Go to many national parks in the US, stunning natural reserves where wildlife is left relatively to itself, and where stunning scenery lies around almost every corner and twist, and you’ll be likely to find some similar things.
There are old-school wooden lodges, camping grounds and trails to follow, and, oftentimes, whether posted up on message boards by trails, framed in lodge dining rooms or on postcards in the visitor centre’s shop, you’re likely to see photos by Ansel Adams. The legendary photographer travelled to many parks, taking photographs that are famous for their scale and beauty.
The US National Archives house many of his photographs, from a variety of national parks, and we’ve gathered some stunning highlights right here for your viewing pleasure.
This shot of Acoma Pueblo, in New Mexico, nearly radiates heat, the white-out blanch of the low buildings reflecting the sun’s glare. That pool of still water in the foreground creates a mirror for the world which palely shows the building again, and we love the light palette of the photo overall.
Going to church
From another angle, this structure in Acoma Pueblo makes the settlement look more impressive and structured, with that church in the back left of the frame actually looking borderline grand, with its two towers, even despite a lack of ornamentation.
From another angle, though, you can see the dilapidation striking in the background, with mortar falling away to show crumbling bricks below. It’s a reminder of how structures from the West weren’t necessarily built to last into the mid-20th Century.
Damn, that’s big
Later in his career, in 1941, Adams took a set of pictures of the Boulder Dam, otherwise known as the Hoover Dam, a huge structure on the Colorado River, and we think they make interesting viewing for how Adams applies a landscape photographer’s eye to a huge manmade construction like this.
Adams might be associated with landscape and natural photography, but he was living through a time of rapid technological change and the spread of industrial processes, and this photo of a power unit at the Hoover Dam shows he didn’t just ignore this – it’s a beguiling lattice of wires and coils.
A new landscape
Meanwhile, power lines were spreading over the landscapes he would have photographed, as so many hikers know nowadays. Still, this photograph shows that with his expertise and camera skills he could perfectly expose a photo to make the power lines an equal and interesting part of the composition.
A sliding scale
This portrait shot of the dam gives a great sense for how huge it was (and remains) – standing on top of it can be a vertigo-inducing experience even in modern times, so must have been even more impactful back in the 40s when this shot was taken.
Here, again, Adams shows his eye by using the power line in the foreground to draw your eye back to the dam and then beyond it, to the rolling mountains and hills on the horizon, each fainter than the last as you head into the distance.
This image is textbook Adams, its dark, moody exposure creating a stunning tableau and the banded rock of this Arizona canyon lit up to differing degrees by the sun peeking through clouds. It’s a superb piece that’s up there with his most famous images in terms of quality.
Death Valley national park is one of those locations that is clearly named to dissuade people from visiting, but visit we do nonetheless, and its apparently arid climes actually hide some crazy beauty. We’re not sure what the blurred light elements are in the bottom of this shot, but they lend the photo an ethereal, magical feel.
Forest fires can be terrifying, but they’re also a natural part of regeneration (to a certain extent). This is the aftermath of such a fire in Glacier National Park, Montana, and shot in portrait orientation Adams gives it a massive sense of scale. Just try counting how many burnt trees are in this one shot.
This shot shows how Adams had a true eye for the sky, able to see clouds forming and flowing and capture them at just the right moment. This pair of mountains has a cloud passing through them that looks straight out of Lord of the Rings.
There’s nothing like a placid lake to make for a calming picture, and this photograph is a beautiful example. You can almost hear the natural silence that surrounds Adams as he takes this shot, with the many different hills and mountains all sloping down to the one lake.
This looks like a still from an animated movie or a painting, so perfect is the framing and so varied are the profiles of the mountains on show, while that single tree’s silhouette at the bottom provides a lovely touch, and the cloud in the middle is just how you’d imagine one in your head.
The sky’s the limit
Again, here Adams shows his unique talent by pretty much making the sky the real star of the show – the limitless variation of the cloud cover, their colour and depth all making for an amazing tableau. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have an amazing mountain below it all.
Here we get a great three-piece image in vertical, with the lake in the foreground rising up to a sudden, barren mountain, which in turn points up into the sky, beckoning the viewer that way. You can tell that the sun is once again peeking through on the scene, too, so beautiful is the light.
Adams might have been often preoccupied with the huge end of the scale, but he clearly also had an eye for detail, and you can see why this patch of lichen took his fancy, spreading out on a sheer rock face. Its texture is just as compelling and unique as the clouds photographed elsewhere.
Have you ever seen a more perfect leaf than this one? It’s another great showcase of Adams’ patience and eye, finding a pristine leaf to shoot in amongst the riot of options that any forest or undergrowth offers.
A lovely fern
Another textbook example of a plant looking like how you’d imagine it in your head, this five-point fern is exposed beautifully, with a little more light than Adams sometimes used, to make for a dazzling image.
Grand is the word
If you’re talking about depth, though, the layers and layers of rock faces and cliffs in this shot are jaw-dropping. It’s from Grand Canyon National Park, an area that people might not realise covers much more than just the Grand Canyon itself, allowing for amazing vistas like this one.