America's most popular photographer has had trouble getting respect. Beloved by many, scorned as sentimental by the snooty few, Ansel Adams arouses strong feelings, magnified by his ubiquity. Millions of people who have never been to Yosemite National Park know it from his black-and-white shots of a gleaming Half Dome beneath a glowering sky. The mass marketing of calendars, posters and postcards with his images make it hard to see those sweeping vistas with fresh eyes, or to recapture the sense of awe he meant to inspire.
A show opening Saturday at the Heckscher Museum of Art will give fans and foes a fresh opportunity to reconsider Adams' legacy.
He didn't intend to become a photographer. Born in 1902 to wealthy parents in San Francisco, he was a hyperactive, difficult child who had such trouble focusing in school that his parents removed him. He pursued a career as a concert pianist in the 1920s and '30s, but photography began to vie for his enthusiasm, gradually winning out, but only narrowly.
It wasn't the whole of photography that appealed to Adams - but rather, its ability to capture the places he loved best. And he showed almost no interest in urban environments or bucolic landscapes - only in the panoramas he felt were imbued with divinity.
On a trip into the High Sierra in California, Adams had an epiphany: "I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks. There are no words to convey the mood of those moments." He spent the rest of his career trying to re-enact this glorious vision.
He developed techniques for capturing the branches, boulders and leaves in the foreground with the same clarity and precision as the chasms, peaks and clouds in the far distance. For him, photography was a sort of worship; he shared a sensibility with the Romantic poets, especially Wordsworth, who saw God in nature. In "Tintern Abbey," Wordsworth describes a presence "Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns/and the round ocean and the living air, and the blue sky and the mind of man." Adams aimed to convey this sense of immanence.
Adams' best efforts
His greatest work dates from the 1930s and '40s, when most of his colleagues were documenting the miseries of the Depression and war. He was out of step with his time, and others took a dim view of his disengagement with the travails of humanity. Henri Cartier-Bresson marveled that a man with such a brilliant eye had chosen "in this crisis, with the world maybe going to pieces - to photograph a landscape!"
Though he took pictures of nature as a purely private benediction, later generations saw a component of political activism in his work. He had immortalized the pristine air and stoic crags that environmentalists were defending; he had given the movement its most powerful iconography.
There's something keenly patriotic about Adams' work, an equation of nature with nationalism that also had animated the 19th century painters of the Hudson River School. In 1835, Thomas Cole paid homage to the unique godliness of wilderness, calling it "the most distinctive and perhaps the most characteristic of American scenery." Cole mourned the passing of the uncultivated landscape, asserting that "those scenes of solitude from which the hand of nature has never been lifted, affect the mind with a more deep-toned emotion than that which the hand of man has touched."
It's "America the Beautiful"
Adams, adapting the predilections of the Hudson River School, creates a rough equivalency among God, untrammeled nature, the United States and the sublime. With its Shakespearean clouds, inky shadows and dazzling clarity, his work seems made for a slide show synchronized with "America the Beautiful." As art critic Daniel Kunitz has observed, "America in his view is found only in the purple mountains' majesty."
It's true that Adams' work occasionally falls into the purple. Especially in his later years, he tended to lay the rapture on a bit thick. In the 1960s and '70s, he reprinted negatives from 30 years earlier, overemphasizing contrast, moodiness and theatricality. By then, he had become as formidable an American institution as the West itself.
Beginning in 1948, Adams became a consultant and spokes-artist for Polaroid, and he began revisiting his old locations using the company's equipment and film. The results formed the core of Polaroid's collection and of the company-sponsored Heckscher show. The photographer's enthusiasm for the brand led him to make even more graphically intense landscapes of the sort that translated into posters.
In "Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite" from 1960, the gibbous moon hangs above the granite summit like a skyborne vehicle waiting for a deity to dismount. The whole scene glows as if it had been dipped in silver. Here, the plot is not the eternal endurance of nature, but the worldly glory of Ansel Adams.