Three Influential Photographs of the Western Landscape


The landscape of America’s West has long been the subject of American photographers. Samuel Morse scarcely had introduced the daguerreotype to America when explorer John C. Fremont decided to add daguerreotype equipment to his 1842 expedition to the land between Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains. The experiment, although apparently a complete failure (Fremont’s field reports did not mention a word about his efforts at photography), remains important because his attempt anticipated both the fascination with photographing the American West that continues to this day and the logistical difficulties that such photography would entail.

Later, professional photographers would be more successful in imaging the West. The wet plate process was just out of the toddler stage when Carleton Watkins began capturing dramatic and romantic images of Yosemite around 1860. Since then the list of photographers who have followed in Watkins’ footsteps reads like a “Who’s Who” in American photography:  O’Sullivan, Jackson, Muybridge, Coburn, Strand, Watson, Adams … the list goes on and on. Although from time to time interest in imaging the western landscape has waned, it remains one of the enduring genres in American photography. Of course there are many reasons for this.

No doubt the most basic reason is that, historically speaking, landscapes always have been a favored subject of visual artists. But the continued interest in imaging the landscapes of the West goes well beyond this conventional motivation. Long-lived socio-political cross-currents (for example, land exploitation vs. nature conservancy) and cultural myth maintenance (nowadays primarily sustained for commercial reasons) continue to motivate such photography. Over the years even photographers better known for other genres—Eadweard Muybridge, Alvin Langdon Coburn, and Lee Friedlander for example—have taken a stab at western landscape photography.  Generally such dabbling has resulted in images that today are interesting only to photography historians.

However, in each period of American photographic history the western landscapes of a few photographers have risen above the rest to receive widespread and long lasting public attention.  As a consequence, their photographs have tended to imprint the photographer’s ‘way of seeing’ western space on the general public; that is, the photographer’s way of seeing western spaces was thought to be the way western spaces actually were. In this manner, a certain way of visualizing the West would become the norm in American culture, until at some point another photographer’s vision of the West replaced it.

This paper focuses on three such influential photographs, each taken at a very different time in American history by an acknowledged master of that period. Specifically, this paper analyzes Study among the Rocks of Echo Canyon Utah, 1869, by William Henry Jackson; Clearing Winter Storm, 1940, by Ansel Adams; and Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973, by Robert Adams. The paper discusses the societal context that surrounded each photograph and the influence that the photograph has had on the American public and subsequent western landscape photographers.  While the analysis focuses on these specific photographs, each was selected as a representative of the respective artist’s principal body of work, and hence the analysis extends accordingly.

Study among the Rocks of Echo Canyon, Utah, 1869

Figure 1 William Henry Jackson Study among the Rocks of Echo Canyon #33, Utah, 1869

Events in the latter half of the 19th century severely stressed the American social fabric. The Civil War and its aftermath were of course the major contributors to this dynamic, but there were other factors as well. Vast waves of immigrants added to the number of urban poor, numbers already swollen by those displaced by the destruction of the southern plantation system. The financial panic of 1873 only added to the country’s insecurity and woe. This was this social context in which the phrase, often attributed to Horace Greeley, “Go west young man, go west” reverberated throughout the last decades of that century. Why ‘Go west’? To take advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 and lay claim to a piece of land one could call his own.

How tempting was the idea of ‘going west’? Certainly early in the second half of the 19th century, especially for those situated in the cities east of the Mississippi, the notion may not have been as appealing as we today assume it was. Was the West tamed? Was a scalping as likely an outcome as any other? Was there enough ‘there’ there for a realistic chance at a better life? No doubt there were those who, filled with the go-for-broke pioneer spirit we like to assume all Americans have, did not need much, if any, urging to head west. But folks are folks, and most humans are not great risk takers. That was no different in the latter half of the 19th century than it is now.

Certainly, the wild beauty of the West was well photographed. As western historian Martha Sandweiss writes: “no part of the American historical imagination is so shaped by visual imagery as is its images of the nineteenth-century West.” (Sandweiss, 2002) Carleton Watkins’ photographs and stereographs of the West, especially those of Yosemite, were widely distributed in the East, as were the western landscapes of Coburn and Muybridge. While certainly saying something about the beauty of the West (and the need to preserve that beauty), I suspect most in the East understood that they would not be homesteading under the shadow of El Capitan. On the other hand, Timothy O‘Sullivan’s images of the West captured the more likely, if less appealing, homesteading sites. However, many of his landscapes were of barren deserts and wild river canyons, and generally devoid of any indication of human activity save the occasional melancholy image of his mules and portable darkroom. As photography historian Robert Hirsch says of O’Sullivan: “[He] saw the West with ‘eastern’ eyes, as a hostile place where one must struggle to survive.” (Hirsch, 2009) O’Sullivan’s landscapes may have been fascinating to look at but they probably didn’t quicken the heart of potential homesteaders.

Then there are the western landscapes of William Henry Jackson. Like O’Sullivan, Jackson worked for Government survey teams at times, although later in his career Jackson also worked for the railroads. Jackson, like O’Sullivan, was commissioned to create images that would attract settlers to the West. The images that Jackson created, the images that were presented by the Government and railroads to the people of the crowded and impoverished East, offered one primary prize, space: space to breathe, space to farm, space to try for a better life.

There was an important difference, however, between the images of Jackson and those of his contemporary western landscape artists, a difference that best can be discerned by analyzing one of Jackson’s images: Study among the Rocks of Echo Canyon (see Figure 1).

An examination of Study shows that the scene is captured in the straight documentary style typical of western landscape photography of the period. The wet plate process, used to create Study and virtually all of the western landscape photographs in the era prior to the commercial availability of dry plate products in 1879,  precluded everything but the most straight forward image taking procedures.[1] Handling large, slippery, chemically toxic wet plates in a hot portable darkroom, knowing that the image had to be taken and the plate developed within minutes, was not a context for photographic experimentation in style. Moreover, it was the straight documentary style that best accomplished the goals of the great western landscape photographers of this period. Anything that smacked of a manipulated or ‘painterly’ image could be construed as an ‘interpretation’ rather than a ‘record’ of fact. The Watkins, O’Sullivans, and Jacksons of this era needed to convince the populace of the East that their landscapes were of real spaces; they needed the public to believe that the wonder and promise of these spaces were not the figment of an artist’s imagination.

So far, Study has shown us only how Jackson’s work was similar to his contemporaries. How then does Study represent the key difference between Jacksons’s work and that of his contemporaries, in particular of O’Sullivan’s? The difference in Study is the inclusion of evidence of development. Jackson purposely included in many of his landscapes signs of human activity, signs of progress; signs that could be interpreted by the naturally wary to mean that ‘going west’ would be an acceptable risk. Jackson’s way of seeing, his way of communicating to viewers about space, his inclusion of these signs, makes his version of the West more inviting.  Although the rugged canyon walls in Study suggest the rigors that a homesteader undoubtedly faces, the railroad line clearly tell the viewer that others have gone before him. As it slides by the canyon face, the rail line is presented as a welcoming magic carpet to the West. And what of the telegraph lines and poles? Are they not evidence that the homesteader will not be cut off from loved ones left behind?

In an period of social and financial distress, at a time when the East was crowded with refugees from inside and outside the country, at a time when the socio-political currents of day carried mostly dark messages, Jackson’s images, especially those like Study, could be interpreted as seconding Greeley’s message to the East’s beleaguered and wary masses: ‘Go west.’ And they did, at first in a trickle, and then in a flood.

However, even before Jackson closed the shutter on Study, there were some already worried about the negative impact of a mass migration of settlers to the West. It was clear to them that water would be an issue in the arid West, so for all of its open space there was a limit to the population that could be sustained there. Population growth beyond that point clearly would stress the environment. Further, the West held natural wonders like Yosemite and Yellowstone that would wither if besieged by an uncontrolled onslaught of tourists, developers, miners, and timber men.  In was this concern that eventually evolved into the conservation movement. The early proponents of conservation immediately grasped that photographic imagery could be an important element of their campaign to arouse among the public and, more importantly, Congress sympathy for their point of view. Carleton Watkins’ 1860s Yosemite images, for example, played a role in influencing Congress to establish Yosemite as a National Park in 1864. (Carleton Watkins) (The Evolution of the Conservation Movement) So, ironically, by the time Jackson’s shutter did close on Study, photography was employed as a weapon by both sides of what would become an enduring war on the American socio-political battlefield, conservation vs. development.

Clearing Winter Storm, 1940

A remarkable population shift to the West resulted from America’s involvement in World War II.  One study shows that the populations of just three western states, Washington, Oregon, and California, increased by 15% between the years 1940 and 1945, “permanently altering their demographics and economies.” (Tassava, 2010) The swelling population of the West created great pressure on western space; to support the newly acquired taste for suburban living huge parcels of land were needed for freeways, houses, schools, and strip malls. Trees were needed for lumber, rivers needed for water and to generate electricity, and air needed for combustion.  So after a hiatus during WWII, the conservation-development war restarted more intensely than ever.

Political and commercial proponents of development established programs to persuade the public to allow developers unfettered access to western resources. But the movement for conservation and environmental protection, now led by the Sierra Club, re-energized. Recalling that almost a century earlier Watkins’ photographs had helped establish Yosemite as a national park, and that Jackson’s photographs had done the same for Yellowstone, conservationists once again sought to utilize images of the western landscape to shape public opinion. Thus the linkage between photography and conservation became an enduring one.  As Finis Dunaway, author of Natural Vision – The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform, states in his book’s introduction: “Yet the history of environmental reform is more than the passage of a series of laws; it is also the story of images representing and defining the natural world, of the camera shaping politics and public attitudes.” (Dunaway, 2005)

Figure 2 Ansel Adams, Clearing Winter Storm, 1940

However the imagery from the previous century was spent ordnance; the Sierra Club needed fresh ammunition for this battle. Fresh ammunition was what they got in the western landscape portfolios of Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter and others; portfolios that featured images like Adams’ Clearing Winter Storm, 1940 (see Figure 2). The Sierra Club deployed this ammunition, particularly Adams’ images, in a new weapon specifically attuned to America’s evolving postwar culture, the environmental coffee table book. In this manner, as Hirsch notes, the public “came to see [Adams’] images as the absolute pictorial testimony of the American Western landscape, a site of inspiration and redemptive power that must be preserved.” (Hirsch, 2009)

Clearing, as representative of Adams’ greatest work, was a new kind of landscape. Certainly it wasn’t new in terms of subject matter; Yosemite is arguably the single most photographed space in the American West. Nor is the scale of the image novel. In fact the 8 x 10 view camera used by Adams to capture Clearing is almost a toy compared to the 18 x 21 plate camera that Watkins used for many of his Yosemite photographs. Nor does Clearing demonstrate in Adams a unique quest to capture fine detail; as Hirsh notes: “Watkins initiated the cardinal construct of American landscape photography: God was in the details.” (Hirsch, 2009) Watkins even matched Adams in his pursuit of prints with maximum available tonal range. So why is Adams’ landscape work ‘new’? It is because he went so far beyond Watkins in all of these aspects, save the size of his negative (and technology would mitigate that aspect), that Adams’ images could not be called an evolutionary step beyond Watkins’ work, but a revolutionary one.

How did Adams start this revolution in landscape photography? He did so by combining four elements to perfection. The first two elements were the key to his artistic persona: mindset and vision. The third element was the photographic technology available to him, technology that was vastly improved over that of Watkins’ time. The final element was the newly developed Zone System[2] that allowed him to employ scientifically rigorous processes to extract the maximum capabilities of that technology.

Adams’ mindset for photography—the gospel of straight photography and sharp focus—was that of Group f/64, which he help found in 1932. While he shared this gospel with others in the group, his vision for landscape photography was his own. That vision pushed him into Yosemite Valley and other remote places in the Sierra Nevada in weather conditions that others before him eschewed. This allowed him to ‘be there’ when sublime combinations of light, weather and the monumental structures of nature materialized before him, creating scenes never before captured in a photograph. With experience born of years of photographing, he learned to ‘pre-visualize’ how he could translate the scene before him into the desired print using the Zone System to manipulate the photographic technology available to him.

To capture Clearing Adams took advantage of lens, film and print paper technology that Watkins could only dream about. For Clearing Adams used a 12 ¼” Cooke lens to expose the film.  The 12 ¼” lens on an 8 x 10 view camera (roughly the equivalent to a 45mm lens on a 35mm camera) provided a view approximating what the human eye would see. Adams set the aperture to f/16 to assure great depth of field. Despite the small aperture he set the shutter to 1/5 second; fast enough to avoid showing movement in the clouds.  The fact that he would worry about cloud movement meant of course that his panchromatic film could capture clouds in the first place. Watkins had only orthochromatic emulsion at his disposal, so capturing any detail in the sky was usually out of the question.  While the technology of Adams’ day provided him the potential to translate the scene into the print that he pre-visualized, it was his Zone System that actually carried out that translation.

An explanation of the Zone System is beyond the scope of this paper. However, in his Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs (Adams, 1983), Adams provides a detailed explanation of how he employed the Zone System to create Clearing. The Zone System quickly became the new standard by which art photography would be measured.

From a sociological perspective, the major difference between Adams’ landscapes, as exemplified by Clearing, and those of say, Jackson, is Adams’ conscious exclusion of any indication of human presence, in either person or by artifact.  Of course with an oeuvre as large as Adams’ there were many exceptions. By and large however Adams and the Sierra Club “celebrated a landscape devoid of people, a pure space apart from civilization.” (Dunaway, 2005) Clearing is not so much a record of what was ‘out there’ as it is a vision of how Adams and the Sierra Club wanted the natural world to be remembered. Although addressing another one of Adams’ iconic images, Hirsch might as well be describing Clearing when he writes: “It is mythological, conveying a sense of optimism about the open Western space that says there are still uncovered possibilities in America and our society can push on into its future.” (Hirsch, 2009)

The enormous popularity of Adams’ landscapes, due in part to their accessibility to the general public via what Dunaway refers to as the “curious phenomenon of the environmental coffee table book in postwar America”, also had an enormous impact on the photographic art market. The photographic art market up to that point had been almost non-existent.  But, as Hirsch writes, “By the 1960s, the accessibility of Adams’s [sic] images, the respect for his technical brilliance, and the ability of his work to command higher prices gained photography entrance into a broader range of arenas, including mass media, galleries, and museums.” (Hirsch, 2009) While Alfred Stieglitz is credited for almost single-handedly gaining for photography the status of ‘Art’, it was Ansel Adams who almost single-handedly gained for photography the distinction of ‘Art’ that people were willing to go to galleries to see and to pay real money to buy.

Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973

Figure 3 Robert Adams, Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973

Americans continued to move westward in the postwar years in great numbers, drawn by temperate climate, inexpensive housing and plentiful jobs. This shift, coupled with the postwar ‘baby boom’, led to an enormous population growth in the West.  By the 1970s, even as the general public continued to see the West through the gaze of Ansel Adams’ heroic vision, a new breed of landscape photographers—Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams among them—looked out upon the western spaces and did not see what the cultural myths told them to expect to see. They did not see the landscapes of Ansel Adams. What they saw instead was suburban sprawl, highways lined with billboards and litter, mountains ravaged by mining, forests denuded of trees, and many other signs of man’s depredation upon the land. They saw, in fact, what was really there to see. They began to ask themselves what was the point of depicting the West, as Ansel Adams almost always had, as a vast, unspoiled and unpopulated space? They began to take images like Robert Adams’ Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973 (see Figure 3). According to photography and art historian Kelly Dennis, their apparent aim was to “question the validity of the centuries-old distinction between nature and culture in some of the West’s most mythologized imagery.” (Dennis, 2005)

The term “New Topographics” was coined to denote these human-altered landscapes, the term coming from the title of a 1975 exhibition featuring the work of Robert Adams and others at the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York, New Topographics – Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. Dennis writes that the exhibit’s title was “clearly a nod to nineteenth-century topographic photography under the initial exploratory auspices of the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as an acknowledgement of the alteration of that terrain during the century intervening—an acknowledgement missing from the mid-century photographs by Ansel Adams.” (Dennis, 2005)

Mobile Homes[3]  is simple and yet complex—and ultimately confusing. At first glance it seems to be simply a return to the straight forward, detached, documentary landscapes of the O’Sullivan and Jackson era.  But its composition is quite traditional, and the sharp focus and full tonality range aspects of the image clearly trace to Ansel Adams and the other 20th century Modernist masters. Finally, there is the element of irony in the image. There can be no disputing that placing a mobile home park in the foreground of what otherwise would be a classic western landscape—a threatening sky overlooking the brooding mass of a hill or mountain—is an ironic take on the heroic but no longer realistic imagery of Ansel Adams. A review of contemporary environmental photography makes it clear that this break with heroic Modernism by an insistence on reality over myth and the use of irony are the most influential and lasting aspects of the work of Robert Adams and his New Topographics brethren. (Ware, 2011)

The societal impact of images like Mobile Homes is not so clear. Is Mobile Homes a call to arms, or is it just another passive ‘Art’ object, or something else altogether? There were certainly those who criticized the New Topographics images for not being more strident, more demanding of action. Their criticism is reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s questioning of the effectiveness of social reform photographs—like those of Lewis Hine—if they are also beautiful. (Sontag, 1973) This alleged loss of effectiveness, coupled with the ‘fine arts pedigree’ of their imagery, leads such critics to dismiss Robert Adams and the other New Topographics photographers as creators of essentially socially useless Modernist art pieces; in these critics’ view there is no ‘call to arms’. Dennis challenges such criticism. She counters that, while the New Topographics photographers “indisputably romanticize their subject, for all that they reflect the depredations of the landscape”, this does not relieve the viewers of the responsibility of passing judgment on the situation. (Dennis, 2005)

In any case, what is clear is that with its complex mixture of Pre-Modernism, Modernism and irony, images like Mobile Homes moved western landscape photography to a new place—a significant step away from traditional Modernist sensibilities and towards, but not necessarily arriving at, cynical Postmodernism. For Mobile Homes, as a representative of Robert Adams’ work at least, may be discouraging but it is also hopeful that Americans will wake up from its dreams of a mythic West, and take steps to fix the reality.


Almost as soon as the camera was introduced in America, serious photographers were taking landscapes of the American West; they have been taking such images ever since. Certainly the visual arts’ historical attraction to landscape imagery is one reason for this. However something in the myth-makeup of the American psyche, as well as certain long-lived socio-political dynamics in American culture (particularly westward migration and the struggle to balance conservation and development), also impel such image taking. Most of these photographs receive only short-lived attention by the general public, if they receive any attention at all outside of the art world.

On the other hand in every era there have been western landscape photographs that, by virtue of the unique social context in which they were taken and by virtue of the artist’s unique way of seeing the West, have had wide-ranging impact not only on the photographic world, but also on society at large. Three such impactful photographs are analyzed, one each by 19th century documentarian William Henry Jackson, 20th century Modernist master Ansel Adams, and 1970s New Topographics photographer Robert Adams. The three images are shown to be linked not only by genre and significant influence on society and the art world but also by the thematic presence or absence of human activity. The Jackson photograph and the Ansel Adams photograph are presented as positive images of the West, with Jackson’s image encouraging settlement in the West while Adams’ awe-inspiring image subtly warns of what will be lost if development is not controlled. An argument is presented that the images of Jackson and Robert Adams attain their social power by including evidence of human activity while the Ansel Adams image gains its social power by exclusion of such evidence.  Finally, this paper proposes that the image of Robert Adams is a complex mixture of elements: the compositional elegance, sharp focus and tonal range beauty of the Ansel Adams image; the emotionally detached, documentary style of the Jackson image; and the ironic inclusion of signs of human depredation in an otherwise classic western landscape. If Jackson’s image uses signs of human activity to send an upbeat message about the West, Robert Adams’ image uses signs of human activity to send an ironic and deflating message about the myth of the American West and the grandeur of its unspoiled open spaces.


Adams, A. (1983). Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Carleton Watkins. (n.d.). Retrieved December 5, 2011, from Wikipedia:

Dennis, K. (2005). Landscape and the West: Irony and Critique in New Topographic Photography. Cultural Landscapes in the 21st Century. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Forum UNESCO University and Heritage 10th International Seminar.

Dunaway, F. (2005). Natural Visions – The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Fielder, J. (1999). Colorado 1870 – 2000 Historical Landscape Photography by William Henry Jackson, Contemporary Photography by John Fielder. Englewood, Colorado: Westcliffe Publishers in cooperation with The Colorado Historical Society.

Hirsch, R. (2009). Seizing the Light – A Social History of Photography, 2nd Ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

Papageorge, T. (n.d.). Tod Papageorge on Robert Adams – The Missing Criticism – What We Bought. Retrieved December 8, 2011, from AMERICAN SUBURB X / ASX:

Sandweiss, M. A. (2002). Print the Legend – Photography and the American West. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sontag, S. (1973). On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Tassava, C. J. (2010, February 5). The American Economy during World War II. Retrieved December 5, 2011, from

The Evolution of the Conservation Movement. (n.d.). Retrieved December 5, 2011, from Library of Congress:

Ware, K. (2011). Earth Now: American Photogrpahers and the Environment. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.

[1] Jackson used large format cameras with glass plate negatives varying from 3”x4” for stereo, and 5”x 8”, 8”x10”, 11”x14”, and even 18”x 22” for standard negatives. (Fielder, 1999) In all likelihood, Study was contact printed on albumen paper from an 8”x10” wet glass plate negative.

[2] The Zone System, a codification of the principles of sensitometry, was co-developed by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer

[3] Robert Adams has used 35mm SLR, 2 ¼”x2 ¼” TLR, and 4”x5” view cameras in his work. Mobile Home is a 6”x 6” silver gelatin print from a 2 ¼”x2 ¼” panchromatic film negative. The film was exposed with a Rolleiflex TLR.  (Papageorge)

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