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Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film
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Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning

Ansel AdamsAnsel Adams: A Documentary Film offers insights into American history topics including the closing of the wilderness, the American West, California history, Japanese American internment, the natural environment, conflicts between economic growth and conservation of the American landscape, photographs as documentary historical sources, media literacy, and the role of art. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are grouped into 4 categories: history, economics, geography, and civics. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.

Civics | History | Economics | Geography

1. Visit the Library of Congress's Suffering Under a Great Injustice Web site. This is the library's collection of photographs Adams made at the Manzanar Relocation Center in California, where Japanese Americans were forcibly interned during World War II. Examine the photographs. (By selecting "Gallery View," on one of the display pages, you can see several photos at once; click on a photograph that especially interests you to see a larger image.)

Next, to see how Japanese were being portrayed in World War II propaganda posters, look at two such posters on the American Memory Web site: a poster related to the defense of Alaska (select the "Propaganda" listing from the subject list) and another poster depicting Japanese occupation of foreign territory (select "Scrap drives -- Washington (State)" from the subject list).

Compare Adams's images of Japanese Americans and the posters' images of the Japanese. How are the attitudes reflected in the poster consistent with the federal government's decision to force Japanese Americans into the camps? How might Americans' attitudes toward Japanese Americans during the war have been affected if more Americans had seen Adams's photographs?

2. View a map at the Web site of the National Park Service. Click on your state to see the national parks and other sites in your state. (If your state has relatively few such sites, you also should look at the sites in some neighboring states.) Now choose four of these sites and plan a road trip from your home that will include visits to each site. Create a map that shows what highways you will take and what sites you will visit.

Civics | History | Economics | Geography

1. After viewing the film about Ansel Adams, find out about these other Americans whose work promoted natural conservation: John James Audubon, Rachel Carson, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Theodore Roosevelt. Write one question based on the life of each of these persons (including Ansel Adams); for example, Which of these persons lost his or her job in a bitter public dispute over use of lands in Alaska? (Gifford Pinchot) Try not to make your questions too obvious or too obscure. Hand in your questions to the teacher, each written on a separate index card. Your teacher will read them aloud to the class. The first person to correctly answer each question earns one point. (There are no points for answering your own questions.)

2. Adams used photography to try to capture and communicate the beauty he saw in nature. Think of something you would consider beautiful -- a place, object, person, song, poem or letter, painting or photograph, even a memory. Then give a brief presentation to the class in which you try to communicate why you find it beautiful. If you prefer, you can communicate this message by creating your own artwork (such as a drawing, photograph, or poem) rather than making a presentation.

Civics | History | Economics | Geography

1. Especially in recent decades, numerous public debates have occurred -- in the United States and other countries -- over development projects that aim to promote economic growth but that critics charge will harm the environment. Examples include the Alaskan oil pipeline, the Tellico Dam on the Tennessee River (which prompted the debate over the future of the snail darter), logging and farming in the Amazon rain forest, the Three Gorges Dam on China's Yangtze River, the proposed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the proposed nuclear waste storage site in Yucca Mountain, Nevada. With a partner, choose one such debate -- either an ongoing debate or one from the past -- and make a brief presentation to the class that describes the debate and its outcome (if the issue has been decided); your presentation should include a map showing the location of the area in question. After all the groups have made their presentations, hold a class discussion on what issues and arguments appeared often in these debates.

2. Review the timeline and make a list of the diverse kinds of subjects Adams photographed during his career. Why do you think he photographed different kinds of subjects? What different kinds of challenges might these subjects pose for a photographer?

3. As the film shows, Adams's work and image were heavily marketed in the final years of his life, making him far wealthier and better known than he had been for most of his career. Do you think an artist, especially one whose work highlighted the beauty of the unspoiled wilderness, should be marketed like a consumer product? (In exploring this issue, you should consider how the mass marketing of Ansel Adams might have affected his ability to speak out on environmental issues.) Hold a class discussion on the issue.

Civics | History | Economics | Geography

1. Examine the Ansel Adams photographs in the gallery. Select one photograph and write a description of it for a person who hasn't seen the photograph. Include not only the objects shown in the photograph, but also its mood. After doing this exercise, do you better understand the saying that "One picture is worth a thousand words"?

2. A creature from another planet e-mails you to say that he/she/it will be visiting your class soon to learn more about life on Earth. The beings on that faraway planet have been monitoring radio and television broadcasts from Earth and have heard many references to something called "the American West." The visitor asks if you would prepare a small exhibit of what the American West was like. To prepare this exhibit, the entire class first should read about the closing of the American wilderness. The class then should divide into six groups. Each group is responsible for preparing one of the following six items for the exhibit: a photograph of the West or the people who lived there (it need not be an Ansel Adams photograph), a painting, a text such as an excerpt from a speech or novel, an audio recording of some song or other sound of the West, a video recording such as a television or film "western," and an artifact (such as an article of clothing or a common tool or household implement or kind of food). Set up the exhibit and discuss the reasons why each group chose the particular item it did.

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