Picturing Alaska

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Eventually they crawled into the McKinley Station diner for a meal that tasted of cardboard. At night, mosquitoes filled the air. The Adamses were tired even before their adventure had begun, but after a good night’s sleep, they headed 90 miles into Mount McKinley National Park in a flatbed Ford truck with camera equipment piled in back. They had been given the key to the ranger station at Wonder Lake near the mountain’s base, only to discover that bears had broken into the storage bin and eaten huge boxes of U.S. Army K-ration chocolate. “It was a kick to me as a kid to see the muzzle imprint of a bear on the window glass,” recalled Michael. “They had made quite a mess.”

To get a feel for Wonder Lake, the Adamses hiked a steep switchback trail where the wind bore down with a vengeance. Curiously, the remote landscape reminded them both of the desert conditions of Death Valley. As a connoisseur of light, Adams was keenly aware of changes in the weather, wind velocity in particular. Now, swatting bugs at one in the morning and dealing with the strange reality of the midnight sun, he felt the pressure to accomplish the unprecedented.

They found an ideal panoramic view from just above Wonder Lake. Adams set up the tripod, but it was still difficult to determine the best angle for the shot, while the right light would last only for two or three minutes. For a photographer seeking the perfect frame, sometimes in rain and fog, this was an ordeal. “The scale of this great mountain,” reflected Adams, “is hard to believe.”

He complained in his letters of the insistent rain. Visibility was awful. Vast clouds of mosquitoes descended upon them, even insinuating themselves between film and lens. When Adams developed his photos, many had thus been ruined by the insects, which showed up like cartoon airplanes within the frame. Adams was “disgusted” with himself for not being able to shoot the perfect picture. But the self-flagellation was unwarranted. One of his black and whites—Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake—would be acclaimed as a true modern masterpiece, easily the equal of his Monolith, the Face of Half Dome and Clearing Winter Storm. Taken on an 8-by-10 format camera with a telephoto lens at a 23-inch focal length, Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake shows the mountain and a few swiftly moving clouds to a shifting, otherworldly effect. The overall grayness, the slight blurring, and the vast spread of snow melt all seemed heaven-sent. Adams had hit his mark.

Michael never forgot the moment when his father shot that iconic photograph. With their tripod set and doused in citronella against the bugs, they waited for the right moment, sheltered by a few stunted spruces and embraced by that nearly perfect silence peculiar to Alaska. Quiet and untouched, McKinley asserts a rock-hard permanence. Clouds shift rapidly around its summit; looking up at it for too long can induce motion sickness. Michael remembered the moon glow and the palette of colors that swirled at dawn and dusk. From their ridge, they waited patiently for the flashing moment when, as Jack Kerouac would declare, everything becomes understood. All around them rolled the tundra; and over Wonder Lake the ripples reflected and distorted light. It was hard to tell whether the light was falling or rising. “We both knew the moment,” said Michael. “It was really something special. We had been to a lot of national parks, seen a lot of sights, but this was beyond amazing.”

Of course, the act of judging art contains a high degree of personal taste. Nobody has a monopoly on judgment. But it is safe to say that in Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake Adams produced one of the greatest modern landscape photographs. He managed to make North America’s tallest mountain a fitting sequel to the surrounding wilderness. The contrast between peak and lake is fundamental, its tonal effect seeming naturally to subordinate mountain and sky to the lake.

In the 1930s Adams had perfected his “zone system,” a pragmatic method of achieving high vision by “controlling exposure, development, and printing, incisively translating detail scale, texture, and tone into the final image.” This process became his preoccupation. Briefly put, Adams had professionalized the art of capturing the changing nature of light as it sweeps over a landscape. “The zone system is designed to eliminate guesswork,” explains Robert Hirsch in Seizing the Light: A History of Photography, “and give photographers repeatable control over their materials so that the outcome can be predicted (that is, previsualized).”

Years later, Adams revealed that he had debated whether to use a red 25A filter but ended up going with a deep yellow 15, which served to suppress foreground shadows. In total, Adams shot three fine 8-by-10 images of Denali. Half an hour later, at 2 a.m., clouds had enveloped the peak, and the light no longer radiated so expressively off the lake below. Night at last descended on the summit. Adams would bring off other impressive compositions over the coming years—Rock and Surf (1951) and Moon and Half Dome (1960)—but none ever matched the haunting presence of his 1947 masterpiece.