Terra Galleria Photography

150 Years of Photography in Yosemite


June 30th, 2014 marked the 150th anniversary of the Yosemite Grant Act, the 1864 bill signed by Abraham Lincoln – in the midst of the Civil War, which set aside in perpetuity the world’s first parkland for public use. True, Hot Springs Reservation was set in 1832, but it was with the purpose of protecting a single resource, the hot springs waters, rather than the landscape itself.

Seed of the Future by Dayton Duncan, elaborates on how the national park idea was born and evolved in Yosemite. Yellowstone became famously the world’s first national park only because at that time Wyoming was a territory (thus unable to administer Yellowstone, requiring government administration), whereas California was already a state. The book is a great read about Yosemite’s early history. Although some of the material appeared in the first two episodes of the National Parks PBS series, I enjoyed this more detailed refresher.

The prediction of Frederick Law Olmsted that within a century Yosemite would be visited by millions of people was bold. Few non-native people had seen the Yosemite area in person: the known number of visitors in 1864 was fewer than 150! Photography acted as a driving force in the establishment of the park, because at that time, unlike words, drawings, or paintings, nobody questioned the reality of photographs. White men discovered Yosemite after the invention of photography, so American landscape photography has been there from the beginning and its development became intimately tied to the park.

Before the Congress vote on the Yosemite Grant Act, Carleton Watkins photographs were displayed in the Sergeant at Arms office near the Senate chamber. William Henry Jackson’s photographs are often credited for being instrumental to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, but the Yosemite Grant preceded it by eight years and paved the way for it. Update 2016: When Time Magazine set out to identify the 100 most influential photographs of all time (archived here), that set of images that changed the world included only two landscape photographs. One of which was Carleton Watkin’s photograph of Cathedral Rock, for its role in the establishment of what was to be the national park system – the other was Edward Steichen’s The Pond.

The 1864 legislation, the crowning achievement of the career of U.S. Senator Conness from California – after whom Mt Conness is named, passed the senate on a voice vote, and six week later, the house without opposition. It granted the lands to the state of California, with an express federal mandate that they be “held for public use, resort, and recreation” and “inalienable for all time”. It was the first recognition that land with value for inspiration and recreation should be permanently kept in public ownership.

Charles Weed (left) made the first photographs of Yosemite in 1859. However Carleton Watkins (“Yosemite Valley from the Best General View” (1866), right), who began to photograph in Yosemite two years later, quickly eclipsed his work. Although this was a vast and unexplored park, Watkins often worked from the same exact locations as Weed. However, he consistently made better compositions by changes in camera position and light. For instance, the tree is better placed in this photograph, avoiding a merger with the valley rim. The most obvious improvement was print size. At that time, no enlargement was possible, so to obtain a larger print, you needed to produce a larger negative with a bigger camera. Watkins brought an 18×22 inch camera to Yosemite – together with 2,000 pounds of equipment, as glass plates had to be coated and processed in the field, a mind-boggling technical achievement. Photographers and esthetes may point out to the superior artistry in Watkins work, but I think it is the size that captured the public’s imagination.

Watkins photographs of Yosemite quickly set the standard. Seeing them in person, I was astonished by the beauty of the prints, which have exquisite detail and tonality. The comparison with the immense majority of modern prints is humbling. Many of Watkins viewpoints and compositions have been, and still are popular. This goes some ways to explain why you don’t often see contemporary nature landscape photographs in art museums. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can view them for yourself at the exhibit Carleton Watkins: The Stanford Albums. The exhibit closes in less than two weeks, but if you miss it, the surprisingly affordable catalog is well worth buying, and will surely appreciate in value.

Man and Yosemite: a Photographers View of the Early Years by Ted Orland discusses in detail the work of the 19th Yosemite photographers. In the 20th century, Ansel Adams set a new standard for Yosemite photography with his sophisticated style and technique, as can be seen by comparing his “Clearing Winter Storm” (1944) to Watkins “Yosemite Valley from the Best General View”. Ted Orland concluded “Man and Yosemite” with those words: “So pervasively has his vision become ours that many of the million people each year who photograph Yosemite Valley do so with the hope that, if everything turns out just right, the result will not simply look like Yosemite, it will look like an Ansel Adams photograph of Yosemite“.

Last June, I was honored to be interviewed as a representative of 21th-century photography in a short TV report featuring Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams by Al Jazeera America – two weeks after being quoted by Fox News. Use this link if the embed below doesn’t show up.

The half-hour interview discussed the history of photography in Yosemite and the possibilities to create new work there, but the footage was edited to thirty seconds. I thought you might enjoy my comments about my 2002 winter sunset photograph shown in the TV report.

I don’t consider the existence of so many great Yosemite photographs a hindrance. Rather, they provide a useful yardstick against you can measure yourself and try to go beyond – if only occasionally. Adams photographed many times from Tunnel View. His books (see survey) “American Wilderness” and “Ansel Adams at 100” include series of photographs from that viewpoint. I felt that Adams “owned” the view so much that I consider my work there to be an hommage. For a long time, I had wanted to make a photograph that Adams hasn’t made before, while using his most often repeated composition. So I sought a photograph in which color would be an integral part, one which would not work in black and white. This meant looking for color contrast. The Yosemite granite walls being grey, the most color contrast would be found at sunset between the warm illuminated cliff tops and the valley bottom, which would turn blue in open shade. Most evenings, the valley bottom would be too dark, but fog in the bottom would lighten it up, and enhance the blue tint. One evening, as I was in the Valley, I noticed the fog forming and a hole in the western horizon. I rushed to Tunnel View, and here was my gift. The color added a new mood and emotional impact to the (kind of) 150-year old view.


  1. Will Parker says:

    I’m a landscape photographer from outback Australia and if there is one National Park Overseas I would love to spend some real time at it would be this one. Yosemite captures my imagination and inspires ( The bears worry me a bit though LOL) wonderful.

  2. QT Luong says:

    Will, unlike the grizzly bears found further north, the Sierra Nevada black bears are kind of harmless to people, although they can do serious damage to cars.

  3. Sal Santamaura says:

    It’s good you’re apparently inculcating your son with an appreciation of Watkins’ work. 🙂

    One can definitely see the effects of your injury and surgery in that video segment recorded last June. You mentioned back then that you were unable to walk at a normal pace. The effort it took to amble along a flat trail is quite apparent, even carrying only your 5D and a relatively light tripod. I hope the intervening two months have brought significant rehabilitative progress and you’ll soon be scrambling anywhere you like carrying whatever equipment is needed.

    • QT Luong says:

      Well, the photo was not posed, which means that the lad had little interest in looking at the photographs 🙂

      Thanks for the concern. Indeed that was the reason I carried the 5D instead of the 5×7, which resulted in the TV producer being a bit disappointed that my camera was so “ordinary”. Shoulder still bugs me, but last week I was able to move 150lbs+ of equipment through airports, so there is some progress.

  4. My father, American wilderness photographer Philip Hyde had a number of exhibition of his photographs in Yosemite at various times. He had a large permanent show at the Visitor’s Center in the Valley in the latter part of the 20th Century, but I haven’t had a chance to follow up on how much of it is still in existence. Dad was one of the first to photograph many areas of the backcountry in color and in some cases in black and white. He also made the first comprehensive set of art photographs of the architecturally interesting buildings of the valley for Yosemite Park & Curry Company and for the architects.

  5. Dolores says:

    Hi QT, with Acadia’s Centennial coming up in 2016, and with the park recently named No. 1 by both viewers of Good Morning America and readers of USA Today, hope you’ll plan on coming back to Acadia. We’ve been following your work since the PBS series on America’s National Parks, and are sorry we didn’t get to see your photos on display in Lexington, MA. Here’s a recent blog post we did on the recent honors that Acadia received, and US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s Aug. 15 visit: http://acadiaonmymind.com/2014/07/interior-secretary-sally-jewell-speak-acadia-national-park/

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