Life magazine published “Three Mormon Towns” on September 6, 1954. Today, the photo-essay by Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams — two of the best-known photographers in the medium’s history — is largely unknown. James Swensen’s new book, In a Rugged Land: Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and the Three Mormon Towns Collaboration, 1953-1954, argues for a new look at the collaboration. Rich with historical context and insight into how Lange and Adams worked together, Swensen’s book goes beyond a description of the photographic process and a discussion of the subsequent photo-essay. The Brigham Young University professor of art history adeptly weaves a narrative that contextualizes the outsider interest in Mormon communities, the change that photography as a medium and profession was undergoing at the time, and how the publication of the essay was perceived.
Lange first came to southwestern Utah in 1933 when her first husband, painter Maynard Dixon, took an interest in the landscape surrounding Zion National Park. The couple traveled from town to town, staying with Mormon families along the way, starting relationships that would last decades. Lange respected the Mormons and, as Milton Metlzer has written, saw them in a “heroic mold, living against a demonic landscape.” She thought rural life was disappearing in America, and in 1941 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship (the first woman to win one) to study and photograph it. Her experience with the Mormon community and the rural West directly led to Lange’s pitch to Life. She organized a team: Adams, with whom she had previously collaborated, Paul Taylor (her second husband), to act as community diplomat, and her son, Dan Dixon, to write descriptions of the experience. Life was interested. “With a strong sense of nationalism and American superiority, Life had a vested interest in stories extolling the ‘American Scene,’“ writes Swensen. He goes on to discuss the magazine’s view that Mormonism was a “vestige of America’s pioneer past” and that it deserved discussion in that context. In addition, images of southwestern Utah’s remarkable landscapes and the perception of Mormons as somewhat peculiar would grab public curiosity and could sell magazines.
Life reached 22 million people weekly (one-fourth of the U.S. population) and Lange and Adams had mixed feelings about working for it. The paycheck and audience were enticing but Life controlled what was published and how it was presented. Lange and Adams wanted to control all printing and editorial choices — just as the Mormon communities wanted to control their image. Swensen beautifully contextualizes this trifecta of interests — publisher, photographer, subject — throughout the book, describing how the sausage got made at Life and how the field team worked with leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to secure permissions to photograph Gunlock, Toquerville, and St. George while staying true to their (or maybe just Lange’s) vision.
Lange was the organizing force. Among the documents Swensen references is Lange’s daybook of notes taken during the team’s time in the field. He also sites numerous letters written by Adams to collaborator and friend Nancy Newhall. These sources are incredibly interesting and Lange’s daybook contextualizes her approach. She jotted down phrases like “Pioneering Never Stops” and “The Glory of God is Intelligence” on the drive south. Swensen cites a list, “Item[s] which must be photographed,” which included “the Mormon home and barn, subsistence gardens, canning, music, dances, road signs, Juanita Brooks, the drive-in movie screen, and the Priesthood — a shorthand term for the authority given to worthy white male members of the LDS Church.” She ultimately wanted to photograph religion — not the symbols or practice of religion but the less tangible qualities.
The LDS Church’s control over the narrative is described like this: “The pioneer generation was largely gone by this date, but their legacy was more palpable than ever. As the primary ‘architect of collective memory in Utah,’ the LDS Church and its leadership were particularly active in reviving the pioneering past.” In order to photograph the Mormon towns, Lange, Taylor, and Dixon went to Salt Lake City to request permission from church leader J. Rueben Clark, who, Swensen writes, “endorsed projects that celebrated the triumph of the Saints over works that portrayed the harsher realities of the faith.” When requesting permission, Taylor discussed the photographs in terms of a museum exhibition and never mentioned Life — an important mistake. Clark gave overarching permission but each community had final say. The bishop in Gunlock, Ivan Hunt, was suspicious of the field team partially because weeks earlier Arizona authorities had raided the small town of Short Creek (later renamed Colorado City and Hilldale) on the Arizona-Utah border, arresting many in the polygamist Mormon community. Remarkably, Toquerville’s bishop, Howard F. Fish, gave Lange and Adams total access to the community including permission to photograph a Mormon church service from the Sacrament ordinance to the emptying of the chapel once service concluded (ultimately not included in the article but images reproduced in the book are remarkable). St. George was large enough that an individual bishop did not need to be consulted. In each community, the team never mentioned the Life article. Adams expressed frustration with Taylor and Lange for not expressly disclosing Life’s plan to publish the photographs. He felt that ethically this detail should not have been withheld.
Adams and Lange did not always agree and both photographers were known for their sharp personalities. Swensen describes them thus: “Both photographers were strong-willed, opinionated, and deeply entrenched in their ideas and opinions. According to their collaborator Daniel Dixon, ‘I … learned how and why to keep my mouth shut in the presence of two tautly-strung prodigies who certainly needed no other opinion to persuade them that they should alter their own … I can’t remember any conversations to which I had anything to contribute. I simply used my eyes and ears, and my mouth only to murmur agreements. It was a very valuable lesson.’“
Among their strong opinions was a core philosophy behind the role of the photographer. “Lange believed that photography had become detached and isolated from life, and she urged her fellow photographers to remember their responsibility to use their cameras as a tool of passion and humanity,” Swensen writes. Photography was moving away from an objective or documentary approach, becoming more subjective. Swensen quotes photography writers Ward Pease and Andreas Fieningeras describing documentary photography as dealing with “perversions,” including a focus on the “smelly side” of life and the “sordid aspects of our society.” Lange wanted to show that documentary photography was still relevant and necessary, and she believed that focusing on the power and beauty of the familiar would prove her point. Adams’ philosophy embraced aesthetics: “I am not afraid of beauty, of poetry, of sentiment. I think it is just as important to bring people the evidence of the beauty of the world of nature and of man as it is to give them a ‘document’ of ugliness, squalor, and despair.” Adams saw photography as an artistic pursuit that involved high-level craft.
Lange and Adams were also known for different strengths. Swensen cites an article in Fortune magazine which “praised Lange as ‘quite possibly the most penetrating documentary photographer.’ Adams in contrast was ‘an eminent technician, teacher, and writer, whose love of mountaineering has made him the foremost photographic interpreter of the West.’“ Lange was clearly perceived as the expert on people, Adams the expert on landscape. In many ways this makes for a great pairing, but both refused to limit their work. “Even at the start of the collaboration both photographers crossed over into the assumed ‘specialty’ of the other,” Swensen explains. “Not only did this complicate the process but it would have lasting consequences.” Swensen goes on to explain that the photographers borrowed each other’s cameras, making attribution difficult. “During their time in southern Utah Lange and Adams worked closely together and were, more or less, engaged in a common pursuit. Moreover, they viewed the project as a full collaboration rather than the work of two distinct individuals. This is corroborated by Ansel’s statement: ‘We did it as a joint thing … What was Dorothea’s idea, what was my idea, whether she or I did the photograph what difference does it make?’“ The resulting photographs are primarily attributed to Lange even though many must be by Adams. He seems accepting of this deep collaborative spirit, but also expresses frustration with it. Swensen says that Adams “fretted that only seven of his works, as opposed to twenty-eight of Lange’s, were selected. It was ‘99% Dorothea,’ he exaggerated. For a project that was a ‘total collaboration,’ Adams seems to have been overly concerned about the imbalance and not getting his due.” He was also frustrated with Lange’s checklists and themes for each town. In a letter to photographer Minor White, he wrote, “Believe me, it was NOT a collaboration — it was A[nsel] A[dams] manipulated around an imposed idea by D[orothea] L[ange].”
Indeed, Swensen describes Lange as using Gunlock, Toquerville, and St. George to illustrate the narrative of rural America’s urbanization and the loss of different aspects of Americanness. Her shot lists were used to guide the photographers along this narrative while in the field and during editing (something she learned from Roy Stryker and her time as an FSA photographer). This is not new in photography but a reminder that photographs are just one version of the truth.
Lange described Gunlock as “a hamlet, like one family; a place where everybody knows everybody.” It represented everything that Lange and Taylor thought was disappearing in America. Lange and Adams photographed the buildings in Gunlock, focusing on the church in the center of the community, the geography surrounding the town, and the people. The resulting images are quiet. The photographs of people are intentional and confrontational — not aggressive, rather full of life and sensitivity. They photographed church leaders in the modest chapel, the Sunday congregation, women canning vegetables in their homes, and children standing on top of horses. Lange and Adams were enveloped in the community and they made it feel vibrant and young in their images.
Toquerville was more established and its buildings showed their age. Its tree-lined Main Street attracted the photographers and they documented every structure alongside it. The residents were also photographed, with a focus on the older people.
St. George was by far the largest of the three. Lange and Adams photographed its Main Street, lined with large shops where giant window displays were optimized for drive-by viewing, as a panoramic document just as they did in Toquerville, resulting in a stark contrast. The motels, roadside signs leading to town, and bustling traffic became a focal point. They did not photograph bishops, chapels, or farms as they did in the previous towns. Portraits compared the older generation to the younger, comparing the past to the future.
After fieldwork was complete, Adams printed the negatives and Lange began organizing and editing. She selected 135 images and carefully sequenced them on panels according to themes with Dixon’s accompanying text. Swensen includes images of these remarkable layouts. They tell a beautifully conceived and executed story of the disappearance of American rural ways. Life published 35 images — more than most essays received but far less than what Lange and Adams thought was adequate. Both photographers felt slighted.
The article followed Lange’s themes, starting with Gunlock as the idyllic rural town. Residents were pleased with their portrayal even though the publication was a surprise. Bishop Hunt personally wrote Lange a letter thanking her for the photographs and stating that “they caused a great deal of commotion in our little town.”
Toquerville was second and contextualized as a decaying town — evidence of the abandonment of rural life. Dixon wrote, “Toquerville is old and quiet but its children have gone away.” Swensen provides the response: “ … Bishop Howard Fish wrote Lange and Taylor to tell them that the members of his town were discussing the ‘pro and con’ of the article. Evidently the cons won out. Understandably there was ‘widespread displeasure’ with the story in Toquerville. No community wants to be portrayed as dying.” One Toquerville resident, Vera Betty, “who was photographed in and around her home in Toquerville in her canning apron, housedress, and disheveled hair … felt humiliated that she was presented to millions of people in this way without her knowledge or consent.” She sent a letter to Life demanding $1,000 in compensation.
Third was St. George. For Life, Dixon wrote, “St. George has taken up worldly ways.” Commerce and transition to urbanization was the focus of his article. “While they seem to have given up the past for the present and abandoned the plow for the gas pump their struggle is unchanged,” he continued. “They seek, like their grandfathers, to wrest a living from the desert, and in their way they, too, are pioneers.”
The photo-essay and collaboration became a quiet footnote to the careers of both Adams and Lange. But the images have proven to be an important document in at least one specific way. Swensen discusses Carole Gallagher’s use of the images from the project for her book American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War. The people in southern Utah were learning about the dangers of their exposure to nuclear activity at the time Lange and Adams were photographing. Gallagher was able to use the images of people from Gunlock, Toquerville and St. George to “reach back in time to show you the good and gentle people that were being victimized.” In fact, both Lange and Adams had cancer though we cannot know if their downwind exposure was the cause.
In the end, Lange and Adams were proud of the photographs they made, even if Life’s editing and their poor decision to not disclose the publication aspect soured the project. Swensen explores how the images fit into the context of Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958), a decidedly different approach to documentation. Lange and Adams’ work marked the end of an important chapter in photography as Frank showed us “an America that was strange, lonely, and diverse,” he writes. “It was a portrait of a nation that was decidedly different from the rosy vision of the country that was typically broadcast in Life magazine.” Swensen also discusses (briefly) how Lange and Adams influenced contemporary photographers like Mark Hedengren and Christine Ambruster to photograph Mormon religion and rural life today. In a Rugged Land is a dense but easily digestible look into a unique collaboration between two stubborn, committed, and visionary photographers.
In a Rugged Land: Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and the Three Mormon Towns Collaboration, 1953-1954
University of Utah Press
Christine Baczek is a visual artist and co-founder of Luminaria, an alternative photography studio in Salt Lake City that specializes in historical photographic processes and offers workshops, a tintype portrait studio, and custom printing.