Yet as Burns makes clear, Adams' deep attachment to the mountain landscape was also a personal spiritual quest. He was an American Transcen-dentalist who believed in reverence for all life and humanity's essential oneness with Nature. And his practice as an artist mirrored his beliefs.
In his greatest pictures, such as the stunning "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," Adams photographed not just what he saw, but what he felt.
He and his son, Michael, were driving on a country road when he spied a small-town cemetery filled with rows of white crosses ablaze with the sun's last rays. Adams instantly stopped his truck, set up his camera and made a long exposure based on the light reflected by a rising moon. Moments later, he slipped a second film into the camera, but already it was too late: The light had changed and the image was gone.
Adams must have intuited the mood conveyed by this complex photograph well before the scene appeared on his ground glass. His extraordinary technique enabled him to quickly translate light values into the black-and-white tones of the photographic gray scale; but his pictures essentially were already made in his mind's eye before he tripped the shutter. He had a genius for capturing the ephemeral effects of light, cloud and weather that limned the landscape of his heart.
This is, incidentally, why it seems unfair when critics complain that Adams' heroic style lacks feeling and sensitivity: on the deepest level, his photographs are only intelligible in terms of a profound emotional response.
Recognized late in life
Throughout his life, he was beset by difficulties and doubt. His marriage in 1928 to Virginia Best, the daughter of a Yosemite innkeeper whom he met while still in his teens, endured for more than 50 years. But it was severely tested by Adams' solitary mountain pursuits -- and by at least one brief dalliance (whose unhappy ending provoked a nervous breakdown in the artist).
His ambition was enormous, and his capacity for work seemingly inexhaustible. Nonetheless, he remained poor for most of his life, eking out a living from odd jobs and commercial assignments, selling his pictures for a pittance in a market that had yet to recognize photography as art. (He also was a gifted pianist who often practiced six hours a day, and for years he was torn between choosing music or photography as his life's work.)
Not until the last two decades of his life, when Turnage, his former student and disciple, began managing his business affairs, did the artist at last enjoy financial security. Under Turnage's shrewd marketing, Adams' photographic archives became a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
By that time the artist was widely recognized as one of photography's grand old men and a pioneering figure in the emerging environmental movement. He accepted the honors bestowed upon him graciously and continued to speak out on conservation and preservation issues. But that was never what his work was really about. As Szarkowski put it in an eloquent tribute to his friend:
"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 the question, what did Ansel Adams do for us? One useful answer would be 'Nothing; he did it all for himself.' "
Perhaps, but in doing so, Adams also created a vision of Nature and man's place in it that people the world over have come to treasure as their own.
What: "Ansel Adams, a Documentary Film"
When: Tonight at 9
Where: MPT, Channels 22 and 67
In brief: The life of the photographer and activist who made the American West his own.