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Yosemite in the Sixties

Yosemite in the Sixties. Glen Denny. Santa Barbara, CA. Patagonia and T. Adler Books. 2007.106 black and white photos. 144 pages. Hardcover. $60.00.

If you take a chunk of the real world and shove it through a lens, voila, you have a photograph. Some would say you have “captured” the moment or “recorded” the event. Perhaps, but we shouldn’t treat all photographs the same. Some represent but others illustrate while still others evoke. The impact of some photos depends in part on the artistic decisions made by the photographer and also on what the viewer brings to them, and the more this is so, the more reality recedes.

For those of us who were lucky enough to throw down a sleeping bag in Camp 4 in the 1950s and 1960s, Denny’s pictures serve as reminders of the contradictions of our youth. We sought freedom through the construction of iron ladders on big walls; we went one up on the material world by deciding we could do without; we were fierce individualists (as, I think, Denny’s photos reveal) and at heart loners who formed friendships that (usually) survived the grab bag of quirks, tics, phobias, and neuroses that shaped our personalities.

For those who came to Yosemite later (or have yet to come), Denny’s pictures will have to stand on their own. While they can be viewed as mementos from a bygone era, they also transcend time as much as they attest to it. The cubist geometry of Yosemite’s walls hasn’t changed. Denny sees the rock as found sculpture and takes delight in the play of light and shadow (in two photos, he sees a climber as shadow). Almost half of the photos show climbers climbing. In many of them the climber is small and the rock vast, and, since we can’t see the antiquated gear being used, we might imagine that the pictures were taken at any time in Yosemite’s climbing history.

In other photos the tools of the time are on full display—a shot of Chouinard sorting gear for a big wall, other shots in which bongs and Lost Arrow pitons and aluminum oval carabiners crowd picnic tables, and shots on climbs that show the use of Goldline rope and curious footwear.

Also specifically of the time are the portraits of climbers, about a third of the collection. It’s hard to imagine that Denny managed to photograph everyone who was doing significant climbs in the 1960s, but it seems that way. Chouinard, Roper, Robbins, Harding, Kor, Pratt, Frost, Rowell, Bridwell, Sacherer, and Schmitz appear more than once, and a number of other climbers can regard themselves as duly memorialized. In an extended essay in the book, Steve Roper remarks on Denny’s ability to capture not only the faces of these climbers but also their personalities. In most of these shots, if the climber was aware of Denny’s lens he didn’t show it, and so the face is more interesting, more revealing, than if the climber had been asked to say “cheese.”

In the 1960s, climbers camped in the upper part of Camp 4, an area now out of bounds, and Denny offers about 15 photos depicting life in the camp, including a classic shot of a bearhead down in a garbage can. There are also photos of a wedding in the meadow and a series on winter climbing.

Rounding out the collection are several peopleless photos, shots that remind us of the Valley’s beauty, both as a whole and in its parts, and that could give some people the notion that being up on one of those walls would be an exceptional experience. Some of these pictures have led others to mention Ansel Adams, and this is quite understandable. In the 1950s and 1960s, Best’s Studio in the Valley exhibited many photos by Adams, including one on the front porch that was four or five feet high and showed Salathé and Nelson on their epic 1947 ascent of the Lost Arrow. Denny includes an almost identical photo with Harding and Bob Swift replacing the pioneers. But there are significant differences between the two photographers. Adams rarely photographed people, and he used a large format camera mounted on a tripod. Denny used a hand-held 35mm camera. That said, both photographers approach their subjects with a strong esthetic sense. Although Denny loves the marriage of climber and rock, his photographs could easily impress someone with no interest in rock climbing.

The book is handsomely produced and would grace any coffee table. In fact, that is a good place for it since it will repay repeated visits. Already the book has won the National Outdoor Book Award for Design and Artistic Merit and the 2007 Banff Mountain Book Festival award as Best Book—Mountain Image.

Joe Fitschen