The Mystery of Ansel Adams’ Denali Photo

black and white photo of a huge snowy mountain overlooking a calm lake
Denali and Wonder Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska, 1947, 1948.

Photograph by Ansel Adams Collection Center for Creative Photography © 2016 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

By Erik Johnson, Denali Historian

Renowned photographer Ansel Adams snapped one of the most iconic images of Denali but its exact date was a mystery because it was not detailed in his notes. Various sources used 1947 or 1948—or both years—in the photograph’s citation; however, the mystery was recently solved.

Astronomer Donald Olson used a combination of astronomy, parallax, and existing records to calculate the exact date and time of Adams’ famous photograph. He recently published the findings in Further Adventures of the Celestial Sleuth: Using Astronomy to Solve More Mysteries in Art, History and Literature. Olson calculated the photo's exact date and time as 3:42 am on July 15, 1948.

Although the year of the photo was a mystery to many, those who are well-versed in historic Superintendent Reports (available in Denali's Museum Collection) already knew the month and year Adams visited.

From the July 1948 Report:

“Ansel Adams, nationally known photographer, and son, Michael, were here 10 days . . . part of his assignment to photograph Park Service areas for an illustrated book. Mr. Adams was enthusiastically gratified as he was loaned transportation and ranger cabin accommodations.”

Last updated: September 24, 2018