West of Eden. A History of the art and literature of Yosemite. David Robertson. Yosemite Natural History Association and Wilderness Press. 174 pages, 27 color plates, 72 black-and-white plates. $29.95 hardcover; $19.95 paperback.
David Robertson has written a book that is a joy to look at and a pleasure to read. He set out with the intention of researching the art and literature of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada and has provided us with both result and theory. He treats literature, painting and photography in their various epochs, from the “discovery” of Yosemite by the white man to the present day.
In the literature, Robertson singles out John Muir and Clarence King among the Sierra Nevada’s first interpreters. I have mostly found Muir tough sledding and much prefer King’s racy style. Robertson is surely correct when he calls King’s Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada “the best single book ever written about the Sierra.” Moving into our own time, Robertson points to Jack Kerouac’s great trip up Matterhorn Peak in Dharma Bums: a trip that several of us have repeated, book in hand.
The early paintings of Yosemite are really quite special. Here is the western eye interpreting a wilderness and a place of exceptional grandeur, in what must be one of the earliest 19th century bodies of such work. These artists were predominantly from Europe and New England, and as Robertson observes they looked to those artistic traditions for their technique and inspiration. Excellent though much of this early painting may be, it is cast in a European Alpine or Hudson River School mold. The truly original vision of Yosemite was yet to come.
According to Robertson it is the photographer who has achieved the most important art in Yosemite. The earliest photographers had no firm tradition or established masters to follow. They were pioneers in the medium and felt no need to be “artistic.” Their concern was to present what was already there. This they did to remarkable effect with their cumbersome plate cameras, and the work of Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge from the 1860s remains fresh and alive today. Robertson believes that it is with Ansel Adams that Yosemite and the Sierra find their greatest interpreter. When we see an Adams print we see no straight portrait, but a Yosemite caught in an instant of time and presented as a vision. I believe Robertson is correct when he states that Adams’ Yosemite pictures are not simply art of regional or national importance, but art of international significance. But is there life after Adams? Happily Robertson shows that there is, and includes several present-day photographs of great merit.
This is a book that every lover of the North American landscape should obtain.