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Ansel Adams comes alive

Photographer's 100th birthday marked with exhibit

Posted: Thursday, August 02, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO -- The first comprehensive exhibition of Ansel Adams' work since his death in 1984 reinforces his status as America's foremost nature photographer and secures a place for his work on museum walls.

''The idea of the exhibition is to try to show Adams as an artist, not as a conservationist or a politician or a photography teacher,'' said John Szarkowski, who knew Adams and curated the show, which opens Saturday at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Szarkowski spent nearly four years going through a dozen public and private collections looking for the best prints of Adams' finest photos. He came away with a new understanding of how Adams saw the world.

''The great central gift that Ansel made to the rest of us is the realization that the natural world is not a static thing,'' Szarkowski said. ''It's not fundamentally a matter of geology, it's a living, changing, organic thing.''

Sandra Phillips, SFMoMA's senior curator of photography, added that the exhibition will show a different side of Adams. ''Some of the pictures we all know, but fully a third of them will be unknown. I think it will be a starker show, a more visually complicated, but interesting show,'' she said.

Adams' black and white images were highly detailed and unusually lighted. He often cropped out the sky or the foreground and chose, instead, to focus on a stump or a boulder field or a sheer granite wall. His work appears to realistically portray his subject matter.

He worked much of his magic in the darkroom, often printing the same negative hundreds of times to try to imbue the photo with the passion he felt for its subject matter.

In ''Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,'' considered by many to be Adams' masterwork, a nearly full moon in a darkening sky casts an ethereal glow on the crosses in a small cemetery.

Adams actually took the photo in mid-afternoon, according to Mary Street Alinder, who co-wrote Adams' autobiography and said she has the only ''straight print'' of the original. The sky was actually light blue and dotted with clouds and the foreground appears flat.

''What Ansel wanted is not just the reality of what came through the lens of his camera,'' she said. ''He wanted to take it to another level.''

A companion coffee-table book featuring 137 prints is in bookstores this week to commemorate the centennial of the birth of Adams, a San Francisco native whose images ''motivated the country to get on a preservation path,'' according to Bruce Hamilton, conservation director for The Sierra Club.

Adams was born Feb. 20, 1902, the only child of Charles Hitchcock Adams, a businessman, and Olive Bray. He may have been hyperactive or dyslexic when he was young, and did not do well in school. He was essentially self-taught, and his formal education ended with the equivalent of eighth grade.

His first visit to Yosemite Valley was with his family in 1916. He took about 30 photographs using his new Kodak Brownie -- his first camera.

''There was nothing very unusual in 1916 about a 14-year-old child of a middle-class family making snapshots on the family vacation,'' writes Szarkowski in ''Ansel Adams at 100,'' available in bookstores Aug. 2. ''Nor did the first snaps of the young Adams indicate any special genius, although one might say they were neatly framed. The snaps were memory aids ... Yosemite took hold of the child, and for the rest of his life he returned as frequently as he could.''

Adams did show early promise as a pianist, though, and by 21, he considered himself a professional musician. It wasn't until 1930 that he turned instead to photography -- and Yosemite.

He moved from San Francisco to a home and studio overlooking California's Big Sur coast, south of Carmel in 1962. His phone number was always listed, his door was always open and he found himself spending most of his time teaching.

Experts agree that the bulk of Adams' own best work was done in the 1930s and early 1940s.

''Those are the years when he was really an original figure,'' said SFMoMA's Phillips. ''Later, he was interested in making his work accessible for very good reasons because the environment from which he drew inspiration ... was being threatened.''

 

This photo, "Aspens Northern New Mexico," is among the works by Ansel Adams in an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to celebrate the centennial of the famed landscape photographer's birth. The display of 114 photographs by Adams, which opens Aug. 4, 2001, was curated by John Szarkowski, director emeritus of the Department of Photography of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

AP Photo/Ansel Adams, Courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

But, as he put together SFMoMA's show, Szarkowski was struck by Adams' lack of productivity as an artist in his later years.

''He had his finger in a million pies,'' Szarkowski said. ''Whether those other activities took the energy that had once gone into photography or whether the fact that he may have felt that he lost that indefinable, intuitive awareness that a first-rate photographer lives from ... I don't know.''

Adams was a tireless proponent of photography as art, co-founding the world's first museum department of photography in 1940 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

''He stood up and said, 'This is a beautiful art medium on its own,''' Alinder said.

While he long enjoyed fame, Ansel Adams only achieved financial stability from his work a few years before his death.

The Ansel Adams Trust, which oversees the production of books, posters and calendars, sells more than 500,000 Adams' pieces a year, according to trustee William Turnage. ''It's the most successful single artist publishing program in the country,'' he said.

Adams' photographs have never been more in demand, according to Sotheby's auction house. Prices range from less than $10,000 to as much as $60,000.

''That doesn't include prices that private galleries have gotten that may be a good deal higher,'' said Chris Mahoney in Sotheby's photograph department.

And, artistically, Adams remains a strong presence among contemporary photographers.

''All landscape photographers measure their achievement even today either by their rebellion against Ansel Adams or by their creative emulation of his work,'' said Robert Adams, best known for his photographs chronicling the urbanization of the Colorado Rockies, and no relation to Ansel. ''If we feel uneasy in our love of Ansel Adams' art, it's because his art doesn't always seem adequately to acknowledge, much less to reconcile the unpleasant aspects of contemporary life.''

Many of Adams' contemporaries believed he was taking pictures of the wrong things at the wrong time and saw his work as irrelevant. He was accused of ignoring the Depression, World War II and many social issues.

''He was criticized for taking pictures of rocks while the world disintegrated around him,'' Alinder said. ''But he felt beauty can give something that nothing else can. He felt it was at the toughest time in the human condition that we need beauty to help get us through, to remind us of the great things in life that are beautiful.''



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