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  January/February 2002 Issue
  FEATURES: Celebrating 100 Years of Ansel Adams
Molded by Mountains
Artist and Activist
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Celebrating 100 Years of Ansel Adams

The Artist | At Manzanar | The Activist

The Artist

When Ansel Adams embarked on his professional career in the late 1920s, there were scarcely any dealers, collectors, or museum exhibitions of photography. A few pioneers like Alfred Stieglitz were trying to establish photography as a fine art. Adams joined this effort and was greatly influenced by Stieglitz's visual approach. In Adams's choice of subject matter, he retained links to an earlier style, but his admiration for Stieglitz imbued his work with a rigorous modernist attention to form, line, and the effects of light.

As Adams became more technically proficient, his desire to perfect his photographs grew. In the early 1940s, he concocted an almost mathematical way of determining the proper exposure and development for any black-and-white picture, in which every shade of gray had an assigned "value" and a distinct appearance. Called the Zone System, it is still taught to today's budding photographers. Adams also took a hands-on role in the publishing of his books, for which he demanded high-quality reproductions. These early coffee-table tomes helped popularize art photography--and created a cottage industry of Ansel Adams calendars, posters, and cards.

Adams taught and mentored new generations of landscape photographers throughout his 60-year career, and he lobbied tirelessly to improve the medium's artistic standing. By the end of his life, Adams's work had been shown at prestigious venues like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and fine-art photography was collected and exhibited worldwide. --Jennifer Hattam

Ansel Adams's keen-edged photographs make me aware of the beauty of landscape in a new and deeper way. They are a moment preserved--not the fly in amber with every bristle intact, but a skillful courting of light to create his highly intimate sense of place. I can even imagine standing precisely where he stood to frame a landscape portrait and not recognizing the subject, for his eye, his choice of moment, were so individual, and the possibilities so vast, that he photographed scenes that existed only in his camera lens. The ranks of clouds and twist of leaves consumed only an instant and will not come again.
--Ann Zwinger, a nature writer whose works include Shaped by Wind and Water: Reflections of a Naturalist

The great landscape photographers of the 19th century approached the natural world as if it were a collection of permanent and immutable facts that might be objectively recorded and cataloged with adequate time. Ansel Adams discovered that in fact the natural world is infinitely varied, constantly potential, evanescent; that its grand vistas and microcosms are never twice the same; that the landscape is not only a place but an event.

Trained as a musician, Adams understood the richness of variation that could be unfolded from a single theme. As a young mountaineer in Yosemite, he learned from intimate experience and faithful attention the rhythms, structures, and special effects of that delicately flamboyant place. In order to describe his perceptions, he had to develop an extraordinarily supple and precise technique, capable of evoking the specific quality of a given moment in the natural history of the world.

In historical terms, Adams may link two traditions. He was perhaps the last of the romantic artists who saw the great spaces of the wilderness as a metaphor for freedom and heroic aspirations. He is certainly among those who have sketched a new pictorial understanding of the landscape, based on nature's intimate details, its unnoted cases, its ephemeral gestures.
--John Szarkowski, curator of the exhibition Ansel Adams at 100

My generation of photographers, living in what has sometimes been called the "New West," wasn't content just to view Ansel Adams's picture- perfect windows to the natural world. When we saw that world in a book or on a wall, we wanted to be there too. But when we arrived, we found that his world had vanished. Now there was a parking lot, or another camper's tent in our way, or a list of Park Service regulations.

In Adams's pristine wilderness, culture was not a contaminating force, or even a force at all. Instead of capturing these ideal landscapes, contemporary photographers often show us the grim influence of culture on the land: unending subdivisions, toxic-waste dumps, and the scars of military use. But in some ways, they're just like Adams's photos: Modern life is still divided from the natural world. To heal the separation between culture and nature, Adams's work may again prove relevant.

I've always been an optimist about the role of the photographer in the American West. There are very few other places where the photographic image has had such an effect on public policy. Adams offered millions of people a vision of the land they could understand. His belief in the redemptive powers of nature was grounded in the kind of experiences others could share. And his investment in the power of the image helped shape public opinion and establish a community committed to the land. We don't want to repeat his images, but guided by Adams's route, we can find a new way for human beings to belong in the natural world.
--Mark Klett, photographer and professor of art at Arizona State University

I met Ansel Adams in 1962. I had been up all night on peyote in Tassajara, and I just turned up at his door in Carmel in the morning. I showed him some photos I had taken of Warm Springs Indian Reservation in central Oregon. He made comments on my work, and called up his friend Stewart Udall and got him to give me a job with the Department of the Interior, photographing other tribes. Adams was probably so famous by then that he must have hated being assaulted by young photographers. So just not to throw me in the Pacific was very sweet of him.

In those days, we art students were all supposed to be a little snooty about the work of Ansel Adams, to think that it was a little too commercial. I think we were wrong about that. I've seen a lot of his supposedly commercial photography and damn, it was good. Sure, the pictures were staged, but they were staged so brilliantly and the composition was so flawless that they really worked.
--Stewart Brand, publisher of the original Whole Earth Catalog and president of the Long Now Foundation, a group that is designing a 10,000-year clock to encourage long-term thinking

Ansel Adams's images of the High Sierra reach for something quite divorced from good and evil, comedy and tragedy; divorced also from our easy celebrations of what we all agree to be pretty places. They conjure the very cold, very true solace that an unsentimental Sierra traveler will find in the proof of a world beyond the merciless meanings we make of it, and make of ourselves.
--Daniel Duane, author of El Capitan

For a lot of people, Ansel Adams's work still defines what landscape and photography are supposed to be. For others--including me--coming of age in the 1970s and '80s, it was important to break that definition, to try to include everything that had been so carefully excluded from Adams's pictures of resplendent wilderness. By the 1970s, many found in these images reassurance that nature was doing fine, rather than calls to protect the places that weren't yet ravaged.

Over the last quarter century, the most original landscape photographers have been making anti-Ansel Adams pictures of places in which the human presence is visible. But that era too may be drawing to a close. Coming out from under this huge shadow Adams cast, it's possible to appreciate him for other things: in my case, for his many decades of tough environmental activism, for the empathy that prompted his work with the Japanese internees in the Manzanar prison camp during World War II, for his commitment to establishing photography as a fine art, and for putting aesthetics to ethical use.
--Rebecca Solnit, author of Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Landscape Wars of the American West

At Manzanar

When Adams tried to enlist in World War II, he was turned down because he was a 40-year-old father of young children, so he put his talents to work documenting the impacts of the war at home. Ralph Merritt, a good friend and fellow Sierra Club member, had been appointed director of the Manzanar War Relocation Center. Merritt wanted Adams to document the daily life of the Japanese Americans who had been forcibly moved to the remote internment camp in Inyo County, California. Adams accepted the assignment, eager to show the rest of the country that the internees were loyal and productive citizens.

In the fall of 1943, Adams visited Manzanar and photographed its neatly tended shacks and its residents living with their families, going to church, and working at the camp's hospital, business offices, and farms. "They really did a magnificent job of establishing a life out of chaos," he later recollected. Unfortunately, the public wasn't ready to see what Adams saw. When his photographs were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art the following year and published in a book, Born Free and Equal, neither venture was well received. "People refused to buy it," Adams lamented.--J.H.

Ansel Adams came to the camp and took pictures for about a week. He let us buy test prints for 35 cents each, and he made a book of the photographs. He thought that he could change public opinion with his camera, but the time was not right to win people over.

Years later he turned it all over to the Library of Congress, and there somebody discovered the photos and published a beautiful hardcover book called Manzanar. In its introductory essay, John Hersey details what led up to the evacuation and exposes how dreadful it was that the "native sons and daughters of the golden West" were foremost in ousting the Japanese people. How pleased Ansel Adams would be to know that his splendid effort to depict the internment of Japanese Americans has since gotten the publicity it deserves.
--Helen Ely Brill, former teacher at Manzanar High School

Whenever he shot a family portrait, people would get dressed up. That bothered Ansel, because he wanted them to be in the most natural setting.

Ansel Adams was a very patriotic American. I think he did this project in hopes that he could get people in the United States to see what had happened and gain some sympathy for the internees. As an American, he was putting his career on the line. I think he was riding against the tide.
--Sue Kunitomi Embrey, chair of the Manzanar Committee

The Activist

At 14, Ansel Adams took his first photographs in Yosemite National Park. This early excursion inspired not only his decision to be an artist, but also a lifelong commitment to the cause of conservation. From his first trip to Washington, D.C., in 1936, to his 1983 meeting with Ronald Reagan, Adams and his photographs were a persistent presence in environmental debates. His lobbying helped establish Kings Canyon National Park, preserve the character of Yosemite, and protect the wilds of Alaska.

Much of this work was done through the Sierra Club, which also helped develop some of Adams's lesser-known talents: as a lodge caretaker, trail guide, and campsite scout. His longtime association with the Club began in 1919, when the 17-year-old Adams was hired to manage LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite. In 1927, Adams went on his first High Trip; three years later, he became assistant manager of these massive annual outings. He contributed both prose and photos to the Sierra Club Bulletin (now Sierra), helped create the Club's first Exhibit Format book, This Is the American Earth, and served on the board of directors from 1934 to 1971.--J.H.

Ansel Adams's work has taught many of us to search, to see, to learn. Now, when environmentalists need the support of mainstream America more than ever, his success motivates the rest of us to reach out to all people. And when artists might be tempted to regard their work as only valuable for its own sake, he inspires us to tap our creative talents for protecting the earth.
--Tim Palmer, author of The Heart of America: Our Landscape, Our Future

As a conservationist, Ansel stood above all for the integrity of the national park system. In the 1930s, he lobbied members of Congress, and then Interior Department secretary Harold Ickes, to make the Sierra's Kings Canyon into a national park. By the mid-1950s, he was worried about the effort to modernize the parks, fearing too much development and ugly new visitor centers. He was particularly outraged over plans to rebuild the old Tioga Road through the high country of Yosemite and the glacier-polished slabs of rock near Tenaya Lake and threatened to resign from the Sierra Club Board unless more was done to oppose it. Near the end of his life, Ansel criticized attacks on public lands and national parks under the early-1980s regime of Interior secretary James Watt. He even told President Reagan, face-to-face, what he thought.

Ansel's life work put the parks in a realm that cannot suffer compromise and gave us an enduring vision of the earth as a place entitled to its own integrity. Shortly after his death, an 11,760-foot mountain on the Lyell Fork near Tuolumne Meadows--one of his favorite places in Yosemite--was named after him. To the south of Yosemite, connecting the park to the John Muir Wilderness, Congress established the 229,000-acre Ansel Adams Wilderness. For many reasons, his name will endure.
--Mike McCloskey, executive director of the Sierra Club from 1969 to 1985

The power of Adams's work comes from something beyond technique. He was caught up in the majesty, beauty, and fragility of the wild places on our planet and determined to convey this in his photographs. More than that, he was determined to enlist his images in the cause of conservation. Adams's pictures were undoubtedly a key factor in creating a favorable climate for the environmental legislation of the 1970s and '80s. They can continue to do this in the decades to come.
--John F. Seiberling, former congressional representative from Ohio. (As chair of the House Subcommittee on General Oversight and Alaska Lands in the late 1970s, Seiberling played a key role in protecting 56 million acres of wilderness through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.)

In 1979, I assisted Ansel Adams while he took the official portrait of President Jimmy Carter. Ansel used the 55-minute session as an opportunity to present information directly to the president about the importance of preserving the Alaskan wilderness. It was no coincidence that at the conclusion of this portrait session, Ansel presented the president and first lady with a beautiful print of Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake, Alaska. Not long thereafter, President Carter signed legislation helping to protect the Alaskan wilderness.
--John Sexton, photographer

When I first read about Adams's lobbying for wilderness protection, it changed my focus. Inspired by Adams's combination of art and advocacy, I left Chicago for the West, where for the past 25 years, I have taken photos of the landscape that I first glimpsed as a young boy, but did not truly see until I discovered Ansel Adams.
--Jack Dykinga, photographer

In 1958 my wife, Peggy, and I were working to save the area that eventually became North Cascades National Park in Washington. We wanted to show the American public how beautiful this place was, so we invited Ansel to come up with us. He arrived on the train in Wenatchee with four or five huge white wooden boxes and his "horse." This "horse" was actually a young man interested in photography--that's how he always referred to his assistants.

When I saw the size of Ansel's boxes, I was aghast. But we managed to get them into the back of our station wagon, and off we went to Lake Chelan, where we transported them to a boat and then to mules. We stayed on the North Fork of the Stehekin River for days, and Ansel never took his camera out. It was one of those hot, dry summers with forest fires and a lot of smoke, and he said there was "no use trying to take a picture." After a week of this, we moved over to Cascade Pass. I woke up the next morning in a dense fog and thought, "If it isn't the smoke, it's the fog--we'll never get a picture." But there was Ansel, happy as a clam, taking pictures of a stump in the fog, a photograph that he considered one of his best.

Ansel was a true perfectionist. He would often take several Polaroids first, getting everything just right, and then put film in the camera and take just one shot. Ansel was also a purist as a Sierra Club director. He could be terribly stubborn, but he was an extremely lively, social person, a tremendous punster with a keen intellect and a charming personality. He was a dominant figure within the Club, perhaps next only to John Muir.
--Edgar Wayburn, Sierra Club president from 1961 to 1964 and 1967 to 1969, and a member of its board of directors for 33 years

More than any other photographer, Ansel Adams was able to glamorize the environment. He brought the wildness and the beauty of nature into American living rooms, and people couldn't help but respond emotionally, even though the imagery might be of a landscape a continent away.

Some may argue that his work has led to more intrusion into the wilderness of the United States, which has increased the wear and tear on the land and the wildlife that live there. But I'll take eroded hiking trails over the hugely destructive practices of industry any day. His work has led to greater environmental awareness and activism, and this is indeed his greatest legacy.
--Art Wolfe, photographer

"This Is the American Earth," reads the half title. You flip the page and there--boom!--all darkness and light, in two-page spread, is Ansel's Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada From Lone Pine, California. An infinitesimal horse grazes under foothills in shadow and a luminous arc of peaks in the sun. "This, as citizens, we all inherit," the text begins. "This is ours, to love and live upon, and use wisely down all the generations of the future." The next spreads build toward climax, in word and image, and finally BOOM! the title page and Ansel's Half Dome, Blowing Snow, Yosemite National Park, California. No matter how many times I thumb through this sequence, it takes my breath away.
--Kenneth Brower, author of The Winemaker's Marsh

Adams was more than a great photographer. He was a great human being. Whenever someone who knows about the complete Ansel views one of his photographs, its meaning goes far deeper than the image on paper.
--Galen Rowell, photographer and author

Ansel Adams's life encompasses the long national debate that began with the release of the census of 1890, the declaration that the frontier had closed, and Frederick Jackson Turner's famous challenge to the American people: Who were we going to be without the frontier? At the end of the 20th century, Americans came to Ansel's answer: While the frontier as a statistically measured artifact of the Census Bureau might have ended, wildness did not end with the frontier. What it is to be an American is to respect and cherish wildness.

If you look at Ansel's pictures from the 1920s or the 1930s, you wouldn't know that the frontier had closed. In his own wild way, Ansel was one of the crucial voices telling the American people that we had this opportunity, this wildness left to value. Almost at the end of his life, Americans decided that we did not want a second Europe; we wanted a place that was still wild. Now that we know what we want, our challenge in this century is: How do we get it?
--Carl Pope, Sierra Club executive director, from the prologue to the documentary Ansel Adams, a Sierra Club Productions film airing in April on PBS

The art world is celebrating Ansel Adams with the first major reevaluation of his photography since his death in 1984. Ansel Adams at 100 opened August 4, 2001, in Adams's hometown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it will be on view through January 13. The exhibition next debuts February 20--Adams's 100th birthday--at the Art Institute of Chicago, travels to London and Berlin, and returns in 2003 to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For complete dates and locations, visit the Sierra Club's Web site at www.sierraclub.org/ansel_adams/calendar.asp.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 192-page book that the New York Times called "almost as much of an event as the show itself." The elegant oversize volume reproduces 114 Adams photographs--those that curator John Szarkowski considers his finest work. The selections emphasize artful early prints of Adams's famous images, many from the 1940s. One-third of the photos have never before been published. From Little, Brown and Company, the book lists for $150.

In April, look for the documentary film Ansel Adams, to air nationally on PBS. Directed by Ric Burns and coproduced by Steeplechase Films and Sierra Club Productions, the movie will explore Adams's life and work and consider his artistic and environmental legacy.


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