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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
Table of Contents
Ice Manliness Cometh
A Six-Dog-Power Engine
I (Heart) Snowshoeing
Skiing Yellowstone
Welcome Back to the World
Rotten Fish Tales
Big Fun in the Green Zone
Hey Mr. Green
Comfort Zone
Mixed Media
Last Words
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Ansel Adams film | Wild Youth | Election 2002 | Join | Activist ABCs | Go Online | Express Yourself | Grassroots

Portrait of the Artist as a Human Being

In a film airing on PBS in April, Ric Burns explores the "quietly extraordinary" life of Ansel Adams

by Reed McManus

Truth be told, nothing really dramatic happened in Ansel Adams’s life. And the vaunted Sierra Club leader wasn’t all that fiery an activist, either. Even so, filmmaker Ric Burns finds plenty of evidence that the renowned landscape photographer was "heroic" and an "exemplary American."

Burns, writer and director of Ansel Adams, a documentary coproduced with Sierra Club Productions that airs April 21 on PBS, discovered much more than spectacular photographs when he delved into Adams’s world. "Ansel believed in beauty," Burns says; the photographer’s ceaseless drive to communicate that simple conviction made his life "the most poignant and dramatic in the world." Burns’s film explores the meaning of Adams’s work through the themes that absorbed him: the fragility of the land, the bond between humans and nature, and the moral obligation we have to future generations.

Ansel Adams’s genius was fashioned in an extraordinary time. The American frontier had officially "closed" just a dozen years before his birth in San Francisco in 1902. By then, a growing number of Americans considered the culture of conquest no longer relevant; nature could be revered, not merely dominated. The first of many childhood trips to Yosemite Valley transformed Adams "like Paul on the road to Damascus," Burns says, and his parents’ serendipitous gift of a Kodak Box Brownie camera gave him the means to record and express his inner experiences of nature.

According to Burns, one of the best distillations of Ansel Adams isn’t a photograph, but a letter Adams wrote to fellow photographer Cedric Wright in 1937 after he "saw a big thundercloud moving down over Half Dome . . . so big and clear and brilliant that it made me see many things that were drifting around inside of me." Adams articulates a blueprint for his artistry that, Burns says, describes nothing less than "the essence of real living": "Art is the taking and giving of beauty, the turning out to the light the inner folds of the awareness of the spirit. It is the re-creation on another plane of the realities of the world; the tragic and wonderful realities of earth and men, and of all the interrelations of these."

Though Adams’s photographs are not explicitly political (in fact, in his early career Adams was castigated by fellow Depression-era photographers for focusing too much on "rocks and trees"), Burns says that the authentic expression of a human being is itself political. He points to Adams’s photographs of the Japanese-American internment camp at Manzanar in California during World War II: Choosing not to portray debased conditions, Adams instead showed internees carefully tilling their fields with the escarpment of the eastern Sierra looming behind them—"creating beauty, order, and meaning under the harshest conditions."

Adams’s environmental work flowed from his passion for the redemptive power of wilderness. When he lobbied Congress in the late 1930s to create Kings Canyon National Park, his most effective tool was a deeply personal photographic tribute he had made several years earlier to honor the life of Club leader Walter Starr’s son, who had died in a mountaineering accident. (When Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes showed the book to Franklin Roosevelt, the president purloined Ickes’s only copy; the national park was designated in 1940.)

Admittedly, Burns says, even the young Adams was "an environmentalist without already knowing it." He was acutely aware of how wilderness "put humans in touch with the deeper side of creation" and how easily the spirit of wilderness could be shattered by roads, clearcuts, and telephone lines. By the 1950s and ’60s, Burns says, "Ansel’s passions had become America’s imperatives" and the purist had become an engaged citizen.

The best news is that anyone can follow Adams’s "quietly extraordinary" example, Burns says, "engaging the world with openness and fierceness of response." Burns, whose documentary portfolio includes the nine-episode, Emmy award–winning opus New York, the six-hour The Way West, and The Donner Party, hopes that his latest work will be more powerful for having followed the "inner drama" of Adams’s life. "I’ve learned a simple, quiet confidence," Burns says. "If it’s real, it doesn’t have to shout."

Wild Youth
Help a kid experience wilderness, and you may inspire art, applause, or changed lives. The Sierra Club’s Youth in Wilderness program funds schools, after-school efforts, outdoor-education facilities, and other nonprofit organizations that get economically disadvantaged youth off the concrete and into the wild. In its first year, the program provided $2 million to 155 programs in Northern California, enabling 25,000 kids to experience the natural world. In 2001, the program expanded to Southern California, taking kids from infamously tough neighborhoods like Watts and Compton to famously beautiful places like Yosemite and Channel Islands National Parks. This year Youth in Wilderness is expanding to Arizona and Colorado with grants for more than 30 deserving programs. —R.M.

For more information, go to


Election 2002
Each spring, Sierra Club members elect five new representatives to three-year terms on the volunteer board of directors. The 15-member board elects the Club’s officers, oversees staff and volunteer activities, establishes conservation priorities, and approves the annual budget. Your ballot should arrive in the mail by mid-March. Completed ballots must be received by noon Eastern Standard Time on April 24, or follow the instructions for voting online.

For more information, check your chapter or group newsletter, or visit the Club’s Web site, Sierra will report the election results in the July/August issue.

Activist ABCs
This summer, students can jump-start a lifetime of activism with the Sierra Student Coalition’s Environmental Leadership Training. These week-long sessions teach participants how to lobby, organize a campaign, and work with the media.

College students must apply by May 1 for their training session from June 3 to 9 in Virginia’s Prince William Forest Park. (Tuition is $75 for SSC members; $94 for nonmembers.) High school students have until June 1 to apply for programs in Virginia, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Utah, and California ($160 for SSC members; $179 for nonmembers). For applications and scholarship information, contact the SSC at P.O. Box 2402, Providence, RI 02906; 1-888-JOIN-SSC; or

Don’t have a whole week to spare? Find—or help plan—a one- or two-day workshop near you. Visit for details.

To join the Sierra Club activist network, write to the Office of Volunteer and Activist Services, 85 Second St., San Francisco, CA 94105-3441; e-mail Members receive a free subscription to the Planet monthly newsletter and Sierra Club Currents, a twice-weekly e-mail update.

Go Online
To sign up for our other e-mail lists and forums, go to

Express Yourself
To make your voice count on environmental issues, write or call your elected officials at:
U.S. Senate
Washington, DC 20510

U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

U.S. Capitol Switchboard
(202) 224-3121

Contact President Bush at:
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W.
Washington, DC 20500

Comment line (202) 456-1414

Fax (202) 456-2461


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