Ansel Adams at 100

The photographer would not have been pleased by this new retrospective

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.

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