restricted access Hard to Reach: Anne Brigman, Mountaineering, and Modernity in California
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Hard to Reach:
Anne Brigman, Mountaineering, and Modernity in California

Where I go is wild—hard to reach, and I don’t go for Alfred Stieglitz or Frank Crownshield or Camera Work or Vanity Fair, but because there [are] things in life to be expressed in these places.

Anne Brigman, 19161

In the spring of 1906, needing a change of scenery after the San Francisco earthquake, photographer Anne Brigman (1869–1950) and several companions made a trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains.2 For several weeks they camped at an altitude of eight thousand feet, making daily excursions to higher elevations for Brigman to photograph her models in the landscape. She later explained the excursion as follows:

With a small group, I went to the northern Sierra to make rough camp, packing [in] by mule. We ate, and slept with the earth in the fullest sense in this glorious grimness. Under these circumstances, through the following years, … I slowly found my power with the camera among the junipers and the tamarack pines of the high, storm-swept altitudes. Compact, squat giants are these trees, shaped by the winds of the centuries like wings and flames and torsolike forms, unbelievably beautiful in their rhythms.3

In subsequent years, during summer trips in the Sierras, often at altitudes above ten thousand feet, Brigman posed her models against ancient, twisted bristlecone pines, sublime vistas, and rock outcrops, manipulating both her negatives and her prints to create grainy, blurred, powerful images. [End Page 447]

Brigman’s work is visually compelling, and she was well-regarded by many of her contemporaries. She was elected to join Alfred Stieglitz’s Photo-Secession group in 1903, and in 1906 she was named a fellow, the first and only on the west coast. Stieglitz remained a friend, correspondent, and supporter for many decades. Brigman’s individual photographs and exhibitions received favorable reviews in Bay Area and national publications, and her work was purchased by art collectors at a time when photography was under-recognized as an art form.4 Brigman received the Grand Prize in Photography at the 1915 San Francisco Panama Pacific International exposition,5 and her work has been recognized by contemporary historians of photography, as well. Scholars such as Susan Ehrens and Kathleen Pyne have addressed Brigman’s relationship to early twentieth-century spirituality and proto-feminist movements in the Bay Area.6 Overall, Brigman played a significant role in the development of art photography in California.

One aspect of her work has yet to be addressed, however: Brigman’s relationship to the history of mountaineering, particularly as it was developing in California in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although Brigman herself would more accurately be described as an avid hiker or trekker than a mountaineer, it is noteworthy that her ability to visit the Sierras was facilitated by trail-building projects, byproducts of the expansion of national parks, early conservation movements, and the development of mountaineering in California, all of which made the area more accessible to visitors. Brigman’s written accounts of her trips to the mountains are also noteworthy, since they recall those of contemporary mountaineers in tone and content. And the landscape Brigman photographed was not a generalized one, but specifically marked as Sierran: bristlecone pines, snow fields, alpine lakes, and rock outcrops all feature significantly in her works.

Brigman’s work from the Sierras also underscores the strong connection between two key developments of the modern era, photography and mountaineering. Brigman’s Sierra photography can certainly be considered antimodern in its use of the pictorialist style, and her theme of liberation in nature also drew on contemporary spiritual movements and conservationist discourses. T. J. Jackson Lears has described antimodernism at the fin de siècle, especially in its American manifestations, as a rejection of “modern existence [in favor of] more intense forms of physical or spiritual experience.”7 Lynda Jessup has continued this discussion, noting that antimodernism “describes what is in effect a critique of the modern, … a longing for the types of physical or spiritual experience embodied in utopian futures and imagined pasts.”8 Certainly Brigman’s forays into the Sierras and the...