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Camera Obscura: Photographing the Aqueduct

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Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, 1944. Photography by Ansel Adams. Courtesy of Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. Copyright the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

In partnership with Boom Magazine, a new, cross-disciplinary publication that explores the history, culture, arts, politics, and society of California.

This is an excerpt of Camera Obscura from the Fall 2013 issue of Boom: A Journal of California.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct is a product of early twentieth-century engineering, and much of its history has been created through photography, the dominant imaging technology of that century. The connection between the two -- the aqueduct and photography -- has more metaphorical resonances than are immediately apparent on the surface, resonances that are ironically resurfacing in the twenty-first century through nineteenth-century photographic technology. But, then, nothing is as it seems in many images of the aqueduct and its landscape.


On November 5, 1913, the Los Angeles Aqueduct began bringing water to the city. 100 years later, KCET is looking at what has happened, what it means, and more across its website. See more stories here.


By far and away the most iconic photograph of the L.A. Aqueduct is one in which it is invisible. Ansel Adams took Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine on a bitterly cold morning in 1944. The portrait of the eastern massif of the Sierra is organized into bands of contrasting light, a shadowed meadow in the foreground behind which a line of sunlit trees demarcates the pasture from the upsloping and dark Alabama Hills. In the background, Mount Williamson and the Mount Whitney group stand wreathed in brilliant snow. In part it is such a successful photograph because it combines the nearby pastoral with the distant sublime, an organization of pictorial space that has been used in painting since the sixteenth century.

Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, California, 1998. | Photo: Terry Falke
Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, California, 1998. | Photo: Terry Falke

The photograph betrays no direct evidence of technology; the only obvious traces of human tinkering are the cleared pasture and the unnaturally rigorous spacing and alignment of the trees. Two elements that actually existed and that would have contradicted this Edenic composition are missing from the photograph. Arrayed on the left-hand hillside of the Alabama Hills were the large letters LP spelled out in whitewashed rocks that stood for Lone Pine. Driving through the town, you can still see the letters, which are refurbished regularly by locals in a ritual familiar to many communities in the Western states. Ansel Adams was so disturbed by what he considered to be an ugly scar in the landscape that he spot-toned out the letters in his prints with a small brush, and in the 1970s finally had them eliminated from the negative itself by his assistant.

To read more, click here.

Owens River Valley at 400', 1700 hours, Bishop California, June 2001. | Photo: Michael Light. Courtesy of Michael Light and Hosfelt Gallery
Owens River Valley at 400', 1700 hours, Bishop California, June 2001. | Photo: Michael Light. Courtesy of Michael Light and Hosfelt Gallery
Walker and Ellen under LA Aqueduct, Owens Valley, CA, 1992. | Photo: Robert Dawson
Walker and Ellen under LA Aqueduct, Owens Valley, CA, 1992. | Photo: Robert Dawson
The Lake Project 20. | Photo: David Maisel
The Lake Project 20. | Photo: David Maisel

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