Photography of Ansel Adams

January 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: Ansel Adams’ dramatic black and white photographs of Yosemite National Park and other natural wonders have become extremely well-known and popular. Adams’ images of Half Dome and El Capitan have decorated dorm for decades, and become icons for the environmental movement. Now, 100 years after Adams’ birth and 17 years after his death, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has mounted an exhibit designed to show the photographer in a new light: To emphasize the subtle rather than the splashy. As curator, John Szarkowski, former director of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, has picked 114 Adams photos, many not so well known.

JOHN SZARKOWSKI, Curator: They include pictures that are much more lyrical, quieter, more personal, more intimate, less dramatic, less declamatory than most of the pictures that most people identify Ansel with.

SPENCER MICHELS: For example, the exhibit includes a series of photos of dead trees.

JOHN SZARKOWSKI: I think often people regard Ansel as kind of an eternal optimist who only saw the rainbow, but in fact, that’s not true. He understood that the natural world had just as much to do with death as it had with life.

SPENCER MICHELS: A San Franciscan by birth, Adams was drawn first to the piano– he almost became a concert artist– and then to Yosemite, even before he picked up his first brownie camera. His early pictures were snapshots of the natural grandeur in the Sierra Nevada Mountains that he later immortalized and often talked about.

ANSEL ADAMS: My work has always been associated with Yosemite. It has become the warp and woof of my being. I believe that wilderness is largely a state of mind. The material aspects of the world– the rocks, the trees, the air– are but symbols.

SPENCER MICHELS: Once he became serious about photography, he used those symbols. Before he snapped the shutter, he would visualize in his mind the picture he wanted, and worked to achieve that image.

JOHN SZARKOWSKI: I think Adams redefined the notion of landscape, gave us a new idea of what the prehistoric world, the wild world might be about. Ansel Adams’ landscape was not made up of rocks as much as it was of light. And it was an ephemeral thing, a constantly changing thing.

SPENCER MICHELS: The exhibit includes several photos of the same subject. Adams went back time and time again to the same spot– in this case, Yosemite– to capture always new, always changing images of the valley.

JOHN SZARKOWSKI: The clouds from that point of view were in the relative position. But it will never happen again. It’s not the same subject. The subject changes as the light changes, as the seasons change.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sometimes the light changed too fast, even for Adams. In "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," taken in 1941 and included in the exhibit, he got only one chance to take what some call the perfect picture, as he recalled in a 1981 documentary.

ANSEL ADAMS: I was driving along and looked up and saw this rather incredible sight. The moon, about, oh, two and a half, three days from full, rising up over this little village with white crosses. And I nearly ditched the car, yelling to all my friends to get me this and get me that, setting up the camera and the lenses. And then I couldn’t find the exposure meter. And I just remembered that the moon was 250 candles per square foot, and that gave me the key to the exposure. And I knew I had something good and I wanted to make a duplicate. I turned the film holder around, and as I pulled the slide, the light went off the crosses.

SPENCER MICHELS: The camera Adams used most of the time was a large format view camera, which produced an extremely sharp negative. He would often use a red filter to darken the sky. Then, in the darkroom, he would take great pains, printing his pictures himself, altering the tones, often heightening the contrasts. Many of the prints Szarkowski has chosen for the show were printed soon after the pictures were taken, and are less bold than prints Adams made later from the same negatives. On the right, the quieter, more subtle print of Mount McKinley printed in 1949. On the left, the more dramatic print from 1978. Pirkle Jones studied under Adams, and later became his assistant and colleague. Jones, a well-known photographer in his own right, says Adams’ technique took a lot of work.

PIRKLE JONES: I would analyze it to be a matter of discipline. And you know, Ansel had a musical career, so it was discipline of notes and everything. So that was part of Ansel.

SPENCER MICHELS: Most of Adams’ important work was done in the 1930s and ’40s, when photography was not widely considered a fine art. A selection of those early works are always on exhibit at the Friends of Photography Gallery, where dealer Ursula Gropper, a friend of Adams, served on the board.

URSULA GROPPER: The world was not terribly much aware of fine art photography until Adams was discovered. When Adams, because of his great personality, his flamboyance, his humor, his generous nature, came on the scene and had some help from some promotional people, people started paying attention.

SPENCER MICHELS: Gropper says Adams was instrumental in creating a market for fine arts photography.

URSULA GROPPER: Initially, there was no photography market; nobody bought prints. When I opened my gallery, which was in 1974, we were selling a 16inch print for $500.

SPENCER MICHELS: Adams tried various ways to make money from his work. In 1975, he announced he would soon stop making prints of his previous pictures. Orders poured in before the deadline, at increased prices. And the 73-year-old Adams was amazed at the money his old prints started fetching in the secondary market.

ANSEL ADAMS: The auctions and the dealers have just – they have gone wild. It’s like a real ascension in the stock market. It’s been quite exciting to have so much attention paid– a little bit worrisome.

SPENCER MICHELS: Adams never got rich selling pictures, and his photos never brought astronomical prices because he printed so many. In fact, he earned most of his living doing commercial jobs. He did promote his works, making hundreds of prints of popular pictures, selling inexpensive copies, and becoming a national figure. But according to Ken Light, a photographer and professor at the University of California, Adams’ popularity hurt the reputation of his work.

KEN LIGHT: To some extent, it was too popular, and I think it was over-merchandized. I think it was in postcards, posters, calendars, it was tightly controlled, and he stepped outside the craft of photography and helped commercialize it, in a sense; in a way, moved from what at one point I think was high art to kind of low art, a low part of the culture, in that you bought a postcard and sent it. And it was Ansel Adams, and everyone smiled, and that was it.

SPENCER MICHELS: Light says many photographers like him find much of Adams’ work uninteresting.

KEN LIGHT: Not interesting, boring, very, very static, given what he was photographing, the environments he was photographing. The photographs just kind of sit there, and you walk up and you are in some way amazed by what you see, but then you step back and you can’t go further than that kind of initial reaction to the beauty that he has in his photographs — compared to other image-makers in which the first time you’re amazed, but every time you go back there’s something new that you discover in their work.

SPENCER MICHELS: Still, the beauty of Adams’ work has inspired nearly every tourist to Yosemite to try to snap an Adams-like picture. At the opening of an exhibit in 1979 at Gropper’s Grapestake Gallery, I asked Adams about that.

SPENCER MICHELS: What makes this picture different than the picture a tourist would take of the woods?

ANSEL ADAMS: Extremely contrasty subject, and the average snapshot of this would simply give you black trees and glaring white sun. But you still can see definition in the tree trunk, and texture in the light, which you could not get with just, say, an average exposure.

SPENCER MICHELS: Adams’ genius lay in his realization that he, unlike the tourist, was doing more than simply recording nature.

JOHN SZARKOWSKI: You can’t reproduce a waterfall. It’s too big and it’s too wet. All you’re making is a picture. So you can’t be misled by the waterfall or by the geyser or by the mountain. What you are thinking in terms of is a picture, and that’s what separates the real photographers, you know, from the people who push the button and hope.

SPENCER MICHELS: Adams Adams’ celebration of nature moves to Chicago February, and then on to London, Berlin, Los Angeles and finally New York.

JIM LEHRER: And one other piece of art news this week. On Sunday, "The Fantasticks" will close in New York after nearly 42 years, the longest- running musical in the world. The "boy meets girl next door" love story opened in 1960 and featured the song "Try to Remember." Over the years, many future stars acted in it, including Jerry Orbach, Elliot Gould, F. Murray Abraham, and Liza Minelli.