Early photos pivotal in Yosemite’s preservation as national park

06/17/2014 7:44 PM

06/17/2014 8:07 PM

In all likelihood, James Hutchings never anticipated the revolution he set in motion.

Back in the mid-1850s, the pioneer publisher had explored a remote Sierra Nevada wonderland known as Yosemite, and he extolled its scenery. But readers regarded the illustrations of towering cliffs and thundering waterfalls as exaggerations.

So Hutchings brought Sacramento photographer Charles Weed to Yosemite in 1859 to validate that grand scene. Today, as Yosemite National Park recognizes the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant, historians cite photography as the spark plug for the park preservation movement that followed.

The click of Weed’s camera set off a photographic revolution that forever changed the ways people engage landscape photography – even though Weed’s clunky camera did not even have a shutter, as such.

As Yosemite’s grandeur became known, an army of artists and authors soon followed Hutchings, praising Yosemite’s scenery in newspapers and other media of the time. John Muir came along, adding his prose.

While the names of many early photographers have faded, several have gained a Yosemite identity, including Carleton Watkins, George Fiske, Julius Boysen, Eadweard Muybridge, A.C. Pillsbury, Joseph N. LeConte and Ralph Anderson.

The early Yosemite photographers were a heroic bunch of entrepreneurs, hefting their huge cameras, heavy tripods, glass plates and even their portable darkrooms over mountains and meadows. Watkins, for instance, was known to use a wheelbarrow to move his equipment around Yosemite.

In the 1920s, a young Ansel Adams began to emerge as the premier landscape photographer in the nation, and the photographic crusader for national parks and wilderness areas.

His photographs moved both Yosemite and landscape photography forward. Among Adams’ favorite shots were “Moon and Half Dome” in 1960 and “El Capitan, Winter, Sunrise” in 1968.

He was followed by such photographers as Ted Orland, Vern Clevenger, Galen Rowell and Keith Walklet.

Today, many thousands of visitors carry a digital camera or smartphone. Many hope that they might capture that ultimate image of nature’s sanctum sanatorium, giving rise to the popular metaphor, “Ansel Adams wannabe.”

Fresno resident Michael Adams, Ansel Adams’ son, says photography played a leading role in the park protection movement.

“Photography made people aware of what was there and prompted President Lincoln to sign the Yosemite Grant 150 years ago,” Adams said.

Retired park historian Jim Snyder of Davis agreed:

“In the beginning, there were only words to describe Yosemite. Most people didn’t believe the words. So in 1855 Hutchings went to see Yosemite Valley for himself and to have an artist record it. Thomas Ayres made sketches from which Hutchings published prints in his new Hutchings California Magazine to promote California as well as Yosemite Valley. But sketches could be exaggerated.”

Years later, Stephen Mather, who became the first director of the National Park Service, relied on photographs to educate the public, using Yosemite as his showcase park.

The arrival of photographic postcards and the roll film camera was a game-changer. . The popular box camera sounded the death knell for large cameras and their fragile glass plates. The postcards and snapshots of the park went global. By the 1920s, most of America had seen photographic proof of Yosemite’s beauty.

Tammy Lau of the Henry Madden Library at California State University, Fresno, and co-author of “Yosemite National Park in Vintage Postcards,” said the postcard and its precursor, stereographs, came before travel was common.

“Most people had no way of seeing places like Yosemite in person. They had to content themselves with being armchair travelers living vicariously through the descriptions and photographs of those who had seen it,” she said.

Today, the postcard is history. Glass plates are gone. The “Kodak moment” has morphed into a flood of digital images – and the park’s appeal only grows.

Photography has become the communication art of the new century, and for many, a reason to visit Yosemite. A stop at Inspiration Point only confirms the photographic revolution. Smartphones, digital cameras, camcorders: Photography in all its digital formats continues to lure camera-carrying visitors to the heart of the Sierra, or what some regard as nature’s Sistine Chapel.

The contributions of the pioneer photographers have not been forgotten. Mount Ansel Adams and Mount Watkins have become Yosemite place names. “Little Joe” LeConte and his family have several named sites.

Mount Hutchings is in nearby Kings Canyon National Park, an oblique reference to Hutchings. He is known in that neck of the Sierra for his epic 1875 photographic expedition to Fisherman’s Peak, one of the early and rival names for Mount Whitney.

But 16 years earlier – when publisher Hutchings brought photographer Weed to Yosemite Valley – he opened the door for national parks. He would offer the world more than words to describe a place that might otherwise be too incredible to believe.

“Not only were (Weed’s) photos clearly accurate, but they also brought many other photographers and tourists to the valley,” said historian Snyder. “Carleton Watkins’ mammoth prints played a role in Congress’ setting aside Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove in 1864.”

The American model for preserving its natural and cultural areas was born. The world has followed. Now, more than 100 nations have established their own national parks or heritage sites.

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