Ansel Adams at 100

The photographer would not have been pleased by this new retrospective
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As a boy, I watched the epochal photo exhibit "This Is the American Earth" come together in 1955 at Ansel Adams's studio in Yosemite Valley. Three years later, at the photographer's house in San Francisco, I witnessed the exhibit's transformation into a book. My vantage point in San Francisco was the edge of the big, image-strewn table where the book's layout was done. My strategy was to keep quiet. I remember the clarity of Adams's original prints. I can still see the gradations of his grays—no other darkroom maestro had his control of halftones—and the darkness of his darks. Of all the great black-and-white photographers, Ansel Adams was the blackest and the whitest. Those strong contrasts, his trademark, seem to have fixed themselves indelibly in my memory. I remember the creative electricity among the three collaborators: Adams; the exhibit designer Nancy Newhall, who wrote the text; and my father, David Brower, who edited the book.

Adams was even then recognized as the foremost landscape photographer on earth. Half the images in the book were his. He was a balding, bearded, crooked-nosed man, self-taught, energetic, excited by ideas, a great ham and mimic and comedian. At his piano he was an entertainer in the style of Victor Borge, playing chords with an orange or, if no fruit was handy, with his rear end. By day, in the darkroom, he was an ascetic. In the evening, after happy hour, he turned sybarite. This oscillating regimen had left him with a paunch and had compromised his health, delicate since childhood. In the history of his art Adams was an unprecedented combination of technical virtuosity and inspired eye. He had trained to be a concert pianist, and his approach to photography—his perfectionism, his mastery of tonal scales, the operatic feeling in his grander images—was essentially musical. Adams took photography into a big, moody, exhilarating, Wagnerian country of inky peaks and dazzling snowfields, where no one had climbed before.

The idea of This Is the American Earth was to somehow fit the drama and spaciousness of big exhibit prints between hard covers. Adams believed that size had its own dynamic. When the eye can take in an image at a glance, that makes one sort of experience. When the eye must travel around the image to make sense of it (and this is the eye's normal itinerary in the real world), that is kinesthesis and liberation, and it makes for an experience of an entirely different sort. My father later joked that he would have liked to publish the book on 4' × 8' panels, like those in the exhibit, but in the end he and Adams settled on pages of 10 G" × 13 H".

The hundredth anniversary of Ansel Adams's birth has been celebrated in a spate of exhibits and commemorative articles. Included, as always with Adams criticism, has been a great deal of misappraisal. Critics—East Coast critics in particular—often misunderstood the photographer and routinely panned his work. The absence of people from his pictures has been particularly galling to New York reviewers; Adams's depopulated landscapes strike many urbanites as misanthropic and cold.

"There is a person in every one of my photographs," I once heard Adams tell my father with asperity. At first I did not get it, and then I did: on Ansel Adams's starkest granite wall, in his emptiest desert landscape, a person is always present, and that person is Adams himself.

His critics have conceded Adams his pre-eminence in the history of modern photography, his eloquent composition, his technical mastery of printmaking, his ingenious "zone system," and his vast influence as a teacher. But the consensus seems to be that Adams did all these things too well. Today in photography we are seeing a retreat from Adams-style classicism, a glorification of images that look accidental. Photographers with whom I work, men and women who spent years mastering their trade, are dismayed by this development. Morning is no longer the photographer's hour. The young editor or curator complains about the prettiness of low-angle light. Couldn't the photographer shoot more at noon, when the light flattens everything out? Where is the irony? (By which the postmodernist means a kind of empty hipness.) Does everything have to be so sharply in focus? So composed? Couldn't we blur things more, to suggest movement? The photographer hurries home to search the wastebasket for rejects.

His critics dismiss Adams as a romanticizer. The real America, they point out, is a land of strip malls, asphalt, power lines, and blight, not a land of waterfalls and forests. Adams's vision, they argue, is wishful and false. The very reviewers who argue for greatness in the work of Diane Arbus, who specialized in photographing circus freaks and the inmates of asylums, find Adams, whose subject is the planet Earth, hopelessly selective.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "John Muir's Yosemite" (May 9, 1997)
From the journals of a young amateur naturalist who changed our relationship to the land.

Last August, Vanity Fair published "Visions of Majesty," an appraisal of Adams by the photography critic Vicki Goldberg. I tucked the article, fresh off the press, into my backpack and carried it over Piute Pass, in the Sierra Nevada, and into the heart of Ansel Adams country. Beside Muriel Lake, my back to a white granite boulder under Mount Humphreys, I opened the magazine. After a paragraph or two I commenced muttering—a voice in the John Muir Wilderness. Vicki Goldberg has insightful things to say about Adams, but she embodies all his old troubles with New York.

"Lake and Cliffs, Sierra Nevada," she writes, "records a remoteness and implacability so bleak, hard, and cold that they would provoke terror were they not so admirably encompassed by a rectangular frame."

The remoteness that made Goldberg shudder is just half a day's hike from the roadhead, on the east side of the mountain range where I happily spent all my childhood summers. What Goldberg imagines as implacability, John Muir knew as "gentle wilderness." A coldness does emanate from Adams's Lake and Cliffs, Sierra Nevada, but it is an invigorating coldness. What provokes terror in me is a sensibility that could be terrorized by a photograph of ice in a lake. Truly horrific is the prospect of new generations of Americans so urbanized, so estranged from the American earth, that they are frightened by the photography of Ansel Adams.

Goldberg proposes that Adams, for all his good intentions, was an enemy of nature. "In a paradox inherent to photography, Adams himself surely contributed to the problem," she writes. Inspired by his images, "we loaded our cars and set out for the unspoiled wilderness, only to find we had spoiled it," she says. "You might say that Adams was simply too good. He touched both an aesthetic and an emotional chord, and drew people to his sources. He loved the wilderness both wisely and well, yet for all that, he may have loved the land nearly to death."

This is nonsense. What despoils wilderness, as any student of that despoliation knows, is not backpackers, campers, and fishermen but miners, logging companies, oil drillers, and the like. Wilderness is spoiled not by love but by greed. The only thing that has ever saved wilderness, a single acre of it, is a constituency—people who have come, who have seen, who care about wildness, fight for it, vote for it. Ansel Adams was a pioneer in building that constituency. He believed that art could influence the world, and from early in his career he volunteered his photographs in the cause of conservation. If Adams was responsible for a braided trail or two across an alpine meadow, and for a few charred fire-pit stones, those infractions were vastly offset by the good his photographs did—the conservation campaigns they buttressed, the public enlightenment they brought.

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