Book Design for Ansel Adams “The Mural Project”


This design project was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I was extremely grateful to be involved in. I provided the book design for the very first printed collection of Ansel Adams’ Mural Project photography. This group of photographs created by Adams in the 1940s had never been printed before. They were sitting in storage files at the Department of Interiors in Washington.

The design assignment involved designing the dust jacket and interior book design; a companion desk appointment calendar book and the Media Press Kit. The Media Kit design was a real treat as it was printed 11” x 17” large format that allowed for a beautiful presentation of Adams’ majestic photography.


Self portrait of Ansel Adams

For the book’s interior design I selected fonts that reflected the style of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, from the 1930s. For many years Ansel Adams worked for the Ahwahnee providing photography for the hotel’s promotional materials. The chapter titles and the sidebar text (that quotes Theodore Roosevelt’s writings on nature and conservation) are printed in a shade of gray that would best be described in Adams famous “Zone System” photographic technique as Zone V: “Dark foliage, dark stone, or landscape shadows.”

The photos Adams created for the Mural Project were lost in the archives of the Department of Interiors for over 40 years. In 1941 the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, hired Adams to photograph the western national parks, along with other locations in the west. In addition to the national parks Adams also photographed Native Americans and their lands as part of the project.

The plan was for Adams to create a photo mural for the Department of the Interior Building in Washington, DC. The theme was to be “nature as exemplified and protected in the U.S. National Parks.” Adams was one of the pioneers of the photo mural field. In 1935 he was commissioned to create photo murals to advertise the benefits of visiting Yosemite in the winter. At that time he also made his first large, three-paneled photographic folding screen. In 1940 he published an article titled, “Photo-Murals,” in U.S. Camera, which made him the authority on what he called, “enlargements with a vengeance.”

Due to the U.S. entering World War II, the Mural Project was never completed. Adams photography was never printed as photo murals and the photographs were never displayed in Washington. Adams’ signed original prints created for the project went into storage in Washington and the original film negatives went into storage at Yosemite National Park. From the 1940s through the 1980s very few people knew that Adams had taken this series of photographs.

Ansel Adams traveled throughout the west for the Mural Project creating photographic images of the Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Kings Canyon, Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Carlsbad Caverns, Glacier, and Zion National Parks; Death Valley, Saguaro, and Canyon de Chelly National Monuments. Other pictures were taken at Boulder Dam; Acoma Pueblo, NM; San Idelfonso, NM; Taos Pueblo, NM; Tuba City, AZ; Walpi, AZ; and Owens Valley, CA.

Unpublished cover for "The Mural Project"

The photograph I had originally selected for Ansel Adams The Mural Project book cover is a haunting image of White House Ruin on the South Rim Drive of Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. The high contrast lighting throws the cave wall behind the earthen dwellings into darkness while light falls on the ruins of the Indian villages built between 350 –1300 AD. The image Adams captured reveals a civilization lost to time. That book cover is shown here (left) for the first time. Only about a dozen press proofs exist of this cover version.

After the dust jacket proofs were printed the book’s publisher Reverie Press, Santa Barbara, requested that a different photograph appear on the cover. Being partial to the Canyon de Chelly photographs I selected a panorama of the valley that Adams photographed from a mountain top in the valley. This photo from above is a compelling contrast to the previous cover photo which Adams photographed from the valley floor.

“Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 by Ansel Adams

One of the images that is now recognized as one of Ansel Adams masterpieces is “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941.” During the time when he was contracted with the Department of the Interior the understanding was that he would also take photographs for his own use, using his own film and processing. “Moonrise” was photographed during his travels for the Mural Project. It was later determined to be one of Adams personal photographs. The position of the moon in “Moonrise” allowed the image to eventually be dated November 1, 1941, from astronomical calculations, a day for which he had not billed the Department, so the image belonged to Adams. The same was not true for many of his other negatives, including The Tetons and the Snake River, which, having been made for the Mural Project, became the property of the U.S. Government.


At the time of publication Ansel Adams The Mural Project photographs had never been released as a published collection in book form. Since the original publication, several publishers have discovered that public domain, inexpensive copy prints from the Mural Project can be acquired from The National Archives. Sadly, this has resulted in a series of poorly printed Mural Project “gift books” being published.

Finally after 70 years the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum in Washington has the photography on display in it’s original commissioned form as large scale murals. “Ansel Adams: The Mural Project 1941 – 1942” opened in March 2010. Information on seeing the murals is available at the Department of Interior web site.

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