The Man Who Loved The West

Yosemite National Park inspired Ansel Adams both to photograph and to protect American landscapes of startling beauty.

Cover Story

April 21, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | By Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The Snake River, as photographed by Ansel Adams, is a shining ribbon that curves through stands of virgin forest toward a distant mountain whose summit is lit by electric flashes of St. Elmo's fire.

The image is one of the most dramatic landscape photographs ever produced of the American West, and it became one of the signature pictures that helped make Adams famous even among people who knew little about photography. By the time of his death in 1984 at the age of 82, Adams was the most beloved photographer in America, admired as much for his tireless advocacy for environmental conservation as for his luminous, heroic photographs of a pristine wilderness that was fast disappearing.

Adams' career was a lifelong struggle for photography's acceptance as a fine art. His work helped establish new standards of quality, both in the making of original photographic prints and in the development of more effective techniques for reproducing photographs in books.

Now the artist's career is the subject of a delightful and touching biography by Ric Burns called Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film, which airs tonight at 9 on Maryland Public Television.

Burns (the brother of filmmaker Ken Burns, with whom he produced the PBS classic The Civil War) uses still photographs, archival film, taped interviews and stunning shots of present-day Yosemite to examine Adams' career from his first snapshots with a Kodak Brownie to the mature work on which his reputation rests.

Much of the story is told through interviews with the photographer's family and associates; a particularly sympathetic voice is that of John Szarkowski, former head of the Museum of Modern Art's photography department and a longstanding friend and admirer of Adams.

Szarkowski also organized a major Adams retrospective that opened last summer at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Called Ansel Adams at 100, the exhibit is currently touring major American and European cities (the show comes closest to Baltimore in July 2003, when it arrives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York).

In addition, Burns interviewed Andrea Stillman, Adams' assistant and editor; Jonathan Spaulding, Adams' biographer; the artist's children, Michael Adams and Ann Helms; and Bill Turnage, a former student of Adams who helped establish the Ansel Adams Trust, which manages the estate's publishing rights. From their recollections emerges a portrait of a complex man who struggled mightily to translate his passionate feelings for nature into pictures.

Child of the West

Adams felt a deep spiritual kinship to the West. Born in San Francisco in 1902, he spent virtually his entire life in California and the mountain states. His best-known pictures are the magnificent vistas he photographed during the 1930s and '40s in what is now Yosemite National Park, which Adams first saw as an adolescent in 1916 on a camping trip with his parents.

It was love at first sight. In Yosemite, Adams, until then a troubled only child struggling with academic failure and his parents' unhappy marriage, found a place and a subject to which he would return throughout his life for inspiration, refuge and solace.

"Yosemite took hold of the child, and for the rest of his life he returned as frequently as he could," Szarkowski wrote in his exhibition catalog. "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."

In Yosemite, Adams grew from awkward youth to manhood, but more importantly, he blossomed as an artist there. Away from San Francisco's urban clatter, Adams came into his own; his endless treks through the high country seemed to rejuvenate him and, when things went well, inspired ecstatic visions that he methodically trained himself to capture on film. There he became a poet of the wilderness, a solitary seer in whom art and politics eventually came together.

Modern ideas

As a young man, Adams was already thoroughly modern in his ideas about art. He was a founding member of the f 64 group of West Coast photographers (the name was taken from the tiny aperture setting required to produce a sharp image on large view cameras). These artists, who included Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Willard Van Dyke, rejected the sentimental, soft-focus images of 19th-century pictorialism in favor of unmanipulated, "straight" photographs with razor-sharp images printed on glossy, black-and-white papers. (That was the theory, at least; in practice, Adams invented an elaborate darkroom technique to manipulate the tonal range of his prints. )

Adams prided himself on his scientific approach to photography and always insisted there was nothing mystical about his methods.

"Photography is an objective expression; a record of actuality," he wrote. "The photographer who thoroughly comprehends his medium visualizes his subject as a thing-in-itself."

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