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Preserving Big Bend on Film

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Ansel Adams, Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park, Texas, 1947

Spending summer in the midst of Texas urban sprawl can be a drag, to say the least. Faced with the sweltering combination that endless concrete and the unrelenting sun create, the number of outdoor activities that a person can participate in without combusting into flames becomes limited – mainly to sprinting from air conditioned location A to air conditioned location B for the duration of the season. Eventually, a need to escape – to see a world outside of the city’s skyline – takes hold.

Thankfully, Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum’s recently opened exhibit is offering an outdoorsy solution this summer – complete with air conditioning.

Ansel Adams: Eloquent Light features 40 of the photographer’s works, compiled from both the Carter’s personal holdings and a borrowed private collection. Lauded as a boisterous promoter of photography, Adams’ magnetic personality and artistic vision served as an inspiration for other photographers in the latter part of the twentieth century. The San Francisco native is best known in the art world for his images of the American West and the role they played in elevating the medium of photography to the level of fine art.

The exhibit reflects Adams’ environmentalist agenda of presenting the majesty of undisturbed American wilderness to the public. As a conservationist, Adams was active in the Sierra Club and encouraged the American people to appreciate nature untouched by humanity. It was this motive that led Adams to Texas during the course of his career.

Near the beginning of World War II, the US Department of the Interior invited Adams to travel to and photograph the country’s national parks for the purpose of decorating the department’s new building in Washington, D.C. “[Adams] was deeply concerned that Americans had such a striving to build up the economy,” said John Rohrbach, the Carter’s senior curator of photographs, “that places that were needing to be saved, places of great beauty, were not going to be saved unless somebody paid attention.”

During the trip, in 1942, Adams photographed what was then Big Bend State Park. Earlier that year, the Texas State Legislature had allocated the $1.5 million necessary to purchase the land from private owners in order to designate the area a national park. Big Bend officially gained national park status on June 12, 1944. He visited the area once again in 1947 with the help of an artist fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, which allowed him to photograph several of the national parks for a second time.

Four of these Texas photographs are on display near the center of the exhibit. Two show the Rio Grande, one shows Santa Elena Canyon and another was taken among the Chisos Mountains.

These photographs and others throughout Eloquent Light serve to remind viewers why, almost thirty years after his death, Adams work continues to be praised. Adams’ trademark use of stark contrast and palpable texture give his work an otherworldly feeling that conveyed his ultimate goal – that nature is to be appreciated, protected and revered.

Entrance to Ansel Adams: Eloquent Light is free, and the exhibit runs through Nov. 7. Given the coming months of unbearable heat, it’s the next best thing to actually being outside.