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February 10, 2003

Ansel Adams at 100


The other day I made the hour-long drive from my suburban fastness to see a good-sized retrospective of the work of Ansel Adams at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I did so because ever since high school I’ve always half-deliberately steered clear of art photography. However, when I heard about the Adams exhibit, I thought: Aha! Here’s a serious artist—I’ve seen his work in calendars and art books, and they are nothin’ if not serious. So I forked out $15, stood patiently in line (I really hate lines) and filed through the show, only occasionally cutting ahead to escape from male retirees lecturing their friends loudly on the facts of Adams’ life or camera technique. I didn’t even strangle these “helpful” lecturers, a feat which I considered either (1) a moral victory for me or (2) a victory for the manufacturers of my anti-depressant drugs.

Mr. Adams turned out, rather to my surprise, to be several different artists. The first “Ansel Adams” did his work during the 1920s (when his “official” artistic goal was to be a Classical pianist), chiefly during breaks while shepherding Sierra Club camping trips through the California mountains he loved, and while wooing his girlfriend who actually lived in Yosemite Park. Interestingly, the photographs he made at this time—while still an amateur—were very small scale, intimate and quiet. At the time he was primarily interested in finding fairly simple abstract and emphatically flat patterns in nature. These pieces made me think of certain Dada collages made from found or random elements—they appear to be the work of a young man who was conscientiously keeping up with current developments in Modernism. The photos obviously are based on mountain or otherwise wilderness scenery, but the obvious attraction this subject matter holds for him is left implicit, rather than being insisted upon. I found photographs made during this era to be extremely pleasurable.


Vernal Falls Through Tree, Yosemite Valley, California, 1920; Fall in Upper Tenaya Canyon, Yosemite National Park, California, c. 1920

The Back of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park California, c. 1920; Suguaro Near Phoenix, Arizona, c. 1932

Regrettably, around 1930 Mr. Adams apparently decided to become a professional photographer (abandoning his musical ambitions) and paid a visit to the leading American art photographer of the day, Paul Strand. Apparently while hanging out at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s house in Taos, the older man showed Adams the negatives of his recent work, which seem to have stupefied the younger photographer. He later recalled the

…full, luminous shadows and strong high values in which subtle passages of tone were preserved.

Here our hero got himself entangled—in my opinion, fatally—in two diversions.

The first diversion is what I call the “well-made photograph.” Black and white photography is an oddly Platonic art form. It can deliver an immense amount of visual information—far more than your eyes take in—which is perfectly ordered for your absorption, so that the enormous excess of detail remains, astonishingly, subordinate to the whole. The Platonic ideal—the “well made photograph”—provides such a sensation of aesthetic power that it acts like a giant astronomical body on photographers, its powerful gravitational pull capturing almost everyone who gets too close. I first realized this while taking a class in black and white photography in art school. During many long hours learning how to print, I ended up staring at my photos and those of countless other students, as well as at a beautifully printed poster of a 1930s glamour shot of Marlene Dietrich which hung nearby.

Platonic Ideal of the Well-Made Photograph

Suddenly one day (night?) it dawned on me: all well-made black and white photographs worked according to single formula: inky blacks, brilliant whites, every grey tone in between (as finely gradated as possible), all organized into coherent masses of dark and light. Bingo. I immediately stopped taking pictures of items that interested me, searched out subject matter that contained the range of tones and shapes that would make for a well-made print, photographed and printed them carefully, and got an “A” in the class, with my teacher commenting that she’d never seen such accomplished darkroom work from a beginner. While Ansel Adams was obviously an infinitely more serious photographer than I was, the tension between the well-made photograph and, er, subject matter is real for all photographers. It certainly squashed the rather “off-the-cuff” feeling of Mr. Adams earlier work. Within a few years of his exposure to Mr. Strand’s negatives, his photos start looking like a great deal of hard work went into them. (Of course, this is not to imply that his hard work didn’t pay off—Mr. Adams’ technical virtuosity remains legend.)

The second distraction was his need or desire to convince people of the importance and grandeur of the natural scenery he loved. His prints got larger and started to concern themselves with what I would call, for want of a better term, drama. While his motives for this made perfect sense—he had to get noticed to make a living for his growing family, and he wanted to evangelize for the gospel of undeveloped wilderness—the net result is that he became an artist trying to serve three masters: Modernist geometric abstraction, the well-made photograph, and the breathtaking drama of the wilderness. He obviously managed to weld all three of these together every so often, but the final results often remind me of the Great Machines of 19th century Parisian Salons—impressive but rather offputting.

Mount Williamson Sierra Nevada from Manzanar, California, c. 1944; Yosemite Valley, Thunderstorm, c. 1949

And at other times, when things weren’t quite clicking, he produced work that appears to be “glamour photography for nature.”

Aspens, Northern New Mexico, 1958-76

It doesn’t seem terribly surprising that he virtually gave up photography in the soup-to-nuts sense after 1950 and mostly spent his time teaching and reprinting his old negatives—I don’t think his constitution, or anyone’s, could have kept up the strain involved in his so-called “mature” work.

Nonetheless, I’m quite grateful for the view into the “early” Ansel Adams—it’s nice to know there was a more relaxed, happy guy underneath than seemed to poke out of the grandeur of his later work.



posted by Friedrich at February 10, 2003


Good job of laying out the Ansel Adams predicament. My own reactions to his work run along these lines:

*I'm impressed.
*It doesn't mean much to me -- my soul doesn't tingle.
*Yet I'm impressed.
*And bizarrely I don't mind feeling duly awestruck.
*It's such an easy artworld thing to look down on him, and such a banal thing to love his work, that I'm tempted to go ahead and love it.
*Yet I just don't feel anything deep about it.
*Yet I'm impressed!

So I guess I'd have to say I don't mind the official Ansen Adams. I'm glad he did it -- someone had to. (I don't enjoy the movie of "Gone With the Wind," but I'm glad it's there. Movie history, and photographic history, need these landmarks.)

I am surprised, over and over, when I go to an art-photography exhibit of work that really shows off a lot of in-the-grain craftsmanship, how seductive, heady and rich b&w photographs can be. The new giant color C-prints generally leave me cold -- why not look at 'em in a book or a magazine? But finely made b&w art shots, seen in person? They do cast a spell. Over me, at least. Not over you? Are there art photographrs who you do go for? I like some of the Russians and Eastern Europeans, Lartigue, a Harlem guy named Roy de Carava who made gorgeous shots of jazz musicians (that don't look like anything special in reproduction but are like fine cognac when seen in person), bunches of others, though many of the big big names don't interest me much...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 11, 2003 12:44 AM

I'll grant you, photographs--particularly, black and white photographs--can be very sensuous objects. They eroticize vision (which obviously explains your interest in them.) But, as I point out in my post, that voluptuousness is virtually independent of the nature of the subject matter, and thus often serves as an enormous distraction from the subject matter. I mean, there are candid photos of Marlene Dietrich which give you a sense of a goofy, gawky, fun woman; but her glamour photos reduce her an iconic/erotic pair of cheekbones. Photography often--and quite frustratingly--seems to involve this bizarre impressiveness/substance trade off. Painting is just a lot more flexible. And that raises a whole 'nother issue: when Ansel started photographing the American West, he was sitting on top of 50+ years of Western painting--why doesn't anybody bring up the iconographic tradition he was, of necessity, reacting to? Writing on art photography seems to assume that guys like Ansel Adams were sui generis, that nobody ever looked at Yosemite or the Sierras with an aesthetic glint in their eyes prior to him--which is just silly.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 11, 2003 11:33 AM

my wordy sissies of semiotics...

long may yer verbslunk co-mingle.

adams helped,


Posted by: triblett lungre-thurd on February 20, 2003 12:59 AM

Hey, theres an ansel adams picture of a bare tree in the desert with heavily shadowed top branches. It looks dead. I have lost my version of this picture and dont recall the name of it. If you can find it please send me one.

Posted by: Tim on March 1, 2003 11:20 AM

Hey, theres an ansel adams picture of a bare tree in the desert with heavily shadowed top branches. It looks dead. I have lost my version of this picture and dont recall the name of it. If you can find it please send me one.

Posted by: Tim on March 1, 2003 11:20 AM

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