Ansel Adams at 100

Rocks, Baker Beach, San Francisco, CA [c. 1931] southwest art.
Rocks, Baker Beach, San Francisco, CA [c. 1931]

By John Szarkowski

Ansel Adams at 100, an exhibit of 114 of Adams’ best photographs that commemorates the centennial of his birth in 2002, is on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through January 13, 2002. In the next two years, the exhibit will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Following is an excerpt from the Ansel Adams at 100 collector’s volume [August 2001, Little, Brown, and Company, $150] by curator John Szarkowski.

During the quarter century between the late 1920s and the early ’50s, the photographer 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 these were probably made in his home state of California, and perhaps most of those in Yosemite or in the High Sierra that guarded 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.

Autumn Tree Against Cathedral Rocks [c. 1944] photo, southwest art.
Autumn Tree Against Cathedral Rocks [c. 1944]

The High Sierra constituted the place he knew and loved best. Perhaps it was the thing he knew and loved best. Adams’ pictures have revised our sense of what we mean when we say landscape. Even those who are more at home in the mysterious swamps or in the incomprehensible boreal forests, even those who are more at home in great cities or in a handkerchief-size garden at the rear of the 8-acre town plot—even many of these have been moved and enlarged by Adams’ pictures, which demonstrate that even in the great theatrical diorama of Yosemite the mountains are no more miraculous than a few blades of grass floating on good water. His pictures have enlarged our visceral knowledge of things that we do not understand.

One might describe the history of photography in the 20th century as the story of how the old technology of chemical photography and the new one of photography in ink struggled for hegemony. When Adams was born in 1902, halftone reproduction (photography in ink) had only just begun to replace the traditional chemical photograph. During the first third of the century, most of photography’s greatest work still found its serious public (as small as that public may have been) through the vehicle of the chemical print. It should be pointed out, however, that photography’s new pictorialist subculture was to a considerable degree the invention of Alfred Stieglitz’s magazine Camera Work and its competitors and imitators.

Aspen, Northern New Mexico [1958] photo, southwest art.
Aspen, Northern New Mexico [1958]

During the middle third of the century, in contrast, the most successful and inventive photographers were for the most part those who believed that the great new opportunity lay in the picture magazines, beginning in the late 1920s with Edward Steichen and including André Kertész, Margaret Bourke-White, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bill Brandt, Gene Smith, Irving Penn, and others. Penn stated the position of the new people with clarity and forthrightness: “For the modern photographer the end product of his efforts is the printed page, not the photographic print.” By the time Adams had reached middle age, the process was virtually complete: Professional photographers made their living by selling not photographic prints but reproduction rights. Except for photographs of potential interest to groups no larger than the nuclear family, photography’s business was done in ink. Then a surprising thing happened. By the mid-sixties much of photography’s function in the workaday world came to be usurped by the new medium of television, and as photography’s commercial function shrank, the chemical (“original”) print made a partial comeback, this time not as a vehicle of commerce but as a means of artistic expression.

Base of West Arch, Rainbow Bridge National Monument [1942] photo, southwest art.
Base of West Arch, Rainbow Bridge National Monument [1942]

Adams’ greatest work was done in the 1930s and ’40s, and by the end of this time he was famous, even if financially insecure. After Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen and possibly Margaret Bourke-White, he was perhaps the best-known American photographer. Nevertheless, he and his work were not universally admired. Adams was in fact never quite in step with the drummer of the political moment. During the 1930s he did not photograph the dust bowl or the Okie migration, like Dorothea Lange, nor did he measure the pulse of American culture, like Walker Evans. In the 1940s he did not photograph World War II and lesser conflagrations, like Robert Capa, or the death camps, like Margaret Bourke-White. He was instead somewhere in the High Country, making photographs that would neither end the Great Depression nor help win the war. Some felt that his work was not quite relevant; their feeling was summed up most memorably a little later in a purported remark of Henri Cartier-Bresson to Nancy Newhall: “Now in this moment, in this crisis, with the world maybe going to pieces to photograph a landscape!” Newhall did not say whether Cartier-Bresson specified what a photographer should photograph while the world might be going to pieces, but it seems clear that his remark was not frivolous and that he had given the matter serious thought in regard to his own work.

During his best years Adams was photographing (from a political point of view) the wrong subjects. Years later, Adams was credited, retroactively, with being socially relevant after all, but the prize was awarded on the basis of a misunderstanding. Adams did not photograph the landscape as a matter of social service but as a form of private worship.

Adams was by strength of will, if not by nature an optimist. As an optimist he saw the forces of environmental responsibility as ascendant and the minds and hearts of the people moving steadily toward the understanding that something similar to reverence for our planet was the essential precondition to ethical life on it. He could point to many victories in support of this optimistic view: new parks, new laws, burgeoning memberships for environmental organizations, etc., and these victories were undeniably real.

But in between the parks and the national monuments and the wilderness areas in the farming country and the grazing country and the logging country and the mining country, even on public lands, and on the ocean banks, and along the lengthening strip developments, and in the new suburbs that no longer related to an urban center the picture provided much less ground for cheer. As a conservationist, a democrat, and a deeply moral man, Adams was committed to the social duty of doing the best he could, of making the best possible bargain, of slowing the advance of barbaric greed until there came a great change of heart, or until some great geologic objection might resolve the question in its own unanswerable way. But in the darkroom he did not need to be the reasonable, responsible, kindly representative of a reasonable position; perhaps there he could give free rein to his intuition of the future.

The interests of an artist and of his audience are in the end quite different. As Adams’ audience we are grateful to him for enlarging our emotional knowledge of the natural world, the knowledge of its constant mutability that it is (one might say) alive. If we avert our eyes for a moment, we will return them to a different world, a constant source of wonder and deep surprise, which we love not only as an aesthetic delight but also as a deep moral cryptogram to which we have no key.

An artist is also a member of art’s audience, and as such shares our interests; but finally he is interested in something else. He is interested in demonstrating to himself, by the authority of his work, that his world is not an illusion, not an invention of the imagination, but rather a real world, of which he is therefore a real part. So if we ask what Ansel Adams did for us, one useful answer would be: nothing—he did it all for himself.

Featured in September 2001