Inside the Outdoors: An Ansel Adams winter
Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn
At one time or another, whether you knew it or not, you probably have seen an Ansel Adams photograph. It might have been in a book on photographic masterpieces, or a framed print hanging on a wall in an office, a public building or gallery or maybe even seen on an Antiques Road Show segment. One of America’s legendary photographers, Ansel Adams is best known for his striking black-and-white landscape images, among which are dramatic scenes of U.S. national parks, like Yosemite in California. His work, as much as that of any American of the 20th century, demonstrated that photography could be art.
Adams preceded the digital photographic age by decades. His images were captured not on a memory card, but on “negatives,” thin celluloid film coated with light-sensitive silver crystals. This coating reacted when exposed to light entering a camera lens, darkening more in some areas than others in response to the different light values of a subject. In the darkroom—itself mostly a bygone part of photographic history—light was passed through Adams’ negatives to make a final positive photographic print.
What set Adams’ prints apart from many others was his photographs’ wide range of tones, from the purest whites to richest blacks, and all the values of gray in between. The Zone System was the name given to the technique of adjusting a camera’s exposure settings to achieve this full tonal range, with skill needed both behind the camera lens and in the darkroom to pull it off. Adams and a fellow photographer together perfected the technique.
To my eye, the scenes and vignettes of our current winter bear an unmistakable resemblance to Ansel Adams photographs. It’s no mystery why. Winter in Minnesota is sometimes portrayed as a barren, bleak and gray time. This is most true in those random years when there is barely enough snow to cover the ground, and in the time of melting snow and accompanying mud that marks the transition from winter to spring. But in winters with abundant snow, a Minnesota winter is anything but bleak or gray; winters like this one, especially. It’s been a season above and beyond for wintry beauty worthy of a photographer’s attention, with scenes that I’m sure would have captured Ansel Adams’ attention.
Most of Minnesota has been blessed—or cursed, depending on your point of view—with snow in great abundance this winter, giving us a landscape that is a high-contrast study in black and white. In many places it has remained as an unusually thick coating on trees, shrubs and other vegetation, like you might find in a painting by an eager artist who had just learned the technique of painting snow scenes. For the most part, it has remained like this since before Christmas.
I recall the first of these big snow events vividly. In the evening it began with precipitation that was more like fog than mist; invisible, barely felt, but evident as a pebbly layer that gradually built up on car windows like textured glass, on sidewalks and on every surface. It froze to the bare limbs of birches, aspens and oaks, and to the needles of red, white and jack pines, to evergreen and deciduous shrubs, a glue-like foundation for the wet, heavy snow that would come next.
As more snow accumulated during the nighttime darkness, the stillness and quiet were at intervals broken by the crack of limbs breaking under the mounting weight, and the more ominous sound of their impact on roofs overhead. When the weather system had moved on, snow depths ranged from 10 inches in many places, to well over a foot in others. Trees bore a layer almost as deep, with limbs drooping to almost perpendicular, some even touching the ground. The more flexible trunks of many deciduous trees like aspen and birch were bent into parabolic curves.
The next morning found me cutting, gathering and stacking fallen branches, and making a call to our insurance agent to inquire about repairs to impact-damaged gutters. There were widespread power outages, with some having to get by without electricity for intervals that ranged from hours to days. Hardware and home center outlets enjoyed a brisk business in gas-powered electric generators.
Under ordinary winter conditions, you would expect the burden of snow borne by trees and lesser vegetation to soon be lifted, to gradually fall to the ground, dislodged by the wind and the tendency of trees to rebound to their normal shape and stature. But this was not typical snow. Its moisture content, and the sequence in which it progressed from freezing mist to moisture-laden snow, created a durable—if also damaging—coating that in many places remains to this day. Not only remains, but was added to by several subsequent snow events, piling snow upon snow.
This has contributed to the dramatic visual effects; a wintry beauty frozen in time—literally—that calls out to anyone with photographic inclinations to take advantage of an uncommon opportunity.
There are upsides and downsides to such events, of course. Foresters ranging from county land managers to personnel in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources foretell a long-term loss of merchantable timber that will be measured in millions of dollars. The added snow depth has made even worse the on-lake conditions already faced by ice fishermen, and—depending on what winter’s last chapters hold for more snow and cold temperatures—could negatively impact our whitetail deer.
Ruffed grouse—which roost in deep snow to preserve body heat, and reduce their need to feed and expose themselves to predators—will likely benefit. Snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, sledders and snowshoe enthusiasts appear to have had their annual prayers for adequate snow answered.
As for Ansel Adams, if he were alive today and visiting us now, I have no doubt that he would find himself setting up his tripod, taking exposure readings, removing the lens cap from his 8-by-10 view camera, and recording some of this winter’s above-and-beyond snowy beauty.