In a career that spanned six decades, Ansel Adams was at once America's foremost landscape photographer and one of its most respected environmentalists.
In Ansel Adams at 100, John Szarkowski notes that Adams's role in the history of photography goes beyond his achievements as one of the great photographers of the twentieth century. As a leader in the study and appreciation of photography as an art, he played a major role in establishing the first department of photography in an art museum, at The Museum of Modern Art, New York (the same department that Szarkowski led from 1962 to 1991). Moreover, as a tireless advocate for improving the reproduction of photographs in books, Adams "badgered and cajoled his printers and platemakers" till they had "achieved in ink an unprecedented degree of fidelity to the chemical print."
Although he devoted a lifetime to the cause of wilderness preservation, "Adams did not photograph the landscape as a matter of social service, but as a form of private worship. It was his own soul that he was trying to save," Szarkowski writes, adding that "Ansel Adams's great work was done under the stimulus of a profound and mystical experience of the natural world." Szarkowski dates that experience to the early 1920s and a camping trip in the High Sierra. As Adams later recalled, "I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light…. I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks."
Commenting on this moment of vision, Szarkowski writes, "One might guess that Adams spent the next quarter century trying to make a photograph that would give objective form to the sense of ineffable knowledge that on occasion, in his youth, inhabited him in the high mountains. Yosemite and the Sierra gave him not only his principal subject, but also the experience that provided the basis for a useful artistic idea: 'The silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendor.'"
Ansel Adams (1902 - 1984) is arguably one of the most beloved figures in the history of American photography. His work bears all of the stylistic qualities needed to guarantee its success: it appears plainspoken and straightforward, and presents the natural world in a crisp, realistic way. But Adams's straightforward photographic style masks his remarkably complicated motivations. His images and published thoughts reflect a complex blend of aesthetic idealism and radical political engagement that is often overlooked. Equal parts aesthete and social activist, Adams hoped that his sharp-focused black-and-white photographs would help persuade Americans to value creativity as well as to conserve and expand American freedoms and wilderness preserves.
Adams, who is celebrated by both elite academics and the general public alike, ended his formal education with grammar school. Since then he has been awarded six honorary degrees, including doctorates from Berkeley and Harvard. In 1979, his thirty-second book, entitled Yosemite and the Range of Light, sold more than 200,000 copies, becoming one of the best-selling photographic monographs ever. Two years later, his mural-sized print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico set an auction record for photography, fetching $71,500.00. By 1984, the year he died, his work had appeared in more than 500 exhibitions. Today, reproductions of his images can be found on address books, calendars, folios, screen savers, posters and in more than eighty publications, including his widely read autobiography and two recent biographies - all readily available on the internet.
Adams's fame is not new, but began in the early 1930s, shortly after he decided to commit himself professionally to the medium of photography. Trained first as a classical pianist, he dabbled in amateur photography for more than a decade before deciding to abandon a career in music for professional photography. This decision was motivated by pragmatic and idealistic considerations. On the one hand, in the 1920s, advertisers increasingly patronized photographers because they believed that photographs were more persuasive than hand-drawn illustrations.2 For most of his career, Adams was able to earn a relatively steady source of income from his commercial work. On the other hand, Adams was inspired by what he perceived to be the aesthetic potential of the medium. In 1926, Albert Bender, an art collector and owner of a small insurance agency in San Francisco, encouraged this idealism by financing Adams's early aesthetic work. Bender's generosity resulted both in Adams's first published book, Taos Pueblo, and in his first one-person exhibition, at the Sierra Club in San Francisco. This led to his 1930 meeting in New Mexico with the prominent New York photographer Paul Strand. Strand invited Adams to examine a set of his recent negatives, which convinced Adams of photography's potential as a medium of fine art.
Within five years of meeting Strand, Adams emerged as one of the most influential figures in the world of art photography. By the end of 1930, he was writing a photography column for the literary review Fortnightly. Two years later, Adams helped found the photography club Group f/64. He organized the group's landmark exhibition of "pure" photography at the M. H. de Young Museum, and authored their manifesto, which argued vehemently against the tradition of making art photographs look like impressionistic paintings or etchings. The following year he met Alfred Stieglitz, the legendary New York art dealer and "pure" photographer and opened The Ansel Adams Gallery for creative photography , with the idea of becoming the "Alfred Stieglitz"of San Francisco. Then, in 1935, he published the first of several instructional books on photography, which earned him a reputation as an effective teacher and exacting photographic technician.
As a teacher and technician, Adams is perhaps best known for testing Edwin Land's Polaroid film technology and for instructing aspiring artists on how to use his own Zone System of photography, which he developed while teaching at the Art Center School in Los Angeles in 1941. This system allows photographers to calculate and control the range of gray-scale tones in their negatives by using a light meter. The objective is to obtain a negative with silver densities corresponding to the photographer's preconception of the scene. For Adams, this usually meant a mesmerizing number of distinct shades of gray, black and white, as in his photograph, Aspens (1958). Further, he encouraged artists to manipulate their images' tones while developing and printing. Adams compared printmaking to a musical performance by likening the tonal values of a negative to the notes on a musical score. Like a musical performance, the print was then subject to variation and reinterpretation over time.3
Adams's technical accomplishments often overshadow the fact that he intended for his photographs to express his radical aesthetic and political ideals. His aesthetic ideals can be traced back through Paul Strand to Alfred Stieglitz. Adams, like Stieglitz, regularly preached a ";pure"; photographic aesthetic imbued with emotion; he claimed that his photographic prints represented what Stieglitz called "equivalents" of his feelings.4 Adams, too, claimed that art photographers created "a statement that goes beyond the subject" and captured "an inspired moment on film."5 By way of contrast, he felt ordinary photographs were mere "visual diaries" or "reminders of experience." Adams elaborated on this idea near the end of his life, comparing his own (and his friend Edward Weston's) photographs to those of William Henry Jackson, who photographed the American West for the U.S. Government's Hayden Geological Survey in 1870:
Jackson, for all his devotion to the subject, was recording the scene. Weston, on the other hand, was actually creating something new-133;. Similarly, while the landscapes that I have photographed in Yosemite are recognized by most people and, of course the subject is an important part of the pictures, they are not "realistic." All my pictures are optically very accurate - I use pretty good lenses -150; but they are quite unrealistic in terms of [tonal] values. A more realistic, simple snapshot captures the image but misses everything else. I want a picture to reflect not only the forms, but [also] what I had seen and felt at the moment of exposure.6
While Adams espoused Stieglitz's emotional aesthetic, it would be a mistake to link their photographic outlooks too closely. Adams, after all, was nearly a half-century younger than Stieglitz and was deeply involved with the aesthetic and political trends of his own day. The most dominant aesthetic trend in photography between 1925 and 1950 is the emergence of the "documentary" mode of expression. This is a brand of often emotionally riveting photographic realism, which is perhaps best illustrated by Dorothea Lange's well-known Migrant Mother (1936). The popularity of the documentary mode of expression during the 1930s and 1940s reflects, to a certain extent, the cynical public's desire for direct, straightforward communication in the wake of the mid-1930s Dust Bowl and the unsettling stock market crash of 1929. It can also be seen to record and celebrate the New Deal social programs, which were designed by Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration to help alleviate the most troubling conditions of the Great Depression.
It is noteworthy that Paul Strand was one of the early practitioners of the documentary mode. Strand studied photography under the tutelage of Lewis Hine, the well-known sociologist-turned-photographer. Hine's work for the National Child Labor Committee helped convince Congress to eradicate child labor in the United States. In 1930, when Strand first met Adams, he was actively following Hine's lead, travelling through Mexico making monumentalizing portraits of ordinary citizens he found on the streets. Projects like these, combined with Strand's outspoken advocacy of America's continued friendship with the socialist block countries, brought Strand to the attention of anti-Communist Republicans in the U.S. Congress. Fearing that he might lose his right to travel abroad, Strand entered into self-exile in France, in 1950. Adams, who wisely chose to keep his political views to himself during this time, nonetheless continued to cite Strand as a significant influence on his work. In the waning years of his life, however, Adams became increasingly outspoken about his political views. In 1983, he told an interviewer:
I think there may be a revolution if there is not greater equality given to all citizens. We have consistently considered the employer, especially the large corporations, as the most valuable part of the American society. We have consistently overlooked the enormous importance of the farmer, the technician, the educator, the artist, [and] the laborer. I'm not calling for a revolution; I'm calling for greater equality to all citizens. If that doesn't happen, something will.7
During the heyday of the documentary mode of photography, while other Americans were training their cameras on the disenfranchised and the middle class, Adams was accused of photographing nothing but trees, rocks and bushes. Yet it was during the early 1940s that Adams helped the Museum of Modern Art organize a juried exhibition of photographs called Images of Freedom that "look[ed] at the people - our friends, our families, ourselves-. [It asked] what are our resources and our potential strength?"8 One photograph from this exhibition, Mrs. Gunn on Porch, Independence, California, 1944, suggests the kind of dignified image of the middle class that he must have had in mind. Similarly, two years later he traveled to Owens Valley, California, to photograph the Japanese-Americans who had been forcibly relocated there following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The resulting exhibition and book entitled Born Free and Equal celebrated the prisoners that he met there and condemned the injustice of the camp. The book's photographs affirm the individuality, dignity, work ethic, and Americanness of the internees while his accompanying texts describe the horrible conditions in the camps and plea passionately for other Americans to correct such civil rights violations. Adams's decision to express his condemnation of the relocation camps in words rather than images reflects his unwavering belief that the visual arts must never condemn life, only build it up and celebrate it. Quoting Stieglitz, Adams often said, "Art is the affirmation of life."9
Adams used a similar strategy of combining life-affirming photographs and critical prose in his efforts to preserve America's wilderness reserves, especially in and around Yosemite Valley. In 1934, he joined the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club and began lobbying Congress to stop logging and mining in the King's River Canyon, near Yosemite. By 1938, when he published his first book of landscape photographs, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, he sent copies to President Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. The photographs in the book, he recalled, "helped swing the opinion in our favor." 10 In 1940, with the President's help, the canyon became a national park.
It is important to note, however, that Adams's advocacy for the parks began only after he had created a substantial body of landscape photographs, works that were aimed at creative rather than for political ends. Looking back on the relationship between his photographs and his advocacy for the environment, he recalled:
I never did a photograph of any importance for an environmental purpose - All the pictures I've done were done because I was there and I loved the mountains and I visualized a picture. However, I do feel very good about the fact that my photographs have been used in environmental campaigns a lot-133; The pictures of Kings Canyon Sierra, for example, were done well before I became involved in the fight to establish Kings Canyon as a national park.11
After playing a central role in establishing Kings Canyon National Park, Adams became widely regarded as the principal photographer of, and unofficial spokesman for, the National Park system. In 1941, the Department of the Interior commissioned him to create a photographic mural about the national parks. The commission was canceled because of World War II, yet Adams returned to the parks in 1946, 1948 and 1958 with funds provided by the Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In subsequent years, he was invited to discuss American environmental policy with several Presidents, including Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and received from the latter the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By way of contrast, Adams conducted a war of words with President Reagan. He described Reagan's Secretary of the Interior James Watt's policy of allowing strip mining and timber harvesting in the national parks as an indefensible policy of "rape, ruin and run!" 12
Adams would certainly be unhappy with the over-popularity of America's National Parks today. In fact, he preferred the term "reserve" to "park" because the former term suggested that public lands should be "open to the public and their cars (to a limited extent)" but devoid of the human comforts and popular camping facilities that threaten their protection and preservation. 13 "There is certainly nothing amiss," he explained with camping, fishing, boating, swimming, skiing, and all the other participation and non-participation sports; people do not have enough of these healthful and refreshing experiences. But you do not play ping-pong in a cathedral, rustle popcorn at a string-quartet concert, or hang billboards on the face of Half Dome in Yosemite (not all of us would, anyway!). You must have certain noble areas of the world left in as close-to-primal condition as possible. You must have quietness and a certain amount of solitude. You must be able to touch the living rock, drink the pure waters, scan the great vistas, sleep under the stars and awaken to the cool dawn wind. Such experiences are the heritage of all people. 14
Adam's "pure" images, technical accomplishments and critical views about the environment are no less relevant today, 15 years after his death, than during his lifetime. At last count, the U.S. Forest Service had carved more than 378,000 miles of roads in America's forests, primarily to allow access for logging and mining. And there are plans to add 580,000 more. 15 Adams realized that America's national parks had been created by an act of Congress, and could be taken away. He also realized that the prints that he selected for this exhibition would travel throughout the country long after his death and be seen by all. As a body of work, these prints illustrate Adams's concern that ";the dragons of demand have been kept at snarling distance by the St. Georges of conservation, but the menace remains. Only education can enlighten our people , education and its accompanying interpretation, and the seeking of resonances of understanding in the contemplation of Nature."161 I want to acknowledge and thank Kimberly Blessing and Kimberly Barr, who read earlier versions of this essay and made helpful comments.
Ansel Adams was an American photographer best known for his iconic images of the American West, including Yosemite National Park.
Ansel Adams was born on February 20, 1902, in San Francisco, California. Adams rose to prominence as a photographer of the American West, particularly Yosemite National Park, using his work to promote conservation of wilderness areas. His iconic black-and-white images helped to establish photography among the fine arts. He died in Monterey, California, on April 22, 1984.
His family came to California from New England, having migrated from Ireland in the early 1700s. His grandfather founded a prosperous lumber business, which Adams' father eventually inherited. Later in life, Adams would condemn that industry for depleting the redwood forests.
As a young child, Adams was injured in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, when an aftershock threw him into a garden wall. His broken nose was never properly set, remaining crooked for the rest of his life.
Adams was a hyperactive and sickly child with few friends. Dismissed from several schools for bad behavior, he was educated by private tutors and members of his family from the age of 12. Adams taught himself the piano, which would become his early passion. In 1916, following a trip to YosemiteNational Park, he also began experimenting with photography. He learned darkroom techniques and read photography magazines, attended camera club meetings, and went to photography and art exhibits. He developed and sold his early photographs at Best's Studio in Yosemite Valley.
In 1928, Ansel Adams married Virginia Best, the daughter of the Best's Studio proprietor. Virginia inherited the studio from her artist father on his death in 1935, and the Adamses continued to operate the studio until 1971. The business, now known as the Ansel Adams Gallery, remains in the family.
Adams' professional breakthrough followed the publication of his first portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, which included his famous image "Monolith, the Face of Half Dome." The portfolio was a success, leading to a number of commercial assignments.
Between 1929 and 1942, Adams' work and reputation developed. Adams expanded his repertoire, focusing on detailed close-ups as well as large forms, from mountains to factories. He spent time in New Mexico with artists including Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe and Paul Strand. He began to publish essays and instructional books on photography.
During this period, Adams joined photographers Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans in their commitment to affecting social and political change through art. Adams' first cause was the protection of wilderness areas, including Yosemite. After the internment of Japanese people during World War II, Adams photographed life in the camps for a photo essay on wartime injustice.
Weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Adams shot a scene of the moon rising above a village. Adams re-interpreted the image—titled "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico"—over nearly four decades, making over a thousand unique prints that helped him to achieve financial stability.
By the 1960s, appreciation of photography as an art form had expanded to the point at which Adams' images were shown in large galleries and museums. In 1974, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York hosted a retrospective exhibit. Adams spent much of the 1970s printing negatives in order to satisfy demand for his iconic works. Adams had a heart attack and died on April 22, 1984, at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, Monterey, California, at the age of 82.
Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California (1960) by Ansel AdamsHis black-and-white images of the American West, with their meticulous technical qualities, majestic scenery and dainty-poetic detail, present a nostalgic vision of nature. It is a vision of timeless wilderness untrammeled by BMX riders or snowmobiles, of landscapes that seem much as they must have been before the arrival of Lewis and Clark.
But it is a vision shaped as much in the darkroom as on the back trails of Yosemite, which gave him his most enduring subject. "You don't take a photograph, you make it," he once remarked. Adams was an Iron Chef of darkroom cuisine, manipulating every element of the printing of his pictures — lighting, composition, focus and tonal contrast — to get the perfect image.
Adams's astonishing craftsmanship is everywhere evident in "Ansel Adams and Edwin Land: Art, Science and Invention — Photographs From the Polaroid Collection," an enjoyable but not entirely agreeable traveling survey of his work at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington. Organized and sponsored by the Polaroid Corporation, the exhibition seems to have as its purpose, at least in part, the promotion of Polaroid's place in the history of American photography.
In addition to about 80 of Adams's photographs, including rare vintage prints of some his most famous images that are today worth millions of dollars, there are original contact sheets and one-of-a-kind Polaroid test prints.
There is also correspondence detailing Adams's involvement with the development of Polaroid film. The film was invented in 1940 by Edwin Land, founder of the Polaroid Corporation; in 1948, Adams became a consultant to Land, testing new Polaroid films and cameras.
Adams's autobiography suggests that his work for Land was a minor part of his activities as a photographer. But he did believe in the superiority of Polaroid film products. Reflecting on the subject in his book, "One look at the tonal quality of the print I achieved should convince the uninitiated of the truly superior quality of Polaroid film."
Born in San Francisco in 1902, Adams became involved with photography at age 14 when, in an often repeated story, his parents gave him a Kodak Brownie box camera for a summer vacation in Yosemite. He fell in love — with the camera, and the park. He got a job in a photographic printing business soon after, and from 1920 to 1927 was a custodian of the Sierra Club's headquarters in Yosemite.
He soon earned a reputation as an artist of extraordinary dedication and skill. He was legendary for spending weeks in the mountains to get himself and his bulky 40-pound 8-by-10 view camera into just the right place, at just the right time for the perfect picture — he missed the birth of his two children while up in the hills taking photographs. He liked to shoot just as the sun rose, using a red filter to darken the sky for contrast and dramatic effect.
The exhibition displays a handful of Adams's early prints, but mostly later ones, from the 1950s and '60s. Among them is the miraculous "El Capitan, Winter Sunrise, Yosemite National Park, California" (1968). It is a masterpiece — tonally rich, meticulously composed and romantically atmospheric; it looks like an old master painting. It is an epic picture of the drama of nature, the somewhat still, spiritual scene delicately animated by high, wispy clouds of blowing, chalklike mist. This photograph is so beautiful that it slackens your jaw.
Among Adams's most familiar images is "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" (1941) — a ghostly, multilayered photograph taken late one afternoon while he was driving back to Santa Fe. One of his few works to depict any sign of human presence in the landscape, it improbably shows the moon rising over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains while the rays of the setting sun illuminate distant, snowy peaks and, in the foreground, the white crosses of an old cemetery.
But Adams did not take only landscape photographs. He also tried still life, social documentary and portraiture, and it is worth spending time with a selection of these pictures here. Included are intimate portraits of fellow photographers Beaumont Newhall and Margaret Bourke-White. One of Edward Weston in the Carmel Highlands in California shows a slim, tanned man resting in the curve of a huge tree, absorbed and alone. It is a touching portrayal.
There are also several little-known compositions of architectural structures — churches in the Southwest, mission buildings and, surprisingly, urban industrial scenes. These are the exhibit's biggest surprise, for it is hard to imagine Adams finding inspiration in modern cities. That he did so speaks once again to his unrivaled, protean abilities with a camera.
It is tempting, but too easy, to think of Ansel Adams as simply the Norman Rockwell of landscape photography: immensely popular but critically negligible. Every year brings another lavishly produced book recapitulating some aspect of his long career; every holiday season another calendar or two appears featuring his breathtaking black-and-white views of Yosemite Valley in California.
Adams's majestic photographs are so familiar that it's hard to see them with fresh eyes. Still, a show at the James Danziger Gallery offers Adams aficionados a chance to see top-quality prints of some of his most famous images, along with a selection of lesser-known landscapes.
Among the chestnuts included in the exhibition are the 1941 work "Moonrise Over Hernandez, N.M.," showing the expansive heavens stretching above the cemetery of a tiny Western town. This lyrical image was so wildly popular that Adams made hundreds of prints of it; copies of "Moonrise" came up for auction with such regularity that for a time in the 1970's some dealers and collectors even used it as an informal benchmark to indicate the strength of the photography market.
No doubt much of the appeal of this picture lies in its pious sentimentality, with the last rays of sunlight gilding the cemetery's rude crosses. But even this treacly work demonstrates Adams's sophisticated use of modernist form and painstaking craft to accentuate his otherwise romantic imagery. The skies that tower above the village are in effect a giant canvas punctuated by the pale shapes of the moon and a few streaky clouds, and the whole image is masterfully printed to wring every bit of emotion from it.
Other classic Adams photos harness modernist abstraction to sentimental scenes in much the same way. In a 1944 shot of a sunrise in the Sierra Nevada mountains near Lone Pine, Calif., for example, the tiny figure of a horse is caught in a slant of sunlight at the bottom of the composition; behind it rise hills and snowy mountains that are reduced to bands of tone and texture.
Adams stuck with this formula throughout his career. As a young man he made soft-focus images of forest scenes that reflected the prevailing Pictorialist style; in the late 1920's, though, he shifted to the sharp focus and intense detail favored by such modernists as Paul Strand and Edward Weston.
Adams's pictures have often been compared unfavorably with Weston's. Both men photographed landscapes, and both were leading figures in the West Coast photography scene of the 1930's and 40's. But nowhere in Adams's work is there anything as sensuous or innovative as Weston's nudes or close-ups of natural forms.
On the other hand, Adams had Yosemite. Starting in the 1860's, Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge and others had photographed its towering mountains and lush valleys in pictures that were often as spectacular as the scenes they recorded. Adams operated a photo studio in the national park and photographed its sheer rock faces and heroic sequoias in every season. In part, the histrionic, over-the-top quality of many of Adams's photographs of Yosemite may simply reflect the breathtaking scenery of the region. But Adams heightened the drama of his pictures through his printing techniques, producing impossibly transcendent images that make the area look like a dreamy Eden.
A photograph taken after a winter storm around 1936, for example, shows majestic rock formations flanking the cloud-covered valley; in the distance, an impossibly thin waterfall splits a mountainside. A few pictures in the show are almost laughable in their grandiosity; in one, from around 1967, thunderclouds billow above a snowcapped mountain in the Sierra Nevadas as if after an atomic blast.
A curious aspect of Adams's landscapes, especially given the jam of tourists who continually crowd Yosemite these days, is that people never appear in them. Nature in his images is pristine, untainted by human presence.
Adams was an avid conservationist, but today many landscape photographers concerned about the environment regard his work with suspicion. For all their popularity, his manifestly unreal images seem to encourage a sense of distance from the land; as if in reaction to his vision, later photographers have often gone to great lengths to indicate mankind's role in shaping the land, to the point of including beer cans or other bits of trash in even the most spectacular views.
But Adams's image of a primordial wilderness touched by divine grandeur continues to exert a great emotional pull for many Americans. As time passes, this rosy view seems ever less plausible, but its popular appeal remains undiminished.