The photograph featured here is one of hundreds taken by Ansel Adams when he worked for the Department of the Interior. Adams (1902–1984) became one of the most celebrated photographers of all time. His images of the American landscape, and especially those of the American West, are familiar to millions. Born and raised in San Francisco, Adams studied music as a youth with the hope of becoming a concert pianist. At age 14, while on a family vacation, he took his first snapshots of Yosemite National Park. From that time on, Adams was captivated by the idea of recording nature on film. While in his twenties, he abandoned his musical ambitions for a career in photography, working as a portrait and commercial photographer. By the 1930s he achieved success for his visionary yet highly detailed photographs of western landscapes, especially those taken in Yosemite National Park. With the arrival of World War II, Adams went to Washington, DC, where he worked as a photonaturalist for the Department of the Interior. Over the next decades, Adams continued to work as a photographer, staging exhibitions and writing several important books on photographic technique. He also became a champion of the conservation movement in the United States, speaking out for environmental concerns and serving on the board of directors of the Sierra Club. Today, Ansel Adams’s photographs remain immensely popular, conveying to millions a vision of an ideal America where nature’s grand scenes and gentle details lived on in undiminished glory.

Teaching Suggestion:

Provide students with a copy of the photograph, and lead a class discussion about it using questions from the photograph analysis worksheet. Share information with students about the establishment of Yellowstone Park (refer students to materials on Our Documents #45, Act Establishing Yellowstone National Park, 1872) and Ansel Adams. Next, divide students into six small groups, and assign each group to conduct research on one of the following topics related to the photograph:

  1. Adams's role as a "photonaturalist" with the Department of Interior
  2. The conservation movement in U.S. history
  3. The role and history of the National Park Service
  4. Other naturalist image makers and their role in U.S. history, e.g., Bierstadt, Cole, Church, O'Keeffe, Miller, and Moran
  5. Photonaturalists of today
  6. Photography as art and politics: Adams and others who help crusade for various causes with artistic images, e.g., Lewis Hine, the Ash Can School, and Jacob Riis

Ask a volunteer from each group to share their findings with the class, and lead a class discussion about the relationships between the topics.