"Lake and Cliffs, Sierra Nevada," she writes, "records a remoteness and implacability so bleak, hard, and cold that they would provoke terror were they not so admirably encompassed by a rectangular frame."
The remoteness that made Goldberg shudder is just half a day's hike from the roadhead, on the east side of the mountain range where I happily spent all my childhood summers. What Goldberg imagines as implacability, John Muir knew as "gentle wilderness." A coldness does emanate from Adams's Lake and Cliffs, Sierra Nevada, but it is an invigorating coldness. What provokes terror in me is a sensibility that could be terrorized by a photograph of ice in a lake. Truly horrific is the prospect of new generations of Americans so urbanized, so estranged from the American earth, that they are frightened by the photography of Ansel Adams.
Goldberg proposes that Adams, for all his good intentions, was an enemy of nature. "In a paradox inherent to photography, Adams himself surely contributed to the problem," she writes. Inspired by his images, "we loaded our cars and set out for the unspoiled wilderness, only to find we had spoiled it," she says. "You might say that Adams was simply too good. He touched both an aesthetic and an emotional chord, and drew people to his sources. He loved the wilderness both wisely and well, yet for all that, he may have loved the land nearly to death."
This is nonsense. What despoils wilderness, as any student of that despoliation knows, is not backpackers, campers, and fishermen but miners, logging companies, oil drillers, and the like. Wilderness is spoiled not by love but by greed. The only thing that has ever saved wilderness, a single acre of it, is a constituency—people who have come, who have seen, who care about wildness, fight for it, vote for it. Ansel Adams was a pioneer in building that constituency. He believed that art could influence the world, and from early in his career he volunteered his photographs in the cause of conservation. If Adams was responsible for a braided trail or two across an alpine meadow, and for a few charred fire-pit stones, those infractions were vastly offset by the good his photographs did—the conservation campaigns they buttressed, the public enlightenment they brought.
"In the 1960s, art lost faith in beauty too, preferring Campbell's soup cans and rows of bricks to sunsets," Goldberg writes. "At the same time, people were becoming aware that the land Adams found so achingly beautiful scarcely existed outside his photographs any longer." She repeats this notion later on: "In fact, a good part of the wilderness that is left exists mainly in Ansel Adams's photographs, which is what most people see anyway—landscapes not of earth but of emulsion."
From where I sat, the Vanity Fair article thrown down in irritation, I could look along Piute Canyon to the timberline forest where my father, descending from a climb in 1933, first met Ansel Adams. White-bark pines and other high-altitude conifers grow excruciatingly slowly. The forest below me was scarcely taller than it had been when the two men crossed paths seventy years before. What had passed since then in the High Sierra was not historical but geological time—which is to say that time had hardly passed at all. A few rockfalls had doubtless made slight alterations in the peaks around—Bear Creek Spire, Mount Julius Caesar, the Seven Gables—but I doubt that Adams would have noticed any difference. Goethe Glacier had perhaps shrunk infinitesimally. Desolation Lake was slightly more or slightly less desolate. But the John Muir Wilderness had not passed into some oblivion, as Vicki Goldberg seems to imagine.
From the archives:"Moonrise"
"At the Center for Creative Photography, in Tucson, Arizona, my husband, Joe, and I are looking at prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,
by Ansel Adams." A mother writes about her teenage son, afflicted with muscular dystrophy, and the life he leads, and the one he can look forward to. By Penny Wolfson
"You must be Ansel Adams," my father suggested. Adams agreed. Tripod over his shoulder, he complained about the early-morning cumulus clouds, too fuzzy to photograph. Clouds—wisps of fog scudding over San Francisco—were Adams's first memory, and clouds would remain a favorite subject for the rest of his life. The mountain thunderheads he loved, and the lens clouds, and the afternoon cumuli, still form over the Sierra. The scene in Half Dome, Winter, Yosemite looks exactly as it did. So do those in The Tetons, Thunderstorm and Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone National Park. Recalling Adams's work, I am hard put to think of a famous image that is not still there in actuality. A bridge now crosses the Golden Gate, which was an open strait when Adams first photographed it. A road scar now crosses the glacier-polished granite captured in his Tenaya Lake, Yosemite. (Together he and my father fought hard but unsuccessfully to stop that desecration.) The tiny village in Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 has no doubt changed since his famous photograph of the place. But for the most part Adams's inspiration is all still there.