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Peter Barr

";Ansel Adams, America's Saint George of Conservation";
November, 2000

 

Ansel Adams (1902 -151; 1984) is arguably one of the most beloved figures in the history of American photography.1 His work bears all of the stylistic qualities needed to guarantee its success: it appears plainspoken and straightforward, and presents the natural world in a crisp, realistic way. But Adams's straightforward photographic style masks his remarkably complicated motivations. His images and published thoughts reflect a complex blend of aesthetic idealism and radical political engagement that is often overlooked. Equal parts aesthete and social activist, Adams hoped that his sharp-focused black-and-white photographs would help persuade Americans to value creativity as well as to conserve and expand American freedoms and wilderness preserves.

Adams, who is celebrated by both elite academics and the general public alike, ended his formal education with grammar school. Since then he has been awarded six honorary degrees, including doctorates from Berkeley and Harvard. In 1979, his thirty-second book, entitled Yosemite and the Range of Light, sold more than 200,000 copies, becoming one of the best-selling photographic monographs ever. Two years later, his mural-sized print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico set an auction record for photography, fetching $71,500.00. By 1984, the year he died, his work had appeared in more than 500 exhibitions. Today, reproductions of his images can be found on address books, calendars, folios, screen savers, posters and in more than eighty publications, including his widely read autobiography and two recent biographies - all readily available on the internet.

Adams's fame is not new, but began in the early 1930s, shortly after he decided to commit himself professionally to the medium of photography. Trained first as a classical pianist, he dabbled in amateur photography for more than a decade before deciding to abandon a career in music for professional photography. This decision was motivated by pragmatic and idealistic considerations. On the one hand, in the 1920s, advertisers increasingly patronized photographers because they believed that photographs were more persuasive than hand-drawn illustrations.2 For most of his career, Adams was able to earn a relatively steady source of income from his commercial work. On the other hand, Adams was inspired by what he perceived to be the aesthetic potential of the medium. In 1926, Albert Bender, an art collector and owner of a small insurance agency in San Francisco, encouraged this idealism by financing Adams's early aesthetic work. Bender's generosity resulted both in Adams's first published book, Taos Pueblo, and in his first one-person exhibition, at the Sierra Club in San Francisco. This led to his 1930 meeting in New Mexico with the prominent New York photographer Paul Strand. Strand invited Adams to examine a set of his recent negatives, which convinced Adams of photography's potential as a medium of fine art.

Within five years of meeting Strand, Adams emerged as one of the most influential figures in the world of art photography. By the end of 1930, he was writing a photography column for the literary review Fortnightly. Two years later, Adams helped found the photography club Group f/64. He organized the group's landmark exhibition of ";pure"; photography at the M. H. de Young Museum, and authored their manifesto, which argued vehemently against the tradition of making art photographs look like impressionistic paintings or etchings. The following year he met Alfred Stieglitz, the legendary New York art dealer and ";pure"; photographer and opened The Ansel Adams Gallery for creative photography -150; with the idea of becoming the ";Alfred Stieglitz"; of San Francisco. Then, in 1935, he published the first of several instructional books on photography, which earned him a reputation as an effective teacher and exacting photographic technician.

As a teacher and technician, Adams is perhaps best known for testing Edwin Land's Polaroid film technology and for instructing aspiring artists on how to use his own Zone System of photography, which he developed while teaching at the Art Center School in Los Angeles in 1941. This system allows photographers to calculate and control the range of gray-scale tones in their negatives by using a light meter. The objective is to obtain a negative with silver densities corresponding to the photographer's preconception of the scene. For Adams, this usually meant a mesmerizing number of distinct shades of gray, black and white, as in his photograph, Aspens (1958). Further, he encouraged artists to manipulate their images' tones while developing and printing. Adams compared printmaking to a musical performance by likening the tonal values of a negative to the notes on a musical score. Like a musical performance, the print was then subject to variation and reinterpretation over time.3

Adams's technical accomplishments often overshadow the fact that he intended for his photographs to express his radical aesthetic and political ideals. His aesthetic ideals can be traced back through Paul Strand to Alfred Stieglitz. Adams, like Stieglitz, regularly preached a ";pure"; photographic aesthetic imbued with emotion; he claimed that his photographic prints represented what Stieglitz called ";equivalents"; of his feelings.4 Adams, too, claimed that art photographers created ";a statement that goes beyond the subject"; and captured ";an inspired moment on film."; 5 By way of contrast, he felt ordinary photographs were mere ";visual diaries"; or ";reminders of experience."; Adams elaborated on this idea near the end of his life, comparing his own (and his friend Edward Weston's) photographs to those of William Henry Jackson, who photographed the American West for the U.S. Government's Hayden Geological Survey in 1870:

Jackson, for all his devotion to the subject, was recording the scene. Weston, on the other hand, was actually creating something new-133;. Similarly, while the landscapes that I have photographed in Yosemite are recognized by most people and, of course the subject is an important part of the pictures, they are not ";realistic."; All my pictures are optically very accurate - I use pretty good lenses -150; but they are quite unrealistic in terms of [tonal] values. A more realistic, simple snapshot captures the image but misses everything else. I want a picture to reflect not only the forms, but [also] what I had seen and felt at the moment of exposure.6

While Adams espoused Stieglitz's emotional aesthetic, it would be a mistake to link their photographic outlooks too closely. Adams, after all, was nearly a half-century younger than Stieglitz and was deeply involved with the aesthetic and political trends of his own day. The most dominant aesthetic trend in photography between 1925 and 1950 is the emergence of the ";documentary"; mode of expression. This is a brand of often emotionally riveting photographic realism, which is perhaps best illustrated by Dorothea Lange's well-known Migrant Mother (1936). The popularity of the documentary mode of expression during the 1930s and 1940s reflects, to a certain extent, the cynical public's desire for direct, straightforward communication in the wake of the mid-1930s Dust Bowl and the unsettling stock market crash of 1929. It can also be seen to record and celebrate the New Deal social programs, which were designed by Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration to help alleviate the most troubling conditions of the Great Depression.

It is noteworthy that Paul Strand was one of the early practitioners of the documentary mode. Strand studied photography under the tutelage of Lewis Hine, the well-known sociologist-turned-photographer. Hine's work for the National Child Labor Committee helped convince Congress to eradicate child labor in the United States. In 1930, when Strand first met Adams, he was actively following Hine's lead, travelling through Mexico making monumentalizing portraits of ordinary citizens he found on the streets. Projects like these, combined with Strand's outspoken advocacy of America's continued friendship with the socialist block countries, brought Strand to the attention of anti-Communist Republicans in the U.S. Congress. Fearing that he might loose his right to travel abroad, Strand entered into self-exile in France, in 1950. Adams, who wisely chose to keep his political views to himself during this time, nonetheless continued to cite Strand as a significant influence on his work. In the waning years of his life, however, Adams became increasingly outspoken about his political views. In 1983, he told an interviewer:

I think there may be a revolution if there is not greater equality given to all citizens. We have consistently considered the employer, especially the large corporations, as the most valuable part of the American society. We have consistently overlooked the enormous importance of the farmer, the technician, the educator, the artist, [and] the laborer. I'm not calling for a revolution; I'm calling for greater equality to all citizens. If that doesn't happen, something will.7

During the heyday of the documentary mode of photography, while other Americans were training their cameras on the disenfranchised and the middle class, Adams was accused of photographing nothing but trees, rocks and bushes. Yet it was during the early 1940s that Adams helped the Museum of Modern Art organize a juried exhibition of photographs called Images of Freedom that ";look[ed] at the people -150; our friends, our families, ourselves-133;. [It asked] what are our resources and our potential strength?";8 One photograph from this exhibition, Mrs. Gunn on Porch, Independence, California, 1944, suggests the kind of dignified image of the middle class that he must have had in mind. Similarly, two years later he traveled to Owens Valley, California, to photograph the Japanese-Americans who had been forcibly relocated there following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The resulting exhibition and book entitled Born Free and Equal celebrated the prisoners that he met there and condemned the injustice of the camp. The book's photographs affirm the individuality, dignity, work ethic, and Americanness of the internees while his accompanying texts describe the horrible conditions in the camps and plea passionately for other Americans to correct such civil rights violations. Adams's decision to express his condemnation of the relocation camps in words rather than images reflects his unwavering belief that the visual arts must never condemn life, only build it up and celebrate it. Quoting Stieglitz, Adams often said, ";Art is the affirmation of life."; 9

Adams used a similar strategy of combining life-affirming photographs and critical prose in his efforts to preserve America's wilderness reserves, especially in and around Yosemite Valley. In 1934, he joined the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club and began lobbying Congress to stop logging and mining in the King's River Canyon, near Yosemite. By 1938, when he published his first book of landscape photographs, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, he sent copies to President Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes. The photographs in the book, he recalled, ";helped swing the opinion in our favor."; 10 In 1940, with the President's help, the canyon became a national park.

It is important to note, however, that Adams's advocacy for the parks began only after he had created a substantial body of landscape photographs, works that were aimed at creative rather than for political ends. Looking back on the relationship between his photographs and his advocacy for the environment, he recalled:

I never did a photograph of any importance for an environmental purpose - All the pictures I've done were done because I was there and I loved the mountains and I visualized a picture. However, I do feel very good about the fact that my photographs have been used in environmental campaigns a lot-133; The pictures of Kings Canyon Sierra, for example, were done well before I became involved in the fight to establish Kings Canyon as a national park.11

After playing a central role in establishing Kings Canyon National Park, Adams became widely regarded as the principal photographer of, and unofficial spokesman for, the National Park system. In 1941, the Department of the Interior commissioned him to create a photographic mural about the national parks. The commission was canceled because of World War II, yet Adams returned to the parks in 1946, 1948 and 1958 with funds provided by the Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In subsequent years, he was invited to discuss American environmental policy with several Presidents, including Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, and received from the latter the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By way of contrast, Adams conducted a war of words with President Reagan. He described Reagan's Secretary of the Interior James Watt's policy of allowing strip mining and timber harvesting in the national parks as an indefensible policy of ";rape, ruin and run!"; 12

Adams would certainly be unhappy with the over-popularity of America's National Parks today. In fact, he preferred the term ";reserve"; to ";park"; because the former term suggested that public lands should be ";open to the public and their cars (to a limited extent)"; but devoid of the human comforts and popular camping facilities that threaten their protection and preservation. 13 ";There is certainly nothing amiss,"; he explained with camping, fishing, boating, swimming, skiing, and all the other participation and non-participation sports; people do not have enough of these healthful and refreshing experiences. But you do not play ping-pong in a cathedral, rustle popcorn at a string-quartet concert, or hang billboards on the face of Half Dome in Yosemite (not all of us would, anyway!). You must have certain noble areas of the world left in as close-to-primal condition as possible. You must have quietness and a certain amount of solitude. You must be able to touch the living rock, drink the pure waters, scan the great vistas, sleep under the stars and awaken to the cool dawn wind. Such experiences are the heritage of all people. 14

Adam's ";pure"; images, technical accomplishments and critical views about the environment are no less relevant today, 15 years after his death, than during his lifetime. At last count, the U.S. Forest Service had carved more than 378,000 miles of roads in America's forests, primarily to allow access for logging and mining. And there are plans to add 580,000 more. 15 Adams realized that America's national parks had been created by an act of Congress, and could be taken away. He also realized that the prints that he selected for this exhibition would travel throughout the country long after his death and be seen by all. As a body of work, these prints illustrate Adams's concern that ";the dragons of demand have been kept at snarling distance by the St. Georges of conservation, but the menace remains. Only education can enlighten our people -150; education and its accompanying interpretation, and the seeking of resonances of understanding in the contemplation of Nature.";16


Peter Barr is Assistant Professor of Art History and Klemm Gallery Director at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan.


1 I want to acknowledge and thank Kimberly Blessing and Kimberly Barr, who read earlier versions of this essay and made helpful comments.

2 See Patricia A. Johnson, Real Fantasies: Edward Steichen's Advertising Photography (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1997).

3 I want to thank Deborah Danielson for explaining the intricacies of the Zone System to me.

4 For a discussion of Stieglitz's symbolist ideals, see Allan Sekula, ";On the Invention of Photographic Meaning,"; Artforum 13:5 (January 1975), reprinted in Vicki Goldberg, Photography in Print (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981), 452-73.

5 ";Playboy Interview: Ansel Adams -150; candid conversation,"; Playboy vol. 30, no. 5 (May 1983), 68.

6 Ibid., 68-9.

7 Ibid., 226.

8 See Mary Street Alinder, Ansel Adams: A Biography (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1996), 171.

9 ";Playboy Interview,"; 68.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid., 86.

12 ";Playboy Interview,"; 222.

13 Ansel Adams, The Role of the Artist in Conservation (Berkeley, California: University of California College of Natural Resources, Department of Forestry & Conservation, March 3, 1975), 11.

14 Ansel Adams, ";Give Nature Time,"; Occidental College Commencement Address, June 11, 1967, with thanks to Leslie Calmes at the Center for Creative Photography, Tuscon Arizona, for sending me with this and other essays by Adams quoted in this paper.

15 Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods (New York: Broadway Books, 1998).

16 Ansel Adams, ";A Photographer Talks About His Art,"; address to the Friends of Occidental College, January 22, 1969.

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Housatonic Museum of Art
Housatonic Community College
900 Lafayette Blvd.
Bridgeport, CT 06604
For information call Robbin Zella, Director, 203-332-5052