Ansel Adams As Environmentalist  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

Ansel Adams and Russell Varian were hiking buddies.  They both loved nature and mountains, particularly the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.
— Ansel Adams

Both Adams and Varian were life-long members of the Sierra Club.  They were about the same age and traveled many times together to the Sierra Mountains. 

"You know I'm not sure where they met up, but I'm sure it was on a mountain top someplace." said Jack Varian, Russell’s nephew.

Adams, of course, was a famous photographer.  Varian was an inventor who founded one of the earliest high-tech companies in Silicon Valley.

What ultimately brought the two men together was their love of the outdoors.    

When Varian passed away in 1959 Adams decided to do a picture book in his friend’s honor. Adams’ idea was to take photos he knew Varian would enjoy.  And he put together a book using pictures and quotes from Varian.  The limited edition portfolio includes 15 landscape photos and details of the natural world in California and Alaska parks. 

"To him (Varian), nature was a fundamental spiritual reality....his exposure to the subtle beauty of dunes and forests as a youth, and his life-long love affair with the rocks, trees, clouds, lights and storms comprising the vast Divine Performance in which we live, accumulated in him a grandeur of spirit and a magnificence of mind and heart," said Adams.

“What Majestic Word, In Memory of Russell Varian” is a touching acknowledgment to friendship and a passion for nature.  About 260 copies of the picture book were created.  They were sold as a fundraiser for the Sierra Club.  Adams shot the photos and Jack's grandfather John did the text.  Among the pages are Varian’s thoughts and words about nature.

Money from the portfolio helped establish the Castle Rock area, on the summit of the Santa Cruz Mountains as a California state park.  This was a project Russell Varian began before his death in 1959.

Varian died from a heart attack hiking in Alaska in 1959.

Adams was known mostly known for his landscape photography.  Light for him was a metaphor for spiritual vision.  His photography captures that vision.  They’re spectacular and terrifying. 

“Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop,” Adams said.

His majestic photos demonstrate how precious snowcapped mountains, sheer cliffs, and panoramic views truly are.  Adams career spanned more than 60 years and he shot thousands of photos. 

“There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer,” he said.

Adams is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.  Beginning in 1916 he photographed America’s national parks.  And no one person has done more to support the concept of the parks than Adams.  He was the ultimate environmentalist. 

His photos have been exhibited in every major museum in the world.  

On April 4, Swann Auction Galleries, New York, included a selection of Adams’ photos in its 19th & 20th century Photographs & Photobooks auction.  

Ansel Adams

Storm Surf, Timber Cove, California; silver print; “Portfolio 4: What Majestic Word,” signed; dated and titled; printed 1963; 7 ¼ inches by 9 ¼ inches;  $3,600.

Fern Spring, Dusk, Yosemite Valley, California; silver print; signed and dated; printed 1974; 12 ¼ inches by 9 inches;  $4,080.

Lichens and Rock; silver print; from a Polaroid Type 55 negative; signed; hand-stamped and titled; printed between 1962-1963; 17 inches by 18 7/8 inches;  $9,600.

What Majestic Word; In Memory of Russell Varian; silver prints; 15 photos; San Francisco Sierra Club, 1963; signed and titled; each approximately 7 ¼ inches by 7 ¾ inches to 10 inches by 12 ¾ inches;  $54,000.      


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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