Ansel Adams, Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake
Denali National Park, Alaska 1947

Adams - Mt. Mckinley-Wonder LakeMt. McKinley-Wonder Lake
 Ansel Adams

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The making of the picture

This picture of Mount McKinley with Wonder Lake in the foreground was taken in the summer. A time when any-one who has spent any time in mountainous regions will know is often characterized by hazy cloudy days.

Adams was in Alaska on a Guggenheim Fellowship trip (one of three that he was awarded in the years 1946, 1948 and 1959) and had been taken from McKinley station to the ranger cabin at Wonder Lake by the National Parks service. The photograph was taken at 1.30 in the morning (the sun having set only 2 hours previously at 11.30 - such is the day length in the Arctic in summer) on one of the rare cloudless days during a weeks stay at the ranger station.

Anticipating a good day he retired early the previous evening protected against the ubiquitous summer mosquitoes by netting over the bed and rose again by midnight to prepare for the sunrise. An 8 x 10 inch camera was used to record the scene. As the sun rose over the bulk of the mountain, the sunrise colours, first pink and then golden gave Adams cause for much consideration as to which colour filter to use (black and white photography often uses coloured filters to make sky areas in particular darker) as this would have effects in the colours of the mountain.

Well experienced by now in using his zone system, Adams decided on a deep yellow filter with an exposure factor of 3. He placed the deepest shadows on zone 2 1/2 and the sunlit snows of the mountain on zone 6, the filter lowered the former by about 1 and raised the latter by the same amount with a note on the development of the negative. An advantage of using such large negatives is that they are developed individually and so each one can be treated optimally - assuming you are skilled enough to know what you are doing!

Two more exposures followed, but within half an hour clouds had gathered that covered the summit and soon the whole mountain was obscured.

It is fortunate that this picture survived the journey back from Alaska. As Adams was traveling back home, he was unloading his gear from a float plane to a small launch when the case holding all of the exposed film from the trip fell into shallow water. He quickly jumped in up to his waist to retrieve the case but not before some water had penetrated and damaged some other negatives. Despite trying to dry them out on the shore, there was little he could really do until back home in his darkroom in San Francisco.

Adams was deeply impressed with Alaska "I am convinced, after only two visits to "The Great Land," that Alaska is one of the most impressive reservoirs of beauty and wilderness - an inexhaustible resource for creative interpretation. The Alaskan scene has been but lightly explored by the serious artists in all media".

Mount McKinley at 20 600 feet is the highest peak in North America a fact unknown to the native inhabitants who nevertheless revered the peak they called Denali. From the position shown in this photograph Denali is seen across a wide valley above which it rises 18 000 feet many miles in the distance. Denali is the official name of the park, though the peak retains the official title of Mount McKinley even though it is frequently referred to itself as Denali.

Own Mt. McKinley-Wonder Lake by Ansel Adams
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Bibliography - Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs by Ansel E. Adams