In the Footsteps of Ansel

French photographer Laurent Baheux describes his 7,500-mile odyssey to recreate the images of Ansel Adams
In the Footsteps  of Ansel

Baheux's Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California, 2014.

I headed out with my family on an epic journey:a two-month, 7,500-mile voyage across the Western states, inspired by the great American photographer Ansel Adams. He has always held a special place for me. It wasn’t just what he did with a camera—that distinctive high-contrast black-and-white technique—but also the fact that he lived every photo.

Adams was born in 1902 and died in 1984, so he lived in an age of massive change. He was a dedicated environmentalist, who took the time to be in nature, to be part of the landscape, which is something you can feel when you look at his photos. He grew up in San Francisco; his father was an amateur astronomer who encouraged his son to follow the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with a moral responsibility to nature.
 
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, 2014

He fought hard for the American wilderness, especially the Yosemite Valley, which in the 1930s was being desecrated by development. His 1938 book, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, and his passionate testimony before Congress played a pivotal role in turning Sequoia and Kings Canyon into National Parks in 1940. Here’s what he wrote:“Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space. I know of no sculpture, painting or music that exceeds the compelling spiritual command of the soaring shape of granite cliff and dome, of patina of light on rock and forest, and of the thunder and whispering of the falling, flowing waters. At first the colossal aspect may dominate; then we perceive and respond to the delicate and persuasive complex of nature.”

Adams spent his life documenting America’s West, whether it was the Grand Canyon or the moon rising against an ominous black sky above a New Mexico village. He was a major figure in the revival of the Sierra Club, which had been set up in the late 19th century to protect the American wilderness, but he never allowed his photography to become politicized. He insisted that “beauty comes first.”

Which brings us back to that Adams-inspired pilgrimage, which took us to Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, California and Arizona. We didn’t go to all the places he’d photographed, and for the most part, I didn’t try to re-create his images—it was more about finding that spirit. I met a friend in Arkansas, who helped fit me out with an old Ford Gulf Stream RV that could take the mileage.
 
Grand Prismatic, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 2014

Like Adams, I tried to take my time—not just with the trip, but with each image. It was about waiting for the light, waiting for the shadows, for that magical moment. Because the image has no color and no people, you have to work to find the emotion in it.

You need to really use the light and the shadows, and you have to make sure that the framing and composition is absolutely right. Sometimes, I’d come back empty-handed after a day in the mountains.
There were also moments when the logistics were hard. I did try to do a version of Adams’ famous shot of the Tetons and the Snake River in Wyoming, but after 70-plus years, the trees had grown much higher and were interrupting the view. So there was this comical moment as I clumsily climbed into the trees to get the right vantage point.

Throughout the trip, I was like a wide-eyed child. I’m French, and often when we think about America, we think about huge cities, cars, life. We don’t think so much about nature. But then you see these huge, empty, fabulous landscapes, and you just think, wow. We’ve all seen the Grand Canyon in pictures, but nothing prepares you for the scale of it, the magic of it. There were so many great moments, just looking out of the car with my kids, or waiting in these vast landscapes. I felt complete awe, and after two months, I could understand why Ansel Adams devoted his life and his art to this part of the world.

It’s worth it.