Picturing Alaska


At his retrospective at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art in June 1949, the Alaskan photographs aroused much excitement, especially Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake. Everyone seemed to agree that the McKinley shots displayed a rare originality: minimalism meshing with romanticism among the forlorn Alaska Range. Like Muir before him, Adams employed his photographs to encourage tourists to visit Alaska with their own cameras in hand. He wanted everyone to experience the national parks. As a newly hired consultant for Polaroid, Adams urged amateurs, the core of the conservation movement, to attempt to capture Mount McKinley and Glacier Bay for themselves. The rewards of Alaska, he would tell students at his Yosemite workshops, were life-changing. As the new oracle of the Sierra Club and a true disciple of Muir, he knew that only seeing Alaska could lead to saving the last frontier. Elaborating on Horace Greeley’s “Go West, young man,” he urged the postwar generation to “Go to Alaska, folks, and bring a camera.” Influenced by Adams, American families started spending summer vacations in such national parks as Mount McKinley and Glacier Bay.

Adams had opened up interior Alaska to tourists as never before; the money was in nature photography and recreation, not the extraction industries. A new postwar generation was seeking to get away from the suburban doldrums and to rediscover the American wilderness. “You must be able to touch the living rock, drink the pure water, scan the great vistas, sleep under the stars, and awaken to the cool dawn wind,” wrote this pioneer. “Such experiences are the heritage of all people.”

Adapted by the author from The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879–1960, to be published by HarperCollins © 2011.