By David Sheff
Updated June 01, 1981 12:00 PM

Ansel Adams’ photographs of the American landscape are portraits really of the national soul and spirit—great luminescent images of a vast wilderness happily untamed and untrammeled, primeval. Yet on the wall of his famous darkroom hangs a picture of quite another sort—a stiffly posed portrait of James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior. It is a photograph Adams quickly disclaims having taken, but one to which he has added a few mischievous touches all his own. A plastic spider is pinned to Watt’s head, and below the picture Adams has inscribed: “Darts anyone?”

Ansel Adams, 79, is America’s photographer laureate, a man with ample laurels to rest upon. But the social conscience which has informed his life’s work is not allowing him a peaceful semiretirement: He is currently “boiling,” as he puts it, over Reagan’s appointment of the most blatant anti-environmentalist ever to serve as the country’s chief conservation officer. Perceiving Watt as a threat to the natural beauty Adams has celebrated in his classic photographs, the legendary artist has decided to put his considerable energy and prestige behind a campaign for Watt’s removal. “I’ve known Ansel for 10 years and I’ve never seen him so emotionally upset over something,” says Bill Turnage, executive director of the Wilderness Society. “If he met Watt face to face, he’d probably punch him in the nose.” Indeed, when Adams talks about Watt, the usually jovial free spirit with a pixieish gleam in his eye turns downright fierce. “He’s the overseer of the land and resources of this country, and he’s going to be responsible for destroying them,” says Adams. “No wonder he’s aroused a certain amount of my wrath.”

Watt is assuredly no conservationist. Before taking over the Interior Department, he made a reputation battling that agency in court. As head of the conservative Denver-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, Watt led the campaign to help private industry in its attempt to gain access to federal lands, which comprise some 43 percent of the Rocky Mountain states. He also worked against the initiatives of environmentalists. In just five months as Interior Secretary, Watt has gone far toward reversing his department’s long conservationist tradition. His plans include relaxing federal regulations on strip-mining, offering to give private mining firms the right to drill in federal wilderness areas, speeding up the sale of offshore oil and gas leases, declaring a moratorium on the acquisition of national parkland—and initiating a study of whether some national parks should be abolished. Russell Peterson, president of the National Audubon Society, charges that Watt “has one of the most anti-environmental records of anyone I’ve ever met.” No one can claim there wasn’t warning, however. Asked by the House Interior Committee if he would save public lands for “future generations,” Watt, a born-again Christian, replied: “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”

Predictably, Watt has caused a flurry of controversy. Former Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who is now chairman of the Wilderness Society, calls Watt a “hired gun for the special interests.” California Gov. Jerry Brown has filed suit to prevent Watt from selling oil-drilling leases off the shores of such scenic sites as Big Sur and Point Reyes. Even California’s archconservative Sen. S.I. Hayakawa is opposed to the drilling. But an irate Ansel Adams wants more drastic action. “Watt,” he insists, “must be removed.”

At Adams’ suggestion, the Sierra Club is currently circulating a petition calling for Watt’s ouster. In five weeks the environmental group has collected more than 80,000 signatures. Adams, despite arthritis and heart problems, has taken a very personal interest in the campaign, writing letters to newspapers and telephoning congressmen to enlist support. “I make it a point to do something every day, whether it’s an interview or a letter or a phone call,” he said. “If everybody did that, maybe we could stop Watt. As I’ve been saying, a letter a day—from a million people—keeps the Watts away.”

Adams’ efforts appear to have little chance for success. Although the White House recently chided Watt for his confrontational style and urged him to hold a meeting with environmental leaders, President Reagan still supports his Interior Secretary. So do some legislators. “He is a very reasonable person,” says Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson. “I have known Jim Watt for over 20 years now and I have never seen him deviate from good conscience and sensitivity. He is taking the hard issues and dealing with them.” Even those congressmen who oppose Watt see no practical way to get rid of him. “I think he is a terrible Secretary of the Interior,” says Sen. Alan Cranston of California, “but I don’t think there are any grounds for impeachment.”

The photographer remains adamant. “This man is halting 100 years of growth of the national park system, halting two decades of progress in protecting areas near major cities. Watt thinks everything in the world was made for profit. His philosophy is to rape, ruin and run. It’s absolutely frightening.”

Adams is not a newcomer to the political heights, but he has spent his long life in other worlds—climbing the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains carrying his big box camera on his shoulder, or standing immersed in the perpetual night of his darkroom, perfecting his now-famous “zone system” of photographic exposures. Adams began his career at 14, when his insurance broker father took him to Yosemite National Park in 1916. Since then Yosemite’s rugged beauty has dominated Adams’ life and art. He met his wife, Virginia Best, there in 1921 and married her seven years later, forming a union that has lasted for 53 years and produced two children—Anne, 45, an art postcard dealer, and Michael, 47, a physician who was born in Yosemite. For each of the past 65 years, Adams has returned to Yosemite, hiking its trails, climbing its peaks and bringing back with him some of the most memorable images in the history of his art, including the examples on these pages. Books of Adams’ photographs have sold more than a million copies and recently one oversize print sold for $71,500. Adams laughs at such prices: “Don’t they know I’m not dead yet?”

But Adams’ work has done more than make money and adorn museums; it has had political impact. His book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, published in 1938, helped persuade FDR to support a bill making California’s Kings Canyon a national park. Adams was also an early member of the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s largest environmental groups, and served on its board of directors for 37 years. “It is hard to tell which has shaped the other more, Ansel Adams or the Sierra Club,” wrote David Brower, the club’s first executive director. Last year Jimmy Carter honored both the artistic and environmental achievements of Ansel Adams by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “Adams has been visionary in his efforts to preserve this country’s wild and scenic areas both on film and on earth,” the award proclaims. “It is through his foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans.”

Hindered by declining health in recent years, Adams has cut down on his hiking and spent more time in his home on the Pacific coast near Carmel, Calif. He continues to work daily, however, making prints for museums, updating his famous books on photographic techniques, writing his autobiography and helping to compile a collection of his letters. He does his writing on a state-of-the-art word-processing machine. “I love all the latest technology,” he says gleefully. That love even extends, ironically, to nuclear reactors: “I’d rather take a chance with nuclear power than the known harm of burning fossil fuels.” Anti-nuke activists may not approve of that sentiment but they cannot accuse Adams of selling out—or even mellowing. The maestro is feistier than ever. When a magazine asked him recently to photograph Ronald Reagan at the President’s Santa Barbara ranch, Adams refused, wanting nothing to do with the man who appointed James Watt. “He’s an actor and a puppet. He could read a beer can label and make it seem eloquent,” says Adams. “I don’t like Reagan. I can’t ignore my feelings and just come down and make a pretty picture.”