226 Ansel Adams Photographs of Great American National Parks Are Now Online

Adams Yellowstone

Like many Amer­i­can sto­ries, the sto­ry of the Nation­al Parks begins with pil­lage, death, deep cul­tur­al mis­un­der­stand­ing, and ven­ture cap­i­tal­ism. Accord­ing to Ken Burns’ film series The Nation­al Parks: America’s Best Idea, we can date the idea back to 1851, with the “dis­cov­ery” of Yosemite by a maraud­ing armed bat­tal­ion who entered the land “search­ing for Indi­ans, intent on dri­ving the natives from their home­lands and onto reser­va­tions.” The Mari­posa Bat­tal­ion, led by Cap­tain James D. Sav­age, set fire to the Indi­ans’ homes and store­hous­es after they had retreat­ed to the moun­tains, “in order to starve them into sub­mis­sion.”

One mem­ber of the bat­tal­ion, a doc­tor named Lafayette Bun­nell, found him­self entranced by the scenery amidst this destruc­tion. “As I looked, a pecu­liar exalt­ed sen­sa­tion seemed to fill my whole being,” he wrote in his lat­er accounts, “and I found myself in tears with emo­tion.” He named the place “Yosemite,” think­ing it was the name of the Indi­an tribe the sol­diers sought to force out or erad­i­cate. The word, it turned out “meant some­thing entire­ly dif­fer­ent,” refer­ring to peo­ple who should be feared: “It means, ‘they are killers.’”

Zion Adams

In 1855, a failed Eng­lish gold prospec­tor turned the place into a tourist attrac­tion, and peo­ple flood­ed West to see it, prompt­ing New York wor­thies like Horace Gree­ley and Fred­er­ick Law Olm­st­ed to lob­by for its fed­er­al pro­tec­tion. In 1864, Abra­ham Lin­coln deed­ed Yosemite Val­ley and the Mari­posa Grove, with its giant sequoias, to the state of Cal­i­for­nia. Ever since then, Nation­al Parks have been threatened—if not by the occa­sion­al polit­i­cal can­di­date and his bil­lion­aire back­ers hop­ing to pri­va­tize the land, then by oil and gas drilling, and by fire, ris­ing seas, or oth­er effects of cli­mate change. Though the U.S. emp­tied many of the parks of their inhab­i­tants, it is iron­i­cal­ly only the actions of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment that pre­vents the process begun by the Mari­posa Bat­tal­ion from reach­ing its con­clu­sion in the total despo­li­a­tion of these land­scapes. It is these land­scapes that have most come to sym­bol­ize the nation­al char­ac­ter, whether as back­ground in Fred­er­ic Rem­ing­ton’s paint­ings of the Indi­an Wars or in the pho­tographs of Ansel Adams, who began and sus­tained his career in Yosemite Val­ley. “Yosemite Nation­al Park,” writes the Nation­al Park Service’s web­site,” was Adams’ chief inspi­ra­tion.”

Grand Canyon Adams

Adams first became inter­est­ed in vis­it­ing the Nation­al Park when he read In the Heart of the Sier­ras by James Hutchings—that failed Eng­lish gold prospec­tor. There­after, Adams pho­tographed Nation­al Parks almost rit­u­al­ly, and in 1941, the Nation­al Park Ser­vice com­mis­sioned Adams to cre­ate a pho­to mur­al for the Depart­ment of the Inte­ri­or Build­ing in DC. The theme, the Nation­al Archives tells us, was to be “nature as exem­pli­fied and pro­tect­ed in the U.S. Nation­al Parks. The project was halt­ed because of World War II and nev­er resumed.” It must have felt like an espe­cial­ly sacred duty for Adams, who trav­eled the coun­try pho­tograph­ing the Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Kings Canyon, Mesa Verde, Rocky Moun­tain, Yel­low­stone, Yosemite, Carls­bad Cav­erns, Glac­i­er, and Zion Nation­al Parks; Death Val­ley, Saguro, and Canyon de Chelly Nation­al Mon­u­ments,” and oth­er loca­tions like the Boul­der (now Hoover) Dam and desert vis­tas in New Mex­i­co.

Mesa Verde Adams

The pho­tographs you see here are among the 226 tak­en by Adams for the project. They are now housed at the Nation­al Archives, and you can freely view them online or order prints at their site. At the top, we see a snow-cov­ered tree from an apple orchard in Half Dome, Yosemite, where Adams had his first pho­to­graph­ic “visu­al­iza­tion” in 1927. Below it, the “Court of the Patri­archs” in Zion Nation­al Park, Utah. Fur­ther down, we have a breath­tak­ing vision of the ser­pen­tine Grand Canyon, and just above, one of the few man­made struc­tures, “Cliff Palace” at Mesa Verde Nation­al Park in Col­orado. And here can you see a pho­to­graph of the Snake Riv­er in Grand Teton Nation­al Park.

adams grand teton

The mur­al project may have been aban­doned, but Adams nev­er stopped pho­tograph­ing the parks, nor advo­cat­ing for their pro­tec­tion and, in fact, the pro­tec­tion of “the entire envi­ron­ment,” as he told a Play­boy inter­view­er in 1983. “Only two and a half per­cent of the land in this coun­try is pro­tect­ed,” said Adams then: “Not only are we being fought in try­ing to extend that two and a half per­cent to include oth­er impor­tant or frag­ile areas but we are hav­ing to fight to pro­tect that small two and a half per­cent. It is hor­ri­fy­ing that we have to fight our own Gov­ern­ment to save our envi­ron­ment.”

You can peruse the col­lec­tion of Ansel Adams’ nation­al park pho­tos here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ansel Adams Reveals His Cre­ative Process in 1958 Doc­u­men­tary

200 Ansel Adams Pho­tographs Expose the Rig­ors of Life in Japan­ese Intern­ment Camps Dur­ing WW II

How to Take Pho­tographs Like Ansel Adams: The Mas­ter Explains The Art of “Visu­al­iza­tion”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Kevin Prichard says:

    It’s nice to see the pho­tos all togeth­er, and it gives us a good oppor­tu­ni­ty to reex­am­ine Ansel Adams’s body of work, under­stand his com­po­si­tion­al style, and see how he influ­enced the work of land­scape pho­tog­ra­phers around the world to this day.

    The qual­i­ty of many of these scans is very poor. It looks like they scanned from prints not neg­a­tives, and fad­ed prints at that. They weren’t always in focus or flat on the scan­ner glass. Such a shame.

  • Mike Hewlett says:


    They may have delib­er­ate­ly used low­er qual­i­ty scans for online view­ing to avoid peo­ple tak­ing high qual­i­ty images for them­selves. After all sell­ing prints is still some­thing they want to do as a result of this online pre­sen­ta­tion.

  • Hector Eduardo Vega Moreno says:

    muy bue­na infor­ma­ción… gra­cias

  • Lois M Winstead says:

    Thank you for shar­ing some his­to­ry and access to beau­ti­ful pho­tographs. Maybe you could for­ward this to our U.S. Con­gress.

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