When the Light, Shadow and Stars Aligned: Standing Where Ansel Adams Stood

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An enigmatic photograph by America’s astir celebrated scenery lensman led to a forensic hunt to place precisely erstwhile and wherever it was taken.

A black-and-white representation  shows a astir   afloat  satellite  hanging implicit    a bladed  set  of brightly lit rocky landscape, which is sandwiched betwixt  the acheronian  entity  supra  and a acheronian  set  of shadowed terrain below.
“High Country Crags and Moon, Sunrise, Kings Canyon National Park, California.”Credit...The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Cantor Arts Center. The Capital Group Foundation Photography Collection astatine Stanford University.

By Kim Beil

Dr. Kim Beil is an creation historiographer who teaches astatine Stanford University. Over the people of 4 days, she hiked 50 miles and climbed 10,000 feet to study this story.

March 13, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET

Ahead of me, an arc of 12,000-foot peaks corralled the apical of a canyon. On my left, the achromatic crags of Glacier Ridge were colored by the mounting sun. Only an hr of daylight remained. I was looking for a stone diagnostic that goes unnamed connected astir maps, but is known by climbers arsenic Horn Peak. It should person been conscionable northbound of Elizabeth Pass successful California’s Sierra Nevada. But with hardly 2 miles until I reached the apical of the trail, it was obscurity to beryllium found.

I had primitively seen Horn Peak successful a lesser-known Ansel Adams photograph called “High Country Crags and Moon, Sunrise, Kings Canyon National Park.” In the black-and-white image, a set of toothy grey stone is drawn done the mediate of a wide achromatic expanse. The moon, conscionable days past full, floats successful the acheronian supra the cliff. The scenery itself seems lunar: nary trees, nary clouds, conscionable emptiness. The foreground is mislaid successful shadow. But it’s the “sunrise” of the rubric that’s hardest to reconcile. I mistake the acheronian entity and the metallic satellite for nighttime each clip I look astatine the picture. Only with conscious effort tin I spot the foreground shadiness arsenic an effect of the rising sun.

These ocular puzzles had drawn maine to the photograph. But it was different enigma wholly that compelled maine to find the country successful the wild. The antagonistic bore lone the vague day of “circa 1935,” but Adams didn’t people the representation I saw until 1979. Would dating the antagonistic much precisely explicate this agelong delay? Or was determination thing astatine the tract successful Kings Canyon that would assistance maine recognize the photographer’s motivations? Hurrying toward Elizabeth Pass astatine sunset successful the mediate of a four-day, 50-mile backpacking trip, I was trying to find out.

When I archetypal saw the photograph, I didn’t admit it arsenic an Adams. Josie R. Johnson, a curatorial chap astatine the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts astatine Stanford University, successful Stanford, Calif., wherever I teach, planned to see it successful an exhibition. She’d chosen the representation for its otherworldly qualities. “It sticks with you,” she said, “for being specified an enigma.”

Although Adams is possibly the astir celebrated of each American scenery photographers and is revered for his enactment successful the nationalist parks, helium was besides good known arsenic a teacher. In workshops, acquisition books and articles, helium emphasized his method for making cleanable exposures, called the Zone System. The practice, which helium formalized astir 1939, allows a lensman to equilibrium the tonal values successful black-and-white images ranging from the deepest shadows to the brightest highlights. Although “High Country Crags and Moon” features a good gradation of grey successful the stone face, the impenetrable shadiness successful the foreground seems to interruption Adams’s ain rules.

Rebecca Senf, the main curator astatine the Center for Creative Photography astatine the University of Arizona, successful Tucson, and the writer of a publication connected Adams’s aboriginal career, suggests that helium yet developed a benignant that was “both wide comprehensible and spectacular.” Initially, she says, Adams was making pictures for chap climbers and hikers: radical who would admit the unusual terrain. Eventually helium became much acrophobic with representing the scenery successful a mode that did not trust connected firsthand experience. These aboriginal pictures brought him fame successful his lifetime, and they stay the ones that are champion known today.


“Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California.”Credit...The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Cantor Arts Center. The Capital Group Foundation Photography Collection astatine Stanford University.

“High Country Crags and Moon” bears immoderate marks of aboriginal Adams, but adjacent arsenic an creation historiographer and avid backpacker, I find the representation hard to understand. Without immoderate item successful the foreground, it’s intolerable to cognize what’s hidden successful that shadow. Is it a wide plain? A heavy chasm? Scale is besides hard to judge. The camera is pointed up astatine the cliffs, but it’s hard to get a consciousness of their comparative size and region from the photographer.

The rubric is lone a small little vague than the representation itself. Kings Canyon National Park is an country of much than 460,000 acres. It is managed jointly with Sequoia National Park by the National Park Service. Together the 2 parks screen much than 1,300 quadrate miles. The terrain includes the deepest canyon successful the country, the largest trees successful the world and Mount Whitney, the highest highest successful the contiguous United States. Within this portion of superlatives, wherever precisely was the representation made?

I posted inquiries connected online connection boards for Sierra adventurers, asking for assistance successful identifying the location. Soon I recovered Daniel Jeffcoach, a biology teacher astatine Fresno City College, successful Fresno, Calif., and a dedicated hiker, climber and backcountry skier. I sent him a nexus to the photograph, and helium replied with pictures of a person climbing the rocky outcropping. Mr. Jeffcoach pointed maine to the nearest named diagnostic connected Google maps: Elizabeth Pass. Nearby was Horn Col, a dip successful the ridgeline that serves arsenic the bound betwixt Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. It was thoroughly disorienting to spot the determination successful color. Adams’s achromatic entity was agleam blue, acceptable disconnected by chalk-white cliffs.

Now I knew astir wherever the representation was made. But I inactive needed to fig retired precisely when. Museum documentation astatine Stanford and successful the Ansel Adams Archive, which is held astatine the Center for Creative Photography, some dated the antagonistic to circa 1935. There was nary further information.

Adams, calved successful 1902, had been photographing successful the mountains since helium was a teenager. Soon helium became progressive with the Sierra Club, which was founded successful 1892 and whose archetypal president was the naturalist John Muir. The club’s archetypal ngo connection outlined its purpose: “to explore, bask and render accessible the upland regions of the Pacific Coast.” Their yearly trip, called the “Outing” oregon the “High Trip,” combined each 3 aims.

In Adams’s time, the trips took much than 200 members connected astir monthlong journeys done the mountains. Dozens of horses and mules carried gear. Hikers were served cafeteria-style meals prepared by a cook. They performed archetypal plays and euphony with bonfire footlights.

Adams attended his archetypal full-length Sierra Club Outing successful 1927. He was invited backmost the adjacent twelvemonth to service arsenic the trip’s authoritative photographer.

I scoured the Club’s publications and archives for photographs of trips they took implicit Elizabeth Pass successful the 1920s and 1930s. Maybe, I thought, this representation was made earlier than 1935, earlier he’d established the vulnerability guidelines that would specify his career. As Dr. Senf told me, “Having a day attached to that photograph makes it a much utile information point.” Placing it wrong Adams’s creator chronology mightiness assistance america recognize it successful a larger context. I flipped done leafage aft leafage of peaks and valleys successful the Club’s albums without uncovering thing similar.

Several different Adams photographs person been dated by astronomers utilizing the moon, including the celebrated “Moonrise Over Hernandez, New Mexico.” When I emailed 1 of these researchers, helium replied astir immediately. Donald Olson is simply a self-described “celestial sleuth” and a prof emeritus of physics and astronomy astatine Texas State University successful San Marcos. He has utilized calculations of the sun, moon, stars and planets to accurately day and find artworks, including Impressionist paintings, arsenic good arsenic humanities events.


“Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.”Credit...The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Cantor Arts Center. The Capital Group Foundation Photography Collection astatine Stanford University.

Dr. Olson rapidly assembled a squad of experts to enactment connected the Adams photographic research. The radical included Roger Sinnott and Dennis di Cicco, editors astatine Sky & Telescope magazine, and Ava Pope, who studied physics astatine Texas State University with Dr. Olson. They consulted Mary Street Alinder and John Sexton, onetime assistants to Adams, for assistance determining the antagonistic size and different important details astir its printing. Dr. Olson told maine that to uncover the day of “High Country Crags and Moon,” they would request GPS coordinates and timed prima tract photographs made connected site. These had to beryllium high-resolution images, made utilizing a tripod to dependable the camera during the agelong exposure, truthful that the faint airy of stars would registry clearly.

The tilt of the satellite helped the squad find that the archetypal photograph was astir apt taken during precocious July, August oregon September. To recreate that photograph, I would person to sojourn during 1 of these months. The photographs had to amusement stars successful conjunction with the cliffs, truthful I would request to hold until moonrise illuminated the rocks. I made immoderate signifier pictures of the satellite from my backyard and sheepishly sent them to the squad for advice. By precocious summertime I was arsenic acceptable arsenic I could be.

The astir nonstop way to Horn Peak follows a bid of creeks done rolling wood to the Roaring River Ranger Station, a small much than 13 miles from the trailhead. When my husband, Pat Turner, and I acceptable retired connected Sept. 13, the entity was grey and the aerial smelled of rain. Thunderstorms had already delayed our start. The gangly fir trees lining the way were inactive bundled successful fog. We needed wide skies to marque the prima tract photographs, and I needed to debar camping supra the histrion enactment successful a lightning storm. We had conscionable six much nights to drawback the waning gibbous moon.

When we reached the Roaring River presumption that evening, Laura Pilewski, a ranger, warned america astir 2 brazen bears that had been making nightly rounds. One of them had recovered an unattended nutrient sack a period earlier and remained convinced that determination would beryllium a 2nd helping. Ms. Pilewski headed backmost to her compartment and astir instantly we heard her making sound to scare disconnected the bear, which had returned yet again. I vetoed our meal program for blistery couscous topped with tuna, and alternatively we ate soggy sandwiches. They were a acold outcry from the stews served connected Sierra Club trips successful Adams’s time.

At acheronian we emptied our pockets and backpacks of thing that smelled similar food, stuffed it each backmost into our bear-resistant canister, stowed it acold from the structure and zipped ourselves into our sleeping bags for the night, sound makers adjacent astatine hand.

The adjacent greeting dawned clear, acold and quiet. The carnivore had not returned. Over mugs of steaming java we watched the satellite weave done the treetops.

We repacked our cogwheel and followed ample carnivore tracks up the way into Deadman Canyon, named for Alfred Moniere, a sheepherder whose long-ago burial is marked by a carved woody sign. We emerged into aggravated prima astatine astir 8,500 feet. A greenish meadow lined the vale up of us, interrupted midway by a basal of trees. Even precocious successful the season, aft a drought-stricken summer, icy h2o was moving down the canyon toward Roaring River. I could representation Moniere’s sheep browsing the expanse.

The sun, astatine the perfect level horizon, was scheduled to acceptable conscionable aft 7 p.m. Here successful the precocious mountains, we would suffer show of it astatine slightest an hr earlier. We needed to find the tripod determination successful the daylight, truthful that we could lucifer the stone features successful Adams’s representation earlier mounting up the nighttime shots.

We walked arsenic acold arsenic we could to find what appeared to beryllium the past protected campsite, tucked into immoderate cottonwoods successful a sandy wash. Pat laid retired our tent, and I retrieved a container of instant potatoes for meal from the carnivore canister. We would hike backmost present aft making the pictures, alternatively than camping farther up the exposed canyon.


“Frozen Lake and Cliffs, the Sierra Nevada, Sequoia National Park, California.”Credit...The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Cantor Arts Center. The Capital Group Foundation Photography Collection astatine Stanford University.

I returned to the way with a lighter load connected my backmost and the panic of sunset successful my legs. Cold, bluish shadiness was steadily rolling up the way down us. I’d been studying the presumption successful Adams’s photograph for months present and expected Horn Peak to beryllium disposable for miles. Yet thing looked familiar. The way twisted upward done bedewed rocks and sodden grasses. I tried to memorize the slick spots, since we’d beryllium retracing our steps successful the dark.

As we climbed, a immense partition came into presumption to the west. Several 100 much steps took america up different acceptable of switchbacks and onto a sloping rocky shelf. The Horn broke the skyline conscionable northbound of the mounting sun. I dropped my backpack and headed retired farther onto the rock, pursuing the remnants of an aged trail. Pat called maine back. Right astatine the intersection, wherever way crews had placed knee-high boulders to funnel hikers to the modern route, the presumption astir matched Adams’s photograph. The prima sank down the ridge, and we inched the tripod astir until each the striations connected the stone lined up with Adams’s picture. We’d recovered it. Now we conscionable had to hold for the moon.

We heated h2o and stirred it into the potatoes, warming our hands arsenic we took turns holding the bag. The somesthesia was dropping quickly, but determination was inactive sunlight packed successful the granite. The achromatic crags lit up with pinkish alpenglow. A hawk circled precocious above, pointing to the archetypal prima that had blinked connected successful the twilight.

We inactive had astatine slightest 3 hours until moonrise erstwhile clouds began spilling into the valley. They swirled lightly astir the peaks astatine first, similar beverage successful tea, until we reached a cold, bedewed equilibrium. We shrank into our sleeping bags, present soaked with dew. I struggled to propulsion my gloves connected implicit damp, freezing fingers. There was a soundless flash successful the clouds acold down the valley, but I felt a roar similar thunder successful my heartbeat. I suggested we battalion it in.

But neither of america moved. We would hold a fewer much minutes. And past a fewer more. There was nary much lightning. Within an hour, the clouds dissipated and a powdered-sugar dusting of airy appeared successful the entity overhead. Everything was brighter and bigger. The stars pinned the entity back. Shooting stars flared arsenic they deed the atmosphere.

Around 10 p.m., my NightSky app revealed that the satellite had risen, acold down successful the valley. I was trying to disregard the outline of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, drawn connected the screen, erstwhile Pat said, “It’s gone. The Horn’s gone.” I groaned, reasoning helium was kidding. But erstwhile I turned to look, determination was nothing. The ridgeline crossed from america was a level achromatic canvas. For astir fractional an hr I’d been nervously tracking what looked similar bladed achromatic clouds clinging to the cliff. I had tried to enactment optimistic, thankful that astatine slightest we could inactive spot the Horn. Now it, too, had disappeared.

Pat stood up for a amended view, inactive wrapped successful his sleeping bag. “They’re not clouds!” helium said. The airy set I’d been watching was really the achromatic cliff face, glowing arsenic it was dilatory illuminated by the rising moon. The Horn reappeared arsenic the satellite tracked higher successful the sky.

I made respective photographs, stunned by the clarity of the presumption and the densely packed stars. We present had fractional the pictures we needed.


Two of Dr. Beil’s photographs, taken during the time and aft nightfall.

We headed backmost down the slippery switchbacks conscionable earlier midnight. I hugged the camera adjacent successful my sleeping bag, trying to support it from the damp nighttime air.

There was frost connected the structure erstwhile we awoke astatine 5 a.m. As we climbed backmost up to the tripod location, the scenery felt recently familiar. All the uncertainty of the acheronian dissolved, similar shadows successful a nightmare.

Now I saw the presumption arsenic Adams had seen it. Although I couldn’t yet cognize for sure, I suspected helium had been heading up to Elizabeth Pass erstwhile helium was amazed by the abrupt presumption of Horn Peak cutting into the bluish sky. As the prima roseate down me, a achromatic curtain of shadiness slid down the cliff. The wonderment I felt astatine discovering the highest astatine sunset, hidden astatine the apical of the canyon aft galore miles of invisibility, indispensable person been punctuated for Adams by the cleanable placement of the moon.

Back astatine home, I sent the photographs to Dr. Olson, who acceptable to work.

“Knowing the day and clip of the modern star-field photograph,” helium explained successful an email, “we identified the constellations and calculated the altitudes (height supra the horizon) and azimuths (compass directions) of galore disposable stars.”

Once the squad identified the portion of the entity included successful the Adams photograph, they utilized “computer planetarium programs to hunt the 1920s and 1930s for dates and times erstwhile a waning gibbous moon, with illuminated fraction adjacent 85 percent, passed adjacent this presumption successful the sky,” Dr. Olson wrote. The hunt had primitively turned up 4 imaginable dates. Using documentary grounds successful the Ansel Adams Archive and lunar libration, a improvement that “affects the visibility of lunar aboveground features,” according to Dr. Olson, they narrowed down the possibilities. They concluded that Adams had made “High Country Crags and Moon, Sunrise, Kings Canyon” astatine 6:47 a.m. connected Aug. 6, 1936.

On that date, the Sierra Club’s High Trip was nearing its end. Louise Hewlett, the travel recorder that year, wrote, “Leaving Elizabeth Pass was similar closing the doorway upon the High Country — for different year, astatine slightest from that infinitesimal we moved steadily on, implicit improved trails, toward our starting constituent — toward automobiles, roads, houses.” Adams, too, was moving steadily onward with the Sierra Club toward home, but besides toward caller heights successful his career.


“The Black Giant, adjacent Muir Pass, Kings Canyon National Park, California.”Credit...The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Cantor Arts Center. A acquisition from the Alinder collection.

1936 was a pivotal twelvemonth for Adams. In January he’d traveled eastbound to lobby members of Congress successful enactment of Kings Canyon’s designation arsenic a nationalist park. From Washington, helium headed to New York, wherever helium met the creator Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, a lensman who besides ran the much-admired assemblage An American Place.

On that visit, Stieglitz offered Adams an accumulation for precocious October 1936. It was the highest stamp of support for an American photographer. It’s not hard to ideate that the upcoming accumulation was connected Adams’s caput arsenic helium was making photographs that August successful Kings Canyon.

Even aft the astronomers’ calculations revealed the day of the negative, I was near with 1 further mystery. Why had Adams not printed it until the precocious 1970s? I suspected that helium whitethorn person dismissed the antagonistic earlier successful his vocation due to the fact that it didn’t render the country “comprehensible,” arsenic Dr. Senf, the curator, puts it. After seeing the tract myself, I present cognize however tremendously ample Horn Peak appears successful person. Perhaps Adams initially felt that the representation didn’t lucifer his acquisition of the location?

Ms. Alinder, Adams’s erstwhile main assistant, estimates that of the 40,000 negatives the lensman stored successful a vault astatine his home, he’d lone made prints of astir 2,000. One of the large projects during Adams’s last years was making impervious prints of each those negatives. Ms. Alinder believes it was during this process that Adams rediscovered “High Country Crags and Moon.” A people of it was included archetypal successful a large solo accumulation astatine the Museum of Modern Art, called “Ansel Adams and the West,” successful 1979. Then the representation reappeared successful a portfolio of 75 prints, called the Museum Set, which Adams considered the definitive works of his career. The photograph I’d seen was successful 1 of these portfolios, printed conscionable 5 years earlier Adams died successful 1984.

Forty-three years passed betwixt Adams’s early-morning photograph of Horn Peak and the twelvemonth it was printed for the Museum Set. Something successful that clip had shifted the mode helium saw this picture. The Sierra Nevada is millions of years old. Glacier Ridge, other Horn Peak, is not conscionable a spot sanction connected a map; it besides describes a geological root story. The heavy canyons were scraped distant during agelong periods of glaciation. When I was determination successful September, lone a trickle of h2o drained done the grassy crevices. But fallen boulders scattered connected the vale level notate a humanities soundtrack of crystal and h2o and wind.


“Lake adjacent Muir Pass, Kings Canyon National Park, California.”Credit...The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Cantor Arts Center. A acquisition from the Alinder collection.

Against this symphony of geologic time, the span of 43 years is simply a specified grace note. But for Adams, it was much than fractional his life. His photographs would beryllium seen not lone astatine Stieglitz’s gallery, arsenic the young creator whitethorn person been imagining portion helium climbed toward Elizabeth Pass successful August 1936, but they would travel to beryllium seen astir the world. The publication Adams gave to the caput of the interior connected his lobbying travel would extremity up successful the hands of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Kings Canyon would beryllium established arsenic a nationalist parkland successful 1940. When the creation marketplace began taking a superior involvement successful photography successful the 1970s, the worth of Adams’s photographs would summation exponentially. He would judge honorary degrees and beryllium elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A wilderness country successful the High Sierra would beryllium named for him.

As I surveyed the acheronian canyon past September, clip seemed impossibly long. When the clouds cleared, the rocks and the satellite presented the aforesaid faces to maine that Adams had seen immoderate 86 years earlier. Then the dawn broke and everything seemed changed. Adams saw thousands of these cycles successful his lifetime. Ms. Alinder recalls that, adjacent the extremity of his life, helium and his wife, Virginia, hosted a regular blessed hr astatine their location successful Carmel, Calif. Visitors, acolytes, friends and assistants gathered astatine windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean to instrumentality successful the presumption of the mounting sun. Together they watched for the greenish flash, that unusual optical improvement that occurs erstwhile the prima slips beneath the skyline and its airy is concisely refracted by the atmosphere.

Since I began this project, the satellite has seemed similar a peculiar emissary. Each clip I spot it, whether astatine nighttime oregon lingering successful the wan bluish morning, I consciousness a blaze of recognition. It’s astir the aforesaid time aft day, but it’s besides ever different. It doesn’t instrumentality alteration connected a geological standard to look backmost connected beingness with a caller perspective. It takes lone a moment, similar a greenish flash, to spot thing made agelong agone with wholly caller eyes.

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