An excerpt from
The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform
Nature on the Coffee Table
David Brower decorated his office with many posters, all images of wild nature. He worked on the tenth floor of the Mills Tower in downtown San Francisco, and the images provided a feeling of calm, a kind of sanctuary in a place otherwise defined by the sound of the phone ringing and the sight of papers accumulating on his desk. He wore a suit and tie to work, but the images reminded him of places where he had hiked and climbed, places in Hawaii, along the Colorado River, and in the Cascade Mountains, all places he desperately wanted to protect.
In 1969, after serving as executive director of the Sierra Club for seventeen years, Brower could look back on many accomplishments. During his tenure, the Sierra Club had grown rapidly, from 7,000 members in 1952 to over 70,000 by 1969. The club had played a crucial role in saving some of America’s forests, mountains, and rivers from threatened development and had helped push legislation through Congress that preserved nine million acres of wilderness.
For Brower, the images—all selected from Sierra Club books—reflected one of his proudest achievements. Under Brower’s leadership, the club launched the Exhibit Format series, coffee table books featuring photographs by Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and other artists, along with texts by Henry David Thoreau, Wallace Stegner, and other American nature writers. The books generated much publicity for the club, garnered many awards, and helped bring Brower into the national spotlight. They were large, heavy books, measuring over ten inches wide by over a foot long. As the name of the series suggests, each book was designed to simulate the experience of a photography exhibit. Brower wanted “a page size big enough to carry a given image’s dynamic. The eye,” he explained, “must be required to move about within the boundaries of the image, not encompass it all in one glance.” Between 1960, when the first book in the series appeared, and 1969, when Brower resigned from his position as executive director, the club published almost twenty Exhibit Format titles. During these years, Brower spent much of his time planning, designing, and editing books. He became more and more convinced that the coffee table book was the most effective way to promote the cause of wilderness preservation.
The environmental coffee table book emerged as part of a campaign to persuade Congress to enact the Wilderness Bill, legislation that would guarantee the permanence of the nation’s wild places. First introduced in 1956, the Wilderness Bill crawled through the House and Senate for almost a decade, where it was amended and diluted, revised and reintroduced, passed and repassed, and finally signed into law by President Lyndon Baines Johnson—who viewed it as an element of the Great Society—on September 4, 1964. A milestone in American environmental policy, the Wilderness Act of 1964 established a national wilderness system on federal lands and provided for the statutory protection of wild places. It also offered a definition of wilderness “as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Likewise, Sierra Club artists used the camera to present nature as sacred and sublime; their photographs encouraged audiences to view wilderness as a place where people are visitors who do not remain.
During the 1930s, documentary films had portrayed environmental reforms to mass audiences, uniting spectators through sublime images of disaster and transcendent scenes of technology restoring the landscape. In contrast to these collective experiences of nature, the Sierra Club appealed to Americans as individuals, as solitary readers and viewers of coffee table books. The Exhibit Format series continued the environmental jeremiad tradition, fusing words and images to judge and condemn American society. Yet Sierra Club books placed less emphasis on the interdependence of humans and the environment, focusing instead on the therapeutic meanings of wilderness to postwar Americans. Worried about the arms race and the destructive potential of technology, wilderness advocates celebrated a world without machines, a space apart from the problems of modern civilization.
In marketing the wilderness to the American public, the Sierra Club engaged with two key themes of postwar history: the politics of liberalism and the culture of conformity. Wilderness advocates followed postwar liberals in asserting that the state could provide for the public good. They pointed to the contradiction between private wealth and public poverty, to the growing affluence of American society in contrast to the failure of the government to meet basic needs of the citizenry. Sierra Club leaders also joined cultural critics in arguing that postwar society was bland and conformist, that it subjugated the individual and weakened personal autonomy. Wilderness advocates viewed psychic health as a public good; they claimed that subjective needs and spiritual longings could be addressed by the state. The federal government, they believed, could protect individual autonomy through the preservation of wild places. By linking ideology to personal identity, the Sierra Club tried to inject passion into politics and to present environmental reform as a type of secular salvation.
Although David Brower experimented with other kinds of images, including motion pictures, he believed that the coffee table book offered the most powerful medium to present the Sierra Club’s message. “It has long been recognized,” he explained, “that the book, for all that TV, radio, and periodicals may do, still has a status of its own in influencing thought. It lasts. It is kept and referred to. It is quoted. This is particularly true of the exhibit-format books.” The book, with its weightiness and materiality, was something that would be around, long after a decision was made or a vote was cast. Motion pictures and other media—as Robert Flaherty had discovered with the fate of The Land in 1942—could easily be discarded and forgotten. The book, Brower believed, would endure. It would always be there, serving as a reminder of wild places preserved or wild places destroyed, weighing on the conscience of those who voted against the wilderness. For a campaign committed to permanence, to ensuring that nature would be protected and honored for years to come, the coffee table book seemed the ideal means of expression.
The Exhibit Format series emerged at a time when more Americans were consuming images of the natural world. From the wildlife documentaries of Walt Disney and Marlin Perkins to the popular tourist magazine Arizona Highways, the camera presented and circulated visions of wild nature. The Sierra Club, in establishing its series of expensive coffee table books, sought a particular niche in this larger market. According to Brower, the books would appeal to “leaders in industry and government” and would “reach the most urbane people of all,” people who had the power to shape national policy. He wanted the books to become subjects of public debate, generating discussions among “the contemporary press, plus the letter-writing public, the law-passing legislators, and the law-administering managers who are determining right now the irrevocable fate of our land.” He believed that the exceptional design and reproduction quality of the photographs would capture the imagination of influential Americans, people looking for something other than the standard fare of nature imagery appearing on television or in magazines. Targeting affluent Americans, the Sierra Club presented consumption as a form of politics: by buying the books, consumers could express their concern for nature and join a movement devoted to its protection.
The Exhibit Format series not only mirrored the values of the wilderness campaign; it also became a major site for making and contesting the definition of environmental reform. As Brower had hoped, Sierra Club books received considerable attention in magazines and newspapers. Reviewers praised the artistry of the photographs and the message of the texts, linking the books to ongoing debates about wilderness policy and the future of the American landscape. Yet audiences also argued about the meanings of the books, particularly their conflicting and contradictory visions of environmental reform. From newspaper editors and letter writers to Sierra Club leaders and prominent politicians, Americans found internal tensions in the books and grappled with their implications for the conservation movement. Over time, the books themselves would change—moving beyond static definitions of wilderness to ecological conceptions of the landscape. They also began to appear in a cheaper paperback edition as part of an effort to widen the organization’s base by appealing to the youth movement and the counterculture. In the late 1960s, the club published a book featuring a student strumming an acoustic guitar while gazing out at the ocean. Long before the emergence of the counterculture, though, Brower and the Sierra Club had already made individual expression central to social change. Through the Exhibit Format series, they had shown that the personal could be political.
David Brower and the Sierra Club
In the summer of 1933, David Brower, who had recently withdrawn from the University of California at Berkeley, backpacked through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. One morning on the trail, he recalled seeing “this bearded type, camera and tripod over his shoulder, coming up through the timberline forest. ‘You must be Ansel Adams,’” Brower said to him. They exchanged a few words; Brower told the photographer how much he admired his work, while Adams complained that the cumulus clouds “were still too fuzzy to photograph.”
Two years before this encounter, Brower had first seen Adams’s photographs gracing the Sierra Club Bulletin. Appearing as the frontispieces of several issues, the images caught Brower’s eye. “Although the Bulletin’s words would get to me later,” he recalled, “Ansel’s photographs got to me immediately.” Brower became a frequent visitor to the club office in downtown San Francisco, where he would peruse and sometimes purchase back issues of the Bulletin. In the years to come, Brower and Adams would become close friends. They would climb mountains together; they would talk about photography and politics; working together as leaders of the Sierra Club, they would develop new ways to use the camera as an instrument of conservation.
Brower joined the club soon after returning from his backpacking trip in 1933. At the time, he had a purely recreational interest in the natural world. He wanted to admire the scenery and “to enjoy wilderness,” he said, “without being particularly concerned about what was happening to it.” “I was not,” he continued, “‘saved’ as a Sierra Club preservationist.” For Brower, the club seemed a congenial group that would nurture his talents as a mountain climber. Reading the old issues of the Bulletin, though, he learned that the club had once been a different kind of organization, one that had engaged in major battles to protect wild places.
Founded in 1892 by a group of Californians, the Sierra Club maintained a geographical focus on the Sierra Nevada region. Members participated in the outings program and initiated an annual series of “high trips,” allowing them to hike and camp together in the California mountains. On occasion, club leaders launched campaigns to defend wilderness areas; none was more dramatic or more noteworthy than the failed effort—led by John Muir along with Herbert Gleason—to prevent a dam from being built in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. In the years that followed, however, the club became a minor factor in American society, a local hiking group that periodically entered the political realm.
Brower learned this history by reading back issues of the Bulletin, cover to cover, “the way,” he explained, “one would read the Bible.” He became “'saved’” as a preservationist a few years later. Brower’s use of evangelical language to describe his involvement in the Sierra Club could be read as something more than metaphorical. He was christened as a Presbyterian, the religion of his mother, but his Baptist grandmother felt that this form of baptism, “a few drops of water on the head,” was not effective. So she made sure that the young boy also took “the Baptist dunking.” Baptized twice, exposed to two varieties of Protestantism by two fervent believers in his family, Brower found as he grew up that neither religion “stuck that well.” Yet he often referred to conservation in religious terms, calling it “an ethic and conscience in everything we do, whatever our field of endeavor.” “We are,” he believed, “in a kind of religion, an ethic with regard to terrain.”
As he became more committed to the ideas of conservation, Brower also became more involved in the Sierra Club, editing the Bulletin, leading club outings, and serving on the board of directors. In 1952, he became the club’s first executive director, a full-time paid position that he held for seventeen years. Brower helped turn the Sierra Club into a national organization that focused on issues beyond California, shaped federal policy, and used innovative methods—including coffee table books—to arouse an unprecedented level of concern for the American wilderness. Brower combined charisma with creativity, boldness with moral passion; he had an unblinking devotion to the cause of conservation.
Brower became a spiritual defender of the landscape at the same time that Americans were visiting national parks in record-setting numbers. As the United States economy surged during the postwar boom, many Americans enjoyed higher wages, allowing more people to vacation in the national parks and monuments. By 1955, Yosemite and Yellowstone recorded over one million visitors each, while attendance soared to nineteen million in the park system as a whole. For many Americans, a vacation to the parks resembled a secular pilgrimage, a visit to places that survived, in the words of one conservationist, as “samples of the original America.”
The growing popularity of national parks coincided with a new threat to the park system: in 1950, the writer Bernard DeVoto revealed that the Bureau of Reclamation planned to build a dam at Echo Park inside Dinosaur National Monument. DeVoto, who had grown up in Utah and traveled extensively in the West, was angered by this proposal. “Echo Park Dam,” he explained in the Saturday Evening Post, “would back water so far that throughout the whole extent of Lodore Canyon the Green River, the tempestuous, pulse-stirring river of John Wesley Powell, would become a mere millpond. . . . Echo Park and its magnificent rock formations would be submerged. Dinosaur National Monument as a scenic spectacle would cease to exist.”
Using apocalyptic language, DeVoto indicted the Bureau of Reclamation, a powerful federal agency that played a significant role in shaping the modern West. During the Depression, the bureau gained much renown for its work on the Hoover Dam, the dam that controlled the raging Colorado and became a symbol of technological progress. After World War II, the bureau set its sights on the entire upper Colorado region. Citing the need for irrigation and hydroelectric power, the bureau developed the Colorado River Storage Project. This plan called for a series of dams on the Colorado and its tributaries, including the one on the Green River at Echo Park.
Like DeVoto, Brower did not want to see the national parks ruined. Spearheading the club’s campaign to block the Echo Park Dam, he wrote articles in the Bulletin, testified in Congress, and challenged the Bureau of Reclamation. He also encouraged the club to put together a book featuring essays and images of Dinosaur National Monument. Published in 1955, five years before Brower launched the Exhibit Format series of coffee table books, this book would contribute to the campaign, receive attention from the press, and publicize the club’s message. Most of all, the book would provide Brower and other club leaders with a new tool of propaganda, a concept they would refine in the years to come. The book was called This Is Dinosaur, and with this title, the Sierra Club announced not only a place but also gave notice that it had arrived as a national organization.
This Is Dinosaur
Spanning the border of Utah and Colorado, Dinosaur National Monument was a relatively unknown place. Named for the quarry of dinosaur fossils found there in the early twentieth century, Dinosaur was designated a national monument by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915 and enlarged by President Roosevelt in 1938 to encompass several canyon and mountain areas along the Green and Yampa rivers. This expansion transformed the monument into one of the largest sites in the national park system. No longer just a repository of dinosaur bones, the monument became an enormous wilderness area, containing over 200,000 acres. Yet despite the postwar surge of travel to the national parks, few Americans visited Dinosaur or knew anything about it. For conservationists who opposed the Echo Park Dam, the challenge was to inform Americans about what would be lost at Dinosaur.
In the 1950s, some Sierra Club members began to take river-rafting trips through the monument. Even more read articles in the Bulletin describing the landscape that would be destroyed if the dam were built. “You come off that trip convinced,” Brower argued, “that a dam would be the tragedy of our generation.” But Brower wanted to capture the imagination of many more Americans, not just members of the Sierra Club. He wanted to stir people into action, to show them that Dinosaur, like the rest of the park system, was “dedicated country, hallowed ground to leave as beautiful as we have found it.” Brower believed that an illustrated book could reach a large audience, and in 1955 he asked the novelist and historian Wallace Stegner to serve as editor for the project.
Over the next several years, Stegner would play an important role in the Sierra Club, contributing articles to the Bulletin, participating in policy debates, and acting as a literary advisor to the Exhibit Format series. By editing This Is Dinosaur, Stegner found a place for himself in the wilderness movement. This Is Dinosaur had slightly larger dimensions than the average hardback book, but not nearly as large as the Exhibit Format books that would follow. Nevertheless, Stegner grasped the symbolic significance of This Is Dinosaur as a book—as a tangible artifact and a lasting statement about conservation. “The mere weight of a book,” he wrote, “does some good; anything worth making a book about should be worth saving.”
This Is Dinosaur features a visual gallery—consisting of images and lengthy captions—followed by seven essays. Assembled by David Brower, the gallery aimed to make readers feel like armchair adventurers, imaginary visitors at Dinosaur National Monument. Philip Hyde, a photographer who had studied with Ansel Adams, contributed almost half of the photographs in the gallery. Many of his pictures offer wide, expansive views suggesting the vastness of land and sky. In one photograph, an image that appeared not only in This Is Dinosaur but also in issues of the Sierra Club Bulletin and other conservation magazines, Hyde introduced viewers to Steamboat Rock, the eight-hundred-foot sandstone wall that juts into the sky. Massive and rising upward, with light reflecting off one side, the rock dominates the scene. Yet Hyde’s point of perspective also provides viewers with the feeling of standing at the place where the photograph was taken. Hyde revealed the massive verticality of Steamboat Rock, but he also presented an up-close view of the foreground that made the grasses and plants seem so near, so close. He encouraged viewers to imagine themselves at the edge of the photograph, about to set foot on the stage prepared for their arrival.
The last caption in This Is Dinosaur’s gallery uses a style of direct address, referring to the reader as “you,” the person who has completed this journey and discovered “the infinite peace” that lies in Dinosaur. “This, you know now,” the caption affirms, “is a country as grand and beautiful as any America can boast; and if the dams are built . . . almost all of what you have seen . . . will be wiped out.” The final sentence instructs the reader to “take away a question from your trip,” a large, even philosophical question about the direction America was heading, a question about the relationship between technology and the environment, a question about “whether, in the end, we may not be in danger of engineering out of existence some of the things that make existence precious.”
Stegner echoed this warning about the dangers of technology in his essay that followed the gallery. He praised Dinosaur as a “sanctuary from a world paved with concrete, jet-propelled, smog-blanketed, sterilized, over-insured, aseptic; a world mass-produced with interchangeable parts, and with every natural beautiful thing endangered by the raw engineering power of the twentieth century.” Obsessed with technology, proud of their ability to rearrange the planet, Americans, Stegner believed, were turning their “bulldozers and earth-movers loose” just because they could. The unbounded hubris of modern society meant that “every other species, even the earth itself, has cause to fear our power to exterminate.”
Stegner called for a more chastened attitude toward technology and human power, but he also celebrated the wild in purely human terms, as a place to satisfy personal desires and longings. “A place is nothing in itself,” he wrote. “It has no meaning, it can hardly be said to exist, except in terms of human perception, use, and response. . . . Natural beauty is nothing until it comes to the eye of the beholder.” Following the Emersonian tradition, Stegner embraced an anthropocentric definition of wilderness as a place where people could not only recreate, but also re-create their own identity. “The natural world,” Stegner explained, “is the test by which each man proves himself: I see, I feel, I love, I use . . . I appropriate, therefore I am.” Stegner believed that wilderness promised to soothe and refresh the psyche; it provided sanctuary from an overly engineered world.
Wilderness in an Age of Conformity
Stegner’s comments about a “sterilized, aseptic” world, one “mass-produced by interchangeable parts,” suggested how wilderness advocates viewed American culture in the 1950s. They worried about identity and claimed that modern society threatened to submerge the individual; they were not alone in these fears. Leading intellectuals argued that a culture of conformity was emerging in the United States. Major works of the period, such as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) and William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956), described America as plagued by homogeneity and standardization, providing few opportunities for individual self-fulfillment. A nation committed to autonomy was becoming a nation of automatons, a society filled with organization men wearing gray flannel suits.
In the 1930s, intellectuals had described America as a unified, collective whole; seeking security in a time of economic collapse, they used cultural nationalism to create a reassuring vision, a sense that America could survive the cataclysms of the Depression. By promoting New Deal programs, they called for a vital engagement in public life and affirmed their belief that government was a positive agent of change. Their dreams became a kind of nightmare for postwar intellectuals who feared the growth of large organizations, who glimpsed mushrooming bureaucracies and spreading conformity. Rather than a sense of belonging, postwar intellectuals searched for inner satisfaction, for private fulfillment in a society that seemed to overwhelm the individual.
Like Riesman and Whyte, wilderness advocates were preoccupied with personal identity. In a speech reprinted in the Sierra Club Bulletin, Howard Zahniser, the executive secretary of the Wilderness Society, claimed that people could regain a “needed personal independence” by visiting the wilderness. In nature, Zahniser argued, “modern man” could rediscover “an ability to care for himself, to carry his burdens, to prepare his own food, furnish his own shelter.” Zahniser voiced a fear of crushed individualism and lost independence; he wanted to restore a sense of personal freedom to “modern man.” Similarly, Brower described the wild as a place for Americans “to leaven their otherwise ersatz world.” Worrying about the conformist trends of 1950s culture, wilderness advocates defined American society as artificial and constrictive, as something that suffocated the individual. Without wilderness, they feared that there would be no antidote, no place for renewal. Without wilderness, Brower explained, “the world’s a cage.”
Wilderness advocates worried about private experience and individual identity, but in contrast to many intellectuals they did not withdraw from public life. Instead, they believed that the state could help restore a sense of purpose to American culture; through the protection of wilderness and national parks, the federal government could secure meaning and autonomy for the individual self. As part of their quest for psychic health, conservationists engaged in public debate and tried to shape government policy.
And they had some success. Published in April 1955, This Is Dinosaur was praised by reviewers. A copy of the book was sent to each member of the U.S. Congress, and a few months later, plans for the Echo Park Dam were scrapped. Wilderness advocates enjoyed this victory but also formulated a new strategy. Rather than acting on the defensive, trying to protect a particular wilderness area from a dam or some other threat, they would take the offensive. They would encourage Congress to adopt a Wilderness Bill, legislation that would enable the wilderness to live on and on.
As their campaign progressed, many wilderness advocates encouraged Americans to respond to nature with their emotions. In 1954, the writer Joseph Wood Krutch, who later became involved in the Sierra Club, called for an aesthetic, spiritual approach to nature, arguing that it was essential to the conservation movement. Without it, he claimed, conservation would remain “unrealizable.” Without it, there would always be something missing, something that would hinder law and public policy, something that would prevent Americans from improving their relationship with the natural world. “And the thing which is missing,” Krutch concluded, “is love, some feeling for, as well as some understanding of, the inclusive community of rocks and soils, plants and animals.”
Krutch worried not only about the threats to scenic beauty and the sanctity of wilderness. He also voiced a fear of psychic scarcity—a lack of resources for the human spirit. In his defense of spiritual and emotional values, Krutch challenged a prevailing trend in American culture—the worship of economic abundance, the unreflective faith in productivity, material expansion, and the ever-increasing purchasing power of Americans. Implicitly, he challenged the definition of abundance offered by David Potter in his influential book, People of Plenty (1954). In this text, Potter argued that the American character was shaped by the “historical force” of “economic abundance.” From the enormous riches of the frontier to the mass-produced goods of the industrial age, Potter defined abundance solely in economic, quantitative terms. Abundance was something that could be calculated, measured, and then displayed in graphs and charts. “The compilation of statistics might be extended endlessly,” Potter wrote, “but it would only prove repetitively that in every aspect of material plenty America possesses unprecedented riches. . . . Everyone knows that we have, per capita, more automobiles, more telephones, more radios, more vacuum cleaners, more electric lights, more bathtubs, more supermarkets . . . than any other nation.” As evidence of the nation’s abundance, Potter listed the cornucopia of consumer goods available to Americans.
To wilderness advocates, this definition of abundance seemed narrow and reductive; it left out a whole range of human desires and longings. Tied to quantitative measurements, it disregarded feelings and emotions; it said nothing of aesthetics and spirituality. Speaking at the Sierra Club’s Wilderness Conference in 1961, Krutch emphasized the importance of the nonhuman world to people: “It is by contact with nature,” he said, “that we begin to get . . . a sense of the mystery, the independence, the unpredictableness of the living as opposed to the mechanical, and it is upon the recognition of that element in man which he shares with all living creatures that any recognition of his dignity has to be based.” The worship of technology, the reliance on statistics and numbers, the celebration of mass-produced commodities: all of these seemed to create a world of mechanical artifice and to place more barriers between people and the reality of nature. While Potter relied on a quantitative definition of abundance, Krutch and other wilderness advocates worried about the problem of psychic scarcity; they wondered what it would mean to be human in a world without wilderness.
Krutch’s critique of the quantitative measure of human happiness added a psychological and spiritual dimension to postwar liberalism. In The Affluent Society (1958), the economist John Kenneth Galbraith helped redefine liberal thought and political strategy by pointing to the great irony of the postwar boom: even as the American economy surged, American society suffered, as the public sector failed to provide adequate education, parks, and health care. The quality of life, Galbraith and other liberals argued, consisted of more than economic productivity; it also included the provision of public goods and services. As Galbraith emphasized the contrast between private wealth and public impoverishment, Krutch emphasized the contrast between economic progress and spiritual atrophy, between outward growth and inner deprivation. While Galbraith called for a revitalized public sector to improve hospitals, roads, and schools, Krutch wanted the federal government to save the American wilderness as a way to shelter and sustain the American soul.
Ansel Adams applied similar ideas to photography. In his early work, dating from the 1920s and 1930s, Adams adhered to the modernist aesthetic developed by Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston. He tended to focus on small fragments of the natural world, taking close shots of flowers, cliffs, and lakes. Striving for precision and directness, he found the quintessence of nature in its concrete details. During the 1940s and 1950s, Adams shifted to a panoramic style. Evoking the nineteenth-century landscape paintings of Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt, his photographs presented expansive, romantic views of the landscape. Taken primarily in Yosemite and other national parks, these photographs of the sublime West became his most widely recognized images. As his aesthetic style shifted, Adams also began to emphasize the political possibilities of photography. Like other image makers, he tapped into the sublime tradition to galvanize concern for environmental reform.
In a speech delivered at the 1961 Wilderness Conference, Adams argued that photographers had a special role to play in environmental reform. Like Krutch, he linked the aesthetic to the spiritual and called for an emotional awakening, a transformation in the way Americans viewed their landscape. “I feel,” Adams explained, “that . . . unless some great spiritual experience is evoked, some deep excitement and sense of purpose is stimulated within our people, our cause is lost. . . . Development will reign supreme until nothing else remains to develop.” To counter the menace of “development,” Adams urged artists to engage in a cultural mission that would kindle new interest and new excitement in the wilderness. For Adams, photographs of wild nature carried religious meaning; indeed, he wanted to restore an older, more spiritual conception of art. “Pre-Renaissance and Renaissance art,” he explained, “was almost entirely based on religious motivation. . . . Art was dedicated to the Glory of God.” “I think it is time,” Adams declared, “that the Glory of God be revived; only now, instead of saints and angels, myths and legends, rituals and dogma, we have the vast and luminous evidences of God in the realities of the cosmos in which we live.” As he recast religious art in secular form, Adams also called for a secularized religion of nature. “We are on the threshold,” he concluded, “of a new revelation, a new awakening. . . . Man must affirm his spiritual kinship with the eternity of Nature.” Adams, like other wilderness advocates, wanted to redefine the language of political debate. To challenge the quantitative claims of developers, he wanted to create a legitimate space for the emotions. He believed that the camera could revive religious feeling by portraying the vast and luminous evidence of God in the cosmos—or at least in the American West.
For Sierra Club leaders, the coffee table book emerged as the primary medium to express their emotions. It conveyed their concern with vision, with perception as a form of politics. It suggested their faith in the camera, in photography as a carrier of spiritual values. And finally, as a consumer item, it suggested that wilderness advocates, like other critics of conformity, were preoccupied with taste, that they considered aesthetics to be a form of dissent. Although Sierra Club leaders questioned the idea of quantitative abundance, they relied on a lavish consumer object to carry their message. The books were produced with exacting standards, printed on expensive paper and designed with exceptional care; the photographs exceeded the reproduction quality found in other books; even the typography, Brower explained, “required a matching elegance.” The books carried a high price tag and were clearly aimed at an affluent audience—consumers who desired, in Brower’s words, a “prestige item,” something they could “display” in their homes. In an age of conformity, the Sierra Club marketed the reality of wilderness, a reality captured by the camera and presented in the elegant style of the Exhibit Format series.