Seven Images That Changed The Outdoors Forever

Wan­der­er Above the Sea of Fog by Cas­par David Friedrich, 1918
You prob­a­bly thought images meant photographs—and most on this list are, but not all. Mod­ern out­door recre­ation owes much of its her­itage to the Roman­tic Move­ment that start­ed in the late 18th cen­tu­ry. Where the Enlight­en­ment Move­ment before it had been inspired by intel­lec­tu­al ratio­nal­ism car­ried out in seclud­ed places like Voltaire’s gar­den or Jefferson’s Mon­ti­cel­lo, the Roman­tic Move­ment cel­e­brat­ed the raw pow­er of nature, set in dra­mat­ic land­scapes like the Alps, to inspire and tran­scend the every­day. Our mod­ern love of explor­ing sub­lime land­scapes traces all the way back to this move­ment. If you were to change this paint­ing to a pho­to­graph, and update the wanderer’s wardrobe, you would have an image that would be just at home in glossy mag­a­zines and Insta­gram feeds.


The Griz­zly Giant by Car­leton Watkins, 1861
In 1864, Abra­ham Lin­coln was the Pres­i­dent in the midst of a bloody, pro­tract­ed civ­il war and a tough wartime re-elec­tion cam­paign when Car­leton Watkins’ images of Yosemite made it to the White House. Shot on mam­moth 18 x 22 inch plates, Watkins’ images were the first pho­tographs that Lin­coln, and the Amer­i­can pub­lic, had seen of Yosemite and the Amer­i­can West. They con­vinced Lin­coln to declare Yosemite inviolate—a pre­scient move over a decade before Yel­low­stone became the first nation­al park—a move that would nev­er have been pos­si­ble with­out Watkins’ photographs.


Clear­ing Win­ter Storm by Ansel Adams, 1937
The most famous image by the most famous pho­tog­ra­ph­er in his­to­ry, this image remains the stan­dard by which land­scape and nature images are judged near­ly 80 years lat­er. Adams, of course, pop­u­lar­ized land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy, and specif­i­cal­ly land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy of the wilder­ness of the Amer­i­can West—like no oth­er ever has. His life­long rela­tion­ship with Yosemite and its van­tage points, his extra­or­di­nary patience to wait for weath­er and light—matched by his metic­u­lous skills in the darkroom—made his images pos­si­ble. And this pho­tograph’s com­bi­na­tion of com­po­si­tion, tex­ture, and dra­ma is the rea­son it’s nev­er been surpassed.


Ron Kauk Free-Solo­ing Beside Yosemite Falls Galen Row­ell, 1984
An equal­ly famous, but very dif­fer­ent image of Yosemite, show­cas­es climb­ing leg­end Ron Kauk climb­ing unroped next to Yosemite Falls with Half Dome in the dis­tance. It did more than pop­u­lar­ize rock climb­ing. it ush­ered in the age of extreme sport pho­tog­ra­phy. It was one of the first images that por­trayed out­door sports as both an ath­let­ic endeav­or and an inti­mate expe­ri­ence with nature. Before this shot, those inti­mate expe­ri­ences were the province of hikes, ear­ly-morn­ing canoeists, and qui­et bird­watch­ers; after it, adren­a­line, ath­let­ic skill, and appre­ci­a­tion of nat­ur­al beau­ty could all be one. Row­ell, him­self a skilled climber, shot the image from a hand­hold on the rock not far from Kauk.


Earth­rise by Williams Anders, 1968
On Christ­mas Eve, Anders shot this image through the port­hole of Apol­lo 8 in lunar orbit on the first manned mis­sion to the moon. It’s been called the most influ­en­tial envi­ron­men­tal pho­to­graph ever tak­en, and many cred­it it with help­ing launch the mod­ern envi­ron­men­tal move­ment. It shows Earth as a lone­ly, frag­ile, bea­con of blue float­ing in out­er space, with the bar­ren lunar sur­face in the fore­ground. Not only is it supreme­ly beau­ti­ful, it’s a per­spec­tive of our plan­et that in all like­li­hood we’ll nev­er see.


Gray Wolf by Jim Bran­den­burg, 1990
Wolves have got­ten a bad rap for centuries—they were even hunt­ed to extinc­tion through­out the west­ern US. After such ruth­less treat­ment, it’s not coin­ci­den­tal that just a few short years after Brandenburg’s image (part of a larg­er project pho­tograph­ing wolves across Cana­da and Alas­ka) that momen­tum began build­ing for rein­tro­duc­ing wolves to Yel­low­stone Nation­al Park, and then to the wilder­ness of Cen­tral Ida­ho. The rein­tro­duc­tion spawned a cas­cade of recov­er­ing ecosys­tems, and the grad­ual process of under­stand­ing preda­tors not as vil­lains, but as inte­gral parts of a healthy ecosystem.


Cir­cle of Bar­racu­da by David Doubilet, 1987
In 1987, under­wa­ter pho­tog­ra­phy was no pic­nic. Using strobes with short bat­tery-life, and a clum­sy Nikonos cam­era that required reg­u­lar oil­ing, Doubilet cap­tured the mag­ic of under­sea life like nobody had since Jacque Cousteau. This image, made in 1987, cap­tured a glimpse of the majesty and mys­tery of life under the sea, and it pre­saged what the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion would make eas­i­er in the fol­low­ing years.