Fire on the Mountain—Ansel Adams and Edward Weston in Yosemite in the late 1930s

Story by Christa Fraser
Photo of Yosmite in Winter

End of Winter. Photo by Seema Weatherwax

In the summer of 1937, Ansel Adam’s Yosemite Valley darkroom caught fire. Hundreds of his negatives burned without ever having been printed. Adams put out the fire with the help of fellow photo luminary Edward Weston and Weston’s future wife, writer Charis Wilson.

While the two men extinguished that blaze, their collaboration and travels together through the California wilderness in the next few years would spark other flames.

Their images of the monoliths of Yosemite Valley, the pristine High Sierra and the dramatic cliff lines of Big Sur have become synonymous with the rugged beauty of the American West. They have also, as a result, inspired countless amateur photographers and helped to argue for the sacredness of wilderness.

Seema Weatherwax, who had a five year relationship with Weston’s son Chan, became Adam’s darkroom assistant in 1938 because Ansel was very busy in the field. Now 100 years old and living in Santa Cruz, she possesses a sharp ability for recall of events that occurred nearly 70 years ago. “When Edward and Ansel were there they were it. These photographers spoke and we listened,” she says.

Two things happened in the late 1930s that secured their roles as the authentic eyes of the West. The first was that Adams’ prints were used to illustrate The Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail for the Sierra Club, of which he was a longtime member. The second was that Weston won the inaugural Guggenheim Fellowship, which enabled him to take two years to focus his lens and his artistic purpose while exploring California. Together with other photographers like Weatherwax and Imogen Cunningham, they spent the next several years roadtripping and trekking to capture the glory of the landscape. By 1940, they were teaching novice photographers how to do the same.

Cars and Cameras – left to right: Seema Weatherwax,

Ansel Adams, Charis Wilson, and Edward Weston.

Photo courtesy of Seema Weatherwax. Photographer unknown

Looking Up and Up and Up
When told that his landscape photos lacked interest because they lacked people, Adams would famously counter that there are actually two people in every one of his photos—the photographer and the viewer. A masterful landscape photographer links the two sets of eyes, bringing the viewer into the landscape as the photographer sees it. When Adam’s prints were seen in the Sierra Club book, the remote wilderness and glacial-carved peaks of the Sierra gained appreciation from people the world over.

His photos would prove instrumental in the transformation of Kings Canyon from a potential reservoir site into a national park. “While Ansel would have been quick to protest that he was only one of many advocates on Kings Canyon’s behalf, it would likely not have become a national park when it did were it not for his visual testament and his tenacity,” Mary Street Alinder wrote in her book Ansel Adams: a Biography.

He was 14 when he first visited Yosemite in 1916 with his family. “Ansel’s first vantage point set his very small self into humbling perspective, as he saw everything not from the grand heights of Inspiration Point—the most dramatic and popular entrance into Yosemite, where the great natural stone monuments appear at eye level—but instead from the base of the valley itself, looking up and up and up,” Alinder wrote.

He began producing photos seriously in Yosemite by 1917 and by the following year was already bringing his own developing chemicals with him. This love affair with the compositional and tonal possibilities inherent in the granitic landscape of the Valley would last his lifetime.

In 1937, he and his wife acquired the permit to operate Best’s Studio, which her family had been running for years. This time marked the beginnings of Ansel’s support of other artists. He offered to exhibit other Yosemite artists’ work. He also began selling his prints for a few dollars each. Simultaneously, he created a space for other artists to be exposed to the public and a place where the public could buy a small piece of fine art for cheap.

Two artists, in particular, arrived shortly thereafter. Weston and Wilson, who was also his soon-to-be-wife, were traveling on the Guggenheim award money so that Weston could concentrate on his signature style of photography and Wilson could make a written record of that period. They arrived in Yosemite on July 20, 1937, ready to hike over the Tioga Pass to the Owens Valley with Ansel for a field trip.

Adams and Weston had initially met at the home of a mutual friend in 1928. While both were identified as seminal members of the landscape photography movement in the United States – originally they were part of a group called f.64, a name derived from the smallest camera aperture that produces maximum depth of field – at first, according to Wilson, neither was impressed with the other’s work. Later, they developed a friendship and understanding for what the other was striving for in his photography.

In 1936, Adams wrote Weston: “I can’t tell you how swell it was to return to the freshness, the simplicity and natural strength of your photography … I am convinced that the only real security lies with a certain communion with the things of the natural world.”

Their high country travels were instrumental in strengthening that bond.

The field trip negatives, taken during the late ‘30s, culminate in a series of complementary iconic images of junipers, Sierra peaks and alpine lakes – a mirroring of their mutual admiration.

One of the most well-known photos from that era was taken by Weston. It is of Wilson reclining against a rockface, her head swathed in a scarf to ward off the mosquitoes that plagued their trip. The weariness captured in her face exemplified the ephemeral click in time that Adams and Weston were forever in pursuit of in their photography.

“Unlike other mediums of expression that demand a greater or lesser expending of time for the realization of original vision, the actual making of a photograph is accomplished, so to speak, in a moment,” Weston wrote in California and the West.

Hours after their return from the trip over Tioga Pass, Adams’ darkroom burned. Having no established darkroom to work in, Weston and Wilson returned to the road. They would return shortly, however, so that Weston and Adams could teach the first landscape photography workshops in the Valley.

Inspiration Point and Shoot

Weatherwax was a photographer in her own right, but didn’t identify herself as such at the time. “I was hired to take over the darkroom for Ansel so he could be free to concentrate on his personal work. Ansel was concerned with taking pictures and selling them.”

Weatherwax and Wilson, 91 and also living in Santa Cruz, both agree that there may have been some machismo among the men.

“When I went out with them, I used to go out as a fifth wheel. They were taking pictures and I was along for the ride.” Weatherwax says. But she was actually taking pictures as well. Weston would occasionally ask for Seema’s opinion on a particular image, but neither he nor Adams ever asked to see the images that she was taking on field trips with them, even though both hoped to inspire new photographers.

Weatherwax was also there for Ansel’s first Yosemite Photographic Forum, sponsored by U.S. Camera, in 1940. Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Dorothea Lange among others would assist Ansel at his photographic forums. The first forum only resulted in about a dozen students so Ansel served as the main instructor and Edward became a frequent assistant.

Charis Wilson and William Holger at Yosemite Photography Forum, 1940: Courtesy of Seema Weatherwax.

Photographer unknown

“They were a great combination,” recalls Wilson in her book Through Another Lens: My Years with Edward Weston. “Although their work differed, their viewpoints meshed—while each had something distinctive to say about any particular aspect of photography, they were generally compatible and complementary.”

They recognized that what any person saw in the landscape was likely to be different than the next and that this extended to both their own work and the work of their students. One of their later lessons illustrates this understanding: “When they had a class, Ansel, Edward, Dorothea and Imogen would take pictures of the same thing. They would end up with five different pictures. Then they would each print the image and each would get a different print,” Weatherwax recalls. “The results were very different in feeling.”

Like it Used to Be

Perhaps Adams was only partially right about how many people were in one of his

landscape photographs. The images captured by Adams, Weston and their contemporaries have inspired scores of people to visit the western wilderness and to try and capture the ever changing vistas from their own perspective.

Ansel himself never seemed to grow tired of the high country panorama. “Until the end of his life, Ansel loved to stand at Inspiration Point with the Valley’s length stretched before him,” Alinder wrote.

Today, however, both he and Weston would likely be shocked to see the traffic in Yosemite or Big Sur. As Wilson half-jokingly said in a recent interview, “It ain’t like it used to be.” That moment in time, as it was captured by these two legendary photographers of the American West, has passed.