By Mike Morris, The Union Democrat

Editor’s note: Below is a Q&A with Evan Russel, a 2000 graduate of Sonora High School who lives in Yosemite Valley and is curator at the Ansel Adams Gallery.

Where did you go after graduating high school?
I went to UC Santa Cruz as an undergrad, majoring in film and digital media. After graduating, I enrolled at the University of Oregon, Eugene, to study as a grad student in architecture. Ultimately, architecture was not in the cards, so I left — a blessing in disguise actually, as the classmates I kept in touch with ended up struggling during the recession and some ended up throwing in the straightedge to take up other vocations.

How did you get a job at the Ansel Adams Gallery?
I called up on a Thursday and they asked “Can you show up on Tuesday?” Literally. Easiest job I ever received. Luckily, the current manager was familiar with my photography (she had seen it in years past at InFocus photo shows as well as exhibitions at The Vault Gallery in Sonora) so I had a bit of a foot in the door to begin with — not that I knew that at the time.

Ironically, my first day was the same day as the second Ferguson rockslide in the Merced River Canyon, which closed Highway 140 and cut off all power to the park. As a result, the gallery did not open to the public.

The one caveat with the job, was that they had no housing for me in the park, so I had to commute everyday between Twain Harte and Yosemite Valley — of course it was not the worst commute in the world by far, and while the distance may seem daunting, I still spent less time in the car than I would have during many a morning commute around the San Francisco Bay Area.

I started as a staff photographer. Essentially this meant leading free “Camera Walks” (two-hour-long interpretive walks around Yosemite Valley). It was a great gig — you meet a lot of people from around the world, share stories, make friends, expound upon Yosemite lore and have a true effect on how visitors interact with, interpret and respect the park.

Staff photographers also spend a lot of time in the gallery answering questions about cameras. I surmise Yosemite is in the running for the “Most Photographed Place on Earth,” and as a result numerous visitors show up with their newly purchased cameras in hand and with absolutely no idea how to use them. Putting visitors on the path to taking better photographs is most assuredly one of the more rewarding parts of the job.

In short course, the gallery also needed an assistant curator to help our then curator, Glenn Crosby, keep up with his demanding schedule. It was not glorious work to say the least — more “grunt” in nature — but it introduced me to the curatorial world of photography — the exciting side that involves travel and meeting artists, and the more systematic side of laying out exhibitions and collating paperwork — and I never looked back. When Mr. Crosby decided it was time for bigger and better things and moved on, I was given the opportunity to step into his shoes.

What does a curator do?
As a curator, I am allowed to get my hands dirty in art! Primarily, I organize and plan the gallery’s schedule of exhibitions which includes setting dates, picking artwork to put on display that is both individually striking and work as a cohesive unit with other pieces that tell a broader story, and selling that artwork.

We also have a relatively large inventory of Ansel Adams’ original prints on hand so I spend a lot of time organizing those prints as well, completing condition reports, and working with clients that wish to add an Ansel piece to their private collection.

On this same level, my job takes me to cities like New York where I participate in exhibits, auctions, consultations, evaluations, and other photography related events. An inevitable topic of conversation raised by those I get to collaborate with during my travels centers on “what it is like to live and work in Yosemite?” I tell them “it is like having a really, really big backyard.”

Tell us about the new winter show?
The new show, “Wild Winter,” features work by Michael Frye, Keith S. Walklet, Bob Kolbrener, Jeff Conley and myself, and it will be on display until March 5.

The past several years, I have curated exhibits to coincide with the series of anniversaries we have been celebrating here in the park: Yosemite Grant in 2014, Yosemite National Park’s 125th birthday in 2015, and the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016.

But, since we finally have a “winter” this year, I wanted to celebrate. So I took a slightly different approach than I normally would, and simply culled together some of my favorite seasonal images from our represented family of artists — and the results have been a great success. It is fulfilling to see visitors respond to the work that you enjoy.

Why do you think Ansel’s photos still appeal to people?
I suppose it is because Ansel’s work speaks of, or perhaps to a romantic ideal. Part of it could also be the legacy that precedes him. On one hand, Ansel himself is in large part the embodiment of a true American artist — traipsing around the wilderness, with an adventurous spirit, donning a Stetson, utilizing technology to advance his craft, all the while taming the light of the West like a modern day frontiersman becoming one with the land.

I believe that follows a narrative which has vivid roots in our society. As a country, we identify with the prominent paradigm of “The West,” which is reflected in Adams’ imagery via its perched perspectives, wide open compositions, uncompromising subject matter and the general absence of people. Many also connect Ansel’s work to the National Park system — as well as the conservation and environmentalism it inspired — which in and of itself is wholly representative of the wild and romanticized West.

On the other hand, Ansel’s work represents a level of technical precision. Each image is clean, clear, crisp, with well delineated tones and graceful organization — it is visual zen.

I remember during one of my film production classes in college, another student made a film about a patient in the waiting room at a dentist’s office. As part of her set design, she went to a local art supply store and bought up a bunch of Ansel Adams posters with the intent of hanging them on the wall to decorate the waiting room. When her film was over, our professor asked why she had picked those images to hang in the background, and she responded by saying she had “never been in a doctors office that did not have Ansel Adams posters on the wall” and felt they were omnipresent for their “calming qualities” and as the antithesis in an otherwise anxious setting.

Do you have a favorite Ansel Adams quote?
Not sure I can recall them all, but the one that comes to mind is: “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a blurry concept.” I am also a big fan of a quote by Imogen Cunningham (although Ansel repeated it a lot) that when asked which of her own images was her favorite photograph, she would reply, “The one I make tomorrow.”

Aside from Ansel Adams, who inspires you?
Ansel was a rich part of the local mythology growing up, but over time I have gained a lot of inspiration from Robert Frank, John Sexton, Michael Kenna, Jerry Uelsmann, Kerik Kouklis, Ted Orland and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Those come to mind right away, but there are additional singular images from a larger group of artists that speak to me.

Ultimately, I find myself drawn to work that is very geometric or has a strong design element. And in lieu of that, I enjoy a good wit, direct or indirect, in a photograph.

Frequently I meet artists that are too serious about their art. Perhaps serious is the wrong word, maybe “rigid” is better. Because everyone should be serious about their art, and infuse it with the integrity and dignity it deserves. But there is also nothing wrong with letting your art put a sincere smile on someone else’s face.

Where do you consider are the best places in Yosemite to photograph?
I suppose it depends on the context of the visit. If someone is visiting Yosemite for the first time, I always recommend that they spend one sunset at Tunnel View, and one sunrise at Glacier Point. Neither of these is hard to get to, and chances are you will be shoulder to shoulder with any number of insatiable shutterbugs, but regardless of the crowds, it is still a transcendental experience that would be the envy of Emerson or Thoreau, and something that everyone should experience and photograph at least once.

What are your thoughts on the park’s name changes stemming from the trademark dispute?
It is like witnessing the messy breakup between two friends in a long-term relationship. And while we may feel socially obligated to “take sides,” we also do not have to look very far to see that neither side was infallible. I feel this whole dispute gives Occam’s razor a run for its money.

Do you have any advice for photographers?
Don’t become a photographer to make money or make photographs for others. Instead, become a photographer to say something only you can say. Only then will people really listen.We are all individual artists in our own way, and there is no reason why our art shouldn’t reflect that.

What is new this year for the gallery and yourself?
The gallery will be celebrating the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary this year come August, which will be exciting to be a part of. It is our last big anniversary celebration event, so hopefully it is a blast.

We are also hoping to implement some new photography programs this summer that will expand our current offerings and be full of new adventures for the staff and park visitors alike.

I am also actively involved in a local nonprofit group called the Yosemite Renaissance which promotes an Artist-in-Residence program in the park. I am currently the acting president of the board and along with my fellow board members we are hoping to expand our residency program as well as our scope in the park and abroad. We also organize a juried exhibition in the park which is in its 31st year of existence. The jury process to select art from around the world starts in November and ends in December. This year, we had a record number of submissions which I am very proud to have been a part of. Now, we are in the stages of preparing the actual exhibition which will open in Yosemite Village at the museum on Friday, Feb. 26, at 6 p.m. Everyone is invited.

Personally, I have several backpacking trips planned for the upcoming summer — although how El Nino plays out may derail a few of them. I have yet to explore in-depth the northern part of Yosemite National Park. I have always wanted to visit Benson Lake and Spiller Canyon. And I hope to revisit the Lyell Fork of the Merced River as soon as I can to explore that further — just too much to do with not enough time. Like I said, it is a really, really big backyard.