sag, creating a continuous maintenance problem.”