Ansel Adams & the Wilderness Act at 50


In 1916, a 14-year-old Ansel Adams convinced his family to take him to Yosemite National Park after he’d read about the Sierra Nevadas in a book. Given his first camera and freedom to roam, the fledgling photographer was so enchanted by the magnificent cliffs and waterfalls of the park that he would return there again and again throughout his long life. Nearly a century later, Adams’ photos remain some of the most iconic symbols of American wilderness ever produced.

Adams’ photos inspired lawmakers and regular citizens alike to recognize a transcendent connection to wild places that went beyond description. As biographer William Turbridge wrote: “When people thought about the national parks or nature of the environment itself, they often envisioned them in terms of an Ansel Adams photograph.” His images and advocacy with organizations like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society contributed to the passage of some of our cherished conservation legislation.

One of those laws, the Wilderness Act, permanently protects many of the country’s most important natural areas from human development. The Act, signed into law in 1964, marked a turning point in the growth of the environmental community. Like his fellow hiking enthusiasts of the early Sierra Club, Ansel Adams found himself at the forefront of a movement by simple virtue of his passion for the places he loved.

On the cusp of the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the spirit of Ansel Adams lives on; Not only in his photos or the Wilderness Area named in his honor, but in those rare moments when we lose ourselves in our surroundings, as Adams did when climbing Mt. Clark in Yosemite:

“I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching push up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light ….I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks. There are no words to convey the moods of those moments.”

During the last year of his life, Adams made a gift to The Wilderness Society (an organization he supported for over four decades) of 75 of his original prints, which are on permanent display at their Washington, D.C. headquarters. One of the photos in the collection Snake River, Grand Teton Park (above) was chosen to send to space on the Golden Record with the Voyager 1 and 2 probes in 1977 as a representation of life on earth.

Why not celebrate Adams and the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act in 2014 by visiting one of the many protected wild areas in your region? You don’t have to hike all the way to Yosemite to experience what Adams did on Mt. Clark: there are nearly 800 Wilderness Areas in the US waiting for your visit, and your support. Find out how people and parks in your area are honoring 50 years of wilderness protection by visiting:



Learn more:

What is a Wilderness Area?, The Wild Foundation

The Role of the Artist in the Environmental Movement, The Ansel Adams Gallery

History: Ansel Adams, The Sierra Club

Why Wilderness?, The Wilderness Society


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