It was one of those mornings when the sunlight is burnished by a keen wind and long feathers of cloud move in a lofty sky. The silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendor: there was nothing, however small, that did not clash in the bright wind, that did not send arrows of light through the glassy air. I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light. The moment I paused, the full impact of the mood was upon me. 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. There are no words to convey the mood of those moments.
-- Ansel Adams, ca. 1923
During the quarter century between the late '20s and early '50s, Ansel Adams made tens of thousands of negatives, and completed many hundreds of photographs, of the American landscape. Most of them were made in the continental United States, west of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Most of that majority were probably made in his home state of California, and perhaps most of those were made in Yosemite Valley, or in the High Sierra that guards the valley on the east. Yosemite and the High Sierra constituted the place he knew and loved best. Perhaps it was the thing he knew and loved best.
-- John Szarkowski
"Ansel Adams at 100," which recently closed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and ends its extensive tour at New York's Museum of Modern Art this summer, July 9-Nov. 4, 2003, is an extraordinary exhibition. Organized by John Szarkowski, director emeritus of MoMA's photo department, the show originated at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and has also appeared at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hayward Gallery in London and the Kunstbibliotek in Berlin.
In this ambitious exhibition and the 200-page catalogue that accompanies it, Szarkowski presents a complete reexamination of Adams' life and oeuvre on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the artist's birth. The installation in Los Angeles was simple and elegant, with photographs grouped not by period but by subject.
One of America's first celebrity photographers, Ansel Adams (1902-1984) gained renown through the widespread dissemination of his images and writings in the popular press, particularly during the final 20 years of his life. Photographs such as his most famous work, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941) are etched into our national consciousness.
Adams' subject matter is inherently bound up with notions of American identity. The U.S. has in its midst vast areas of wild land (still) that Adams made his life's mission to record in all of its profundity and grandeur (as well as to preserve). In the process, Adams was to transform the meaning of wildness in America and how Americans thought and felt about their own land. He became a spokesman for the Sierra Club and in many ways was the father of the modern American environmental movement.
However, it is not Adams the activist nor the popular, affable character of Adams' old age that this exhibition examines. Szarkowski presents Adams purely as an artist, deconstructing a complex personality and creative journey as well as illuminating Adams' contribution (often misunderstood) to the medium of photography.
It is especially appropriate that this exhibition originated at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in the town where Adams was born and at a museum whose photography department he helped found. Adams' own character had its wild aspects, particularly when he was young. Born in 1902, when San Francisco was still a frontier town, Adams grew up in a formerly prosperous family that was facing severe financial problems, riven by tension between his resentful mother and dispirited father. Adams himself was difficult and odd. (In fact, financial issues would continue to plague Adams throughout most of his life, at least until his 60s, when his photographs went into widespread publication.)
In the catalogue, Szarkowski tells how the 14-year-old Ansel visited Yosemite Valley with his family for two days.
Ansel had never seen anything so wonderful, and he blossomed both physically and socially. He climbed the trails with abandon. . . . He also reported that he had already made 30 photographs with his new Kodak Brownie -- his first camera. . . . Yosemite took hold of the child, and for the rest of his life he returned as frequently as he could. When he was away, Yosemite was never far from his thoughts. We might think of it as the source of his sanity and his strength.
Adams also taught himself to play the piano and displayed a remarkable degree of talent. For many years he vacillated between goals of a career as a concert pianist or as a professional photographer. His commitment to Yosemite in the end determined his selection. It is interesting to note that many important photographers have had a deep connection to music, perhaps because both mediums demand an intrinsic comprehension of abstract form.
In 1927, Adams produced his first breakthrough photograph, Monolith, the Face of a Half Dome. His decision to use a red filter (made at the last minute, with the single plate left in his camera bag after a long climb) resulted in a sky darkened almost to black, thus heightening the darting line of white light that outlined the edge of the rock and simulated the feeling he was experiencing of the sheer vastness of the mountain's scale. His work of this period was primarily composed graphically. He would organize his views by framing arrangements of alternatively black and white forms into abstract shapes.
He made another artistic leap when, in 1930, he met the photographer Paul Strand in Taos, N.M. As Szarkowski writes,
Strand. . . showed the younger man the negatives he had made in New Mexico during the proceeding weeks. Adams later remembered the experience as a revelation. The richness and completeness of the tonal scale of Strand's negatives gave Adams a new sense of the potential of photographic beauty.
Adams' artistic mission grew to convey the almost transcendental personal experience he continued to have while hiking in the mountains of Yosemite. He set upon the task of capturing his subject with precision and worked to acquire what became his legendary technique that articulated with subtlety and richness of tone what he now knew was possible in the photographic medium. The enormity of the scale, the ever changing expanses of clouds over vast mountains, and flickering light hitting leaves, trees and water, these were Adams' themes for the over 20 years of his artistic prime. It also became very important to him that the work was a modern vision of the landscape, and he became a champion of modernist photography, eschewing the blurry impressionistic style of the pictorialists so fashionable during his youth, to a photographic style of intense clarity and focus.
Adams also developed over time (at first they did not like each other nor admire each other's work) a close friendship with the other great California landscape photographer, his neighbor Edward Weston.
Szarkowski explains the differences between their approaches:
One might say of Weston that had he not been a great photographer, he might have been a great sculptor -- preferably a stone carver, dealing with the solidity of the world -- and, in contrast, that if Adams had not been a great photographer, he might have been a great calligrapher, dealing with lettering's flat curtain of ornament. Weston's pictures are about solid bodies, and Adams are about the way that light dissolves weight. Weston's are about gravity, and Adams' are as disembodied as a movie screen-flickering in space like the aurora borealis.
In fact some of the most magical and surprising photographs in this exhibition are the lesser known works, close-ups of grasses, flowers, plants, leaves, trees and water with darts of light flickering and that dissolve into pure abstract pattern such as Grass and Water, Tuolume Meadows, Yosemite National Park, ca. 1935, that is the cover plate of the catalogue, Aspens, Northern New Mexico, 1958, Flowers and Rock, San Joaquin Sierra, 1936 and Trailside, Near Juneau, Alaska, 1947.
Adams' work certainly was not universally admired, particularly by the avant-garde of his time, and one might argue that the same is true even now. Though his greatest work was made in the 1930s and '40s, he was criticized by many as being out of step with his time -- he neither photographed the dust bowl like Dorothea Lange nor critiqued American culture like Walker Evans. In fact, Adams did not have a particular talent for photographing people. He viewed much of this work as propaganda. And his cause, the environment, was not always considered a valuable one.
He photographed for himself, what he considered vital to his own life for the preservation of his own soul. And Szarkowski has given us a window into that soul.
IRIT KRYGIER is a Los Angeles writer and art advisor. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.