Photographer Traces Ansel Adams' Footsteps in Breathtaking Book

Sierra Juniper near Shadow Lake
Moonlight shines on a majestic Sierra Juniper near Shadow Lake. (p. 63). (Photo: Peter Essick/National Geographic)

National Geographic is honoring the legacy of celebrated American photographer Ansel Adams with "The Ansel Adams Wilderness." The beautiful new book is filled with original black-and-white images taken by Peter Essick, an acclaimed National Geographic photographer (and huge fan of Adams).

Famous for his visionary black-and-white landscapes and unwavering dedication to environmental conservation, Adams is widely regarded as one of America's greatest photographers.

Although he traveled all across the American West, Yosemite National Park and the surrounding wilderness areas were the most frequent shooting locations for Adams, who lived most of his life in central California.

A native Californian himself, Essick was inspired to embark on this project after reading Adams' 1938 book "Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail," which played an instrumental role in convincing Congress to designate Sequoia and Kings Canyon as national parks in 1940.

After Adams' death in 1984, it was only fitting that the Minarets Wilderness Area — located south of Yosemite and north of the John Muir Wilderness Area — was expanded and renamed in the photographer's honor. Today, the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area spans 231,533 acres, and features craggy, metavolcanic glacial peaks, 349 miles of hiking trails and plenty of excellent spots for technical rock climbing.

Continue below for a sampling of the evocative imagery found in "The Ansel Adams Wilderness," along with an interview with Essick, who has been a frequent contributor to National Geographic for more than 25 years. To see more of these lovely photos, you can buy the book or check out Essick's website.

Near Dana Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness
A strong summer wind makes whitecaps on Dana Lake. (p. 30-31). (Photo: Peter Essick/National Geographic)

MNN: What led you to a career in photography?

Peter Essick: I took a high school photography class and that is what sparked my interest. During my undergraduate time in college, I continued on a career path in business administration, but after graduating and working less than one year as an accountant, I decided to switch and try to become a professional photographer.

Aspen tree, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Golden autumn leaves surround an old aspen tree near Parker Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness region of California. (p. 64-65). (Photo: Peter Essick/National Geographic)

How did you come to work for National Geographic?

I went to the University of Missouri School of Journalism. In their masters' program, I was selected as a summer intern at National Geographic. That is how I got my foot in the door.

Dana's Lake outflow waters, Ansel Adams Wilderness
The sun sets over Dana Lake’s outflow waters in the Ansel Adams Wilderness region of California. (p. 56-57). (Photo: Peter Essick/National Geographic)

What inspired you to begin this personal tribute to Ansel Adams?

I saw a reprint of "Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail" by Ansel Adams that had originally been published in 1938. I had been inspired by the work of Ansel Adams when I first started in photography and learned a lot from his books on technique. I realized he had been a big influence on my work at National Geographic and thought doing a story about a wilderness area named for him would resonate with a lot of readers.

Pine sapling, Summit Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Blowing snow surrounds a pine seedling near Summit Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness region of California. (p. 75). (Photo: Peter Essick/National Geographic)

In the book, you write that you 'wanted to pay homage to the master but not duplicate his work.' With that intention in mind, what was your strategy and method for executing each shot?

Some photographers have tried to go back to the exact shot and re-photograph standing "in the tripod holes" of where Adams stood. I knew I didn't want to do that, and I didn't even want to photograph places exactly like Adams did 70-80 years ago. However, I realized that Adams had been a big influence, so I didn't want to photograph in a completely different style or manner. I decided to use digital cameras and try to photograph in a contemporary way while at the same time referencing the work of Adams that came before.

Pond near Rush Creek in the Ansel Adams Wilderness
Grasses fill a small pond near Rush Creek in the Ansel Adams Wilderness region of California. (p. 42-43). (Photo: Peter Essick/National Geographic)

Aside from Ansel Adams, who or what do you see as your major influences in both photography and life in general?

Eliot Porter and Ernst Haas were two photographers that I admired for their nature photography. I like to listen to music, especially when I am in the field. Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen are artists I admire because they are true to their beliefs and continue to produce great work over the course of long careers.

Aspen trees near Parker Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Young aspen trees sprout in a meadow near Parker Lake. (p. 37). (Photo: Peter Essick/National Geographic)

Why is photography important in conservation work?

I believe documentary photography is important because one can talk about the issues, but photography provides another level of evidence. I know from the response of some of my environmental photos that a photograph can make people think about or question what is happening to the landscape in unique ways. Ideally, writing and photography can be used in harmony to educate and enlighten.

Parker Creek, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Parker Creek flows past aspens shimmering in the October afternoon light. (p. 52-53). (Photo: Peter Essick/National Geographic)

As a National Geographic photographer, you've traveled around the world. Are there any particular assignments that you found especially rewarding or eye-opening?

An assignment I did in Patagonia is probably my favorite place to photograph. It is a dream location for a landscape photographer. My assignment to photograph the Canadian oil sands was very eye-opening about the abuse that humans are capable of doing to the land and how money corrupts people's values.

Cabin Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Reflections break the dawn’s stillness on a corner of Cabin Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness region of California. (p. 26-27). (Photo: Peter Essick/National Geographic)

Are there any new projects you're working on that you're excited about?

I just finished a story about the drought happening in the American West. I did a series of stitched panoramics that I am excited about. I even did some from a helicopter, and they showed a perspective that was not possible by conventional photography.

October storm near Parker Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Sleet from an October storm blankets aspen trees near Parker Lake. (p. 72-73). (Photo: Peter Essick/National Geographic)