By Shelly Kale
This undated gelatin silver print in the California Historical Society Collection is one of countless photographs of visitors to Yosemite National Park. Yosemite’s scenic wonders have captured our visual imagination since the mid-1850s, when the San Francisco writer and publisher James Mason Hutchings created lithographic prints from sketches by Thomas Ayres made during their 1855 visit.
In 1859, Charles Leander Weed first photographed Yosemite Valley, beginning a long tradition of photographers depicting its majestic landscape. Carleton Watkins’ stereoviews helped secure Congress’ passage of legislation protecting Yosemite Valley from development in 1864.1 The famed photographer Ansel Adams’ artistic images of Yosemite cemented his reputation. Adams had read Hutchings’ “profusely illustrated” In the Heart of the Sierras 2 as a teenager. The book inspired his first trip with his parents, Brownie box camera in hand, to the park in 1916, when tourism was booming. “I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite,” he wrote.3
While many photographers focused on Yosemite’s natural beauty, intrepid tourists physically embraced the landscape, as though claiming it their own. On precipices and trees, they boldly posed for photo ops at landmarks such as Overhanging Rock at Glacier Point and Sentinel Dome on the south wall of Yosemite Valley.
With its 360-degree panorama, Sentinel Dome offered spectacular views and the wonderment of a solitary Jeffrey pine atop its summit. The tree’s gnarled, windswept formation and improbable location made it a popular photographic subject—for Watkins, Adams, and untold others—before it died during the drought of 1976–77. Despite the tree’s subsequent fall in 2003, its remains are still visible, part of a continuing geological record. Yet, for these two women, their carefree climb is but a snapshot in time.
- In 1864, Congress passed “An Act authorizing a Grant to the State of California of the Yo-Semite Valley,’ and of the Land embracing the Mariposa Big Tree Grove” [S.203; Public Act No. 159] mandating the state to “accept this grant upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation . . . [and] shall be inalienable for all time.” The Library of Congress American Memory, www.memory.loc.gov
- J. M. Hutchings, In the Heart of the Sierras (Oakland, CA: Pacific Press Publishing House, 1886).
- Ansel Adams and Mary Street Alinder, Ansel Adams: An Autobiography (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1985), 67; http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/ansel/filmmore/ps_nature.html.
California History, Vol. 91, Number 3, pp. 67–68, ISSN 0162-2897, electronic ISSN 2327-1485. © 2014 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
Kale is Publications and Strategic Projects Manager at the California Historical Society. Formerly Managing Editor of California History from 2007 to 2013, she has held editorial and administrative positions in academic, museum, educational, electronic, and trade and mass-market publishing.