Contents | July/August 2002
More on books and critics from The Atlantic Monthly.
From the archives:
"Photography in the Age of Falsification" (May 1998)
The wildlife photography we see in films, books, and periodicals is often stunning in its design, import, and aesthetics. It may also be fake, enhanced, or manufactured by emerging digital technologies. By Kenneth Brower
"Through a Lens Darkly" (April 1955)
"There are only about half as many photographs of weddings as of courtships. They're considerably less active, too." Casting a skeptical eye on the Museum of Modern Art's celebrated photo exhibition "The Family of Man." By Phoebe-Lou Adams
Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.
The Ansel Adams Gallery
The Web site of a photography-workshop program founded by Ansel Adams's family. Offers biographical information about Adams and a collection of his photographs.
The Best of Ansel Adams
An online exhibit of twenty-five photographs. Posted by the History Place, a private Web-only publication.
The Atlantic Monthly | July/August 2002
s 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.
Ansel Adams at 100
The photographer would not have been pleased by this new retrospective
by Kenneth Brower
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".
he 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.
"In the 1960s, art lost faith in beauty too, preferring Campbell's soup cans and rows of bricks to sunsets," Goldberg writes. "At the same time, people were becoming aware that the land Adams found so achingly beautiful scarcely existed outside his photographs any longer." She repeats this notion later on: "In fact, a good part of the wilderness that is left exists mainly in Ansel Adams's photographs, which is what most people see anyway—landscapes not of earth but of emulsion."
From where I sat, the Vanity Fair article thrown down in irritation, I could look along Piute Canyon to the timberline forest where my father, descending from a climb in 1933, first met Ansel Adams. White-bark pines and other high-altitude conifers grow excruciatingly slowly. The forest below me was scarcely taller than it had been when the two men crossed paths seventy years before. What had passed since then in the High Sierra was not historical but geological time—which is to say that time had hardly passed at all. A few rockfalls had doubtless made slight alterations in the peaks around—Bear Creek Spire, Mount Julius Caesar, the Seven Gables—but I doubt that Adams would have noticed any difference. Goethe Glacier had perhaps shrunk infinitesimally. Desolation Lake was slightly more or slightly less desolate. But the John Muir Wilderness had not passed into some oblivion, as Vicki Goldberg seems to imagine.
From the archives:
"Moonrise" (December 2002)
"At the Center for Creative Photography, in Tucson, Arizona, my husband, Joe, and I are looking at prints of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, by Ansel Adams." A mother writes about her teenage son, afflicted with muscular dystrophy, and the life he leads, and the one he can look forward to. By Penny Wolfson
"You must be Ansel Adams," my father suggested. Adams agreed. Tripod over his shoulder, he complained about the early-morning cumulus clouds, too fuzzy to photograph. Clouds—wisps of fog scudding over San Francisco—were Adams's first memory, and clouds would remain a favorite subject for the rest of his life. The mountain thunderheads he loved, and the lens clouds, and the afternoon cumuli, still form over the Sierra. The scene in Half Dome, Winter, Yosemite looks exactly as it did. So do those in The Tetons, Thunderstorm and Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone National Park. Recalling Adams's work, I am hard put to think of a famous image that is not still there in actuality. A bridge now crosses the Golden Gate, which was an open strait when Adams first photographed it. A road scar now crosses the glacier-polished granite captured in his Tenaya Lake, Yosemite. (Together he and my father fought hard but unsuccessfully to stop that desecration.) The tiny village in Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 has no doubt changed since his famous photograph of the place. But for the most part Adams's inspiration is all still there.
Today it would be impossible to duplicate a Diane Arbus or a picture by the French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson—fashion and the zeitgeist have changed too much. But if you mastered Adams's "zone system," and if you had the maestro's eye, and if clouds and the sun conspired with you, as they always seemed to conspire with him, you could reproduce almost all his signature pieces. Ansel Adams photographed an immutable truth that will survive all our cities, every artistic fad and theory, and Homo sapiens itself.
he most heralded of the Adams centennial exhibits is "Ansel Adams at 100," which opened in August of last year at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, moved on to Chicago and London, and will travel through 2003 to Berlin, Los Angeles, and New York. The exhibit was organized by John Szarkowski, the director emeritus of the Department of Photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
I wondered about the choice. MOMA was anathema to Adams. He was one of the founders of its Department of Photography, and he collaborated with Szarkowski in a 1979 show of his work at the museum, but the photographer's history at MOMA was a contentious one. Edward Steichen, Szarkowski's predecessor as MOMA's director of photography, was Adams's bête noire, as Szarkowski himself has said. (Adams put it even more strongly: he called Steichen "The anti-Christ of Photography.") MOMA's staff and habitués were often puzzled by Adams's work. "The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!," Cartier-Bresson, a MOMA favorite, once complained.
This seems to have been the basic objection of the eastern critical establishment—that Adams lacked social relevance. But even when the photographer attempted relevance, he fared poorly at MOMA. The fate of his exhibit "Born Free and Equal" is a case in point. In 1943 Adams had photographed the Japanese-American internment camp at Manzanar, on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, producing what he felt was the most important social commentary of his career. Nancy Newhall, who concurred in this assessment, arranged a Manzanar show for Adams at MOMA. One of her panels displayed the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees due process to citizens of all races, and quoted an 1855 letter by Abraham Lincoln:
As a nation we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it as "all men are created equal except Negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, "all men are created equal, except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics." When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty.
This was too strong for MOMA's patriotic board. The museum twice canceled the exhibition and finally showed it only after the Lincoln panel had been removed and the title changed from "Born Free and Equal" to "Manzanar: Photographs by Ansel Adams of Loyal Japanese American Relocation Center."
"Time and again," Adams wrote in his autobiography,
I would come to New York, excited with professional and social ambitions and promises, only to be physically frayed and spiritually disemboweled within a few weeks. In that penitentiary environment, most of the museums and galleries seem to exist in a kind of purgatory, either to accept the fluorescent heaven of a final resting place or the hell of obscurity. I have yet to understand the harmony of magnificent apartments, hideous ghettos, industrial deserts, furs, rags, Tiffany's and Joe's curio shop ...
John Szarkowski, a veteran of thirty years at MOMA, is a connoisseur of that tricky harmony. He is an urbanite, a member of the tribe that had the most difficulty understanding Adams. Szarkowski's curatorial bent is toward photography with social significance. He was an early champion of Diane Arbus—a woman who, both thematically and in her shaky darkroom skills, amounted to the anti-Adams. "Ansel Adams at 100," I hoped, would not be a case of the fox curating the chicken coop.
huffling forward in a queue toward the gallery entrance, reading Szarkowski's commentary in the museum handout, I felt the first tiny intimations of trouble ahead. "The peaks and ice fields and terrains of rubble ..." Szarkowski writes. "Terrains of rubble," for those of us who go bouldering there, are called taluses. Those white cirques under the peaks in Adams's photographs are not ice fields. The Sierra Nevada, the photographer's home range, has only a handful of tiny, remnant glaciers—nothing that could be called a field. "Ansel Adams at 100" includes photographs of glaciers on Mount Robson and McDonell Peak, in Canada, but those are hanging glaciers, not ice fields. That whiteness you see, Mr. Szarkowski, is snow.
My peevishness startled me. I was finding fault with the exhibit before I got in the door. Curious about the source of my reaction, and reading further in the handout, I rationalized myself like this: There is a language for terrain, just as there is a language for art. Szarkowski knows the latter but not the former. Ansel Adams's photography is about both.
The first room of the exhibit is dedicated almost entirely to contact prints—reproductions made without an enlarger—and to other small prints. Ansel Adams as miniaturist! His great retrospective of 1963, "The Eloquent Light," designed by Nancy Newhall, filled nine big rooms in San Francisco's De Young Museum with more than 500 images of varying sizes—the biggest show ever for a photographer. It opened with a bang: a stunning 4' × 5' print of Monolith, the Face of Half Dome. Szarkowski's exhibit opens with a bunch of little squeaks. Fumbling in my pocket, I brought out my reading glasses. I was not alone. Others were tipping chins up to peer at the photos through bifocals, and younger eyes were scrutinizing them from eight inches away. We looked like a convention of philatelists.
Szarkowski, explaining his choice of small prints, many of them made early in Adams's career, has said that he finds the prints of the older Adams overly dark and melodramatic. The curator, a man of seventy-five, believes that Adams after fifty was just a parody of himself. "Mostly the early print is closer to what the pictures persuade me he had in his head when he made them," Szarkowski told The San Francisco Chronicle. In other words, he knows what Adams had in mind better than Adams himself did. Szarkowski's exhibit seeks to save the photographer from his own devices.
As I moved through the exhibit, squinting at the walls, I remembered Adams's pride in showing me the biggest of those devices. In 1964, when I was nineteen, I worked out of Adams's new house in Carmel Highlands, assembling an exhibit book about the Big Sur coast, with photographs by Adams and others. He gave me a tour of his new darkroom. In the middle, mounted on rails, was a huge enlarging camera for making mural-size prints. The thing had a bellows on it such as might have served Vulcan at his forge. The easel for holding the print paper was also mounted on rails, and illuminated by thirty-six powerful lamps. From an 8" × 10" negative this artillery could make a print as large as 40" × 78". Adams, standing beside the giant camera in his grizzled beard, wearing his camera vest of many pockets, looked like Hemingway with a new elephant gun.
John Szarkowski has no truck with this grandiose approach to photography. No mural-size melodrama in his exhibit. That giant camera on railroad tracks was, one imagines him thinking, just puerile, mine-is-bigger-than-yours exhibitionism.
One of Szarkowski's techniques is to juxtapose early prints he likes with later prints of the same image that he finds melodramatic, while offering little lessons on what Adams did wrong. "The change imposed on Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake thirty years later is not easy to understand," Szarkowski writes in the exhibit catalogue of one of these pairings. "Why this radiant peak, a reflection of our highest and purest aspirations, should have been transformed into a dirty snowdrift is a mystery to this viewer."
But not a mystery to the viewers of Szarkowski's exhibit, I discovered. As an experiment, I paused by this pair of McKinleys to watch. Viewers invariably passed the small 1949 print to linger by the 1978 version, which is larger and more dramatic. The public has always liked Ansel Adams, even if the critics have not. (This no doubt explains the sour opinion of many of the critics.) "Dirty snowdrift"? In his 1978 McKinley, Adams simply darkened the shadows on the peak, but not beyond the tonal range the eye accepts. I confess that the print is a little dark for my taste (I prefer intermediate prints I have seen of this image), but it is within the realm. These are McKinley shadows as one might perceive them at dawn from Wonder Lake. The 1978 print is not just more dramatic; it also conveys more information. Adams's darkening of shadows accentuates the topography of the mountain, sharpening the knife-edge ridges, bringing out the massif's third dimension. Thanks to the heightened contrasts, Szarkowski's "radiant peak" is in fact more radiant in the later version. The little print looks washed out, almost archival, beside the big one, which is unmistakably an Ansel Adams. ("Pablo Picasso at 120," should such a show run concurrently, would be an odd retrospective indeed if it insisted on the primacy of the painter's blue period—that early chapter of understated work—at the expense of all the pyrotechnics that came later.)
Mount McKinley may be allegorical, "a reflection of our highest and purest aspirations," but it is also an actual mountain. Perhaps these California viewers were drawn to the 1978 print because they knew how big mountains look and how big mountains feel.
In Szarkowski's catalogue commentary on Lake and Cliffs, Sierra Nevada, I found an echo of—or perhaps the inspiration for—Vicki Goldberg's frightened reaction to that photograph. Szarkowski sees this Adams image as "one of his most radical and haunting pictures, and perhaps the coldest, most pessimistic landscape picture since Arnold Böcklin's Island of the Dead—all ice and knife-sharp stone, rapping out a rhythm like the chattering of a windigo's teeth during the starvation moon." It is wonderful that Szarkowski was moved by the picture, but pessimistic? Windigo's teeth? Starvation moon? Has the curator, in his seventy-five years, never seen snow on the lakes of Central Park? A melodramatic old age is not a fate that Ansel Adams was destined to suffer alone.
Szarkowski's text in the exhibit catalogue perpetuates some myths. "It is unnecessary to pause further over Adams' commercial work," he writes, "except to note that it kept him alive and precariously solvent until he was seventy, at which late date he began to make a living income." This notion that Adams was a struggling artist until late in life is a persistent one. The legend would have it that Adams lived hand to mouth until he was rescued by the clever marketing scheme of his friend William Turnage. The truth is that Adams at sixty had a place in Yosemite Valley and a magnificent house on the Carmel coast. Over his massive fireplace in Carmel was a fifteenth-century Chinese drum six feet in diameter. The living room gave way to a long white gallery hung with his prints, at the far end of which was a concert piano. Adjoining the gallery was the state-of-the-art darkroom from which big prints were delivered fresh to the gallery walls. By 1964, when I roomed in the Carmel house, Adams was getting a yearly retainer of $75,000 from Polaroid for just fooling around in his spare time with the company's cameras and film.
Sometimes Szarkowski is facile, as when he suggests that the darkening of prints in the latter part of Adams's career may reflect a darkening of the photographer's world view. (Yes, and the distortions of Picasso's cubist period may indicate some sort of galloping astigmatism.) Where the darkening of tones is a problem, really, is in Szarkowski's mini-biography of Adams, which is heavy on the melancholy, emphasizing self-doubt, frustration, and despair over fallow periods. Szarkowski conveys little sense of Adams's enormous capacity for play and merriment. The photographer's talent for fun was at least as large as his talent for art. The curator would have done better to follow his own advice and lighten up.
But sometimes Szarkowski is astute. More than once he caused me to reconsider my opinions of Adams, which are, as the reader may have noticed, a wee bit entrenched. One of his observations on This Is the American Earth brought me up short.
More than half of the book's photographs are by Adams, but work by twenty other contemporary photographers is included. Of the twenty, the large majority lived and worked west of the Missouri. Those who worked elsewhere were represented by photographs that illustrated ecological failure—Arthur Rothstein by an eroded, clear-cut field, Werner Bischoff by starvation in India, Cartier-Bresson by a photograph of a boy who appears to be hiding in a mazelike urban street, with no blade of grass in sight. Intentionally or otherwise, the book projects a Calvinist insularity. It appears to see most of the world as beyond salvation, and the American West as the last chance for New Jerusalem.
I had never noticed this regional slant. Szarkowski's observation is not perfectly accurate—the book's most luminous symbol of hope, the backlit "tern in flight," is by a New Englander, Eliot Porter. Its most devastating image of environmental ruin, a double-spread aerial shot of the infinite sprawl of Los Angeles, is by a westerner, William Garnett. But in general Szarkowski is right. He opened my eyes to how Adams's biases might look from east of the Missouri.
Yet I wonder: How wrong is the book's vision, even as summarized by Szarkowski? Evidence mounts that most of the world may indeed be beyond salvation. The notion that the American West is the last chance for a New Jerusalem was not just an Ansel Adams conceit; it was a conviction that pervaded America for generations ("Go west, young man"). The conviction was still fresh for Adams's generation, born just a decade after the official closing of the frontier. And the fact is that most of America's unspoiled landscape and big scenery still reside out west.
As to that "Calvinist insularity," I would point out that Adams was not born with it. It was not he who fired the first shot across the Missouri. Adams went east, young man, full of ambition, only to find his western photographs rejected as idealized, overformal, inhuman, and socially irrelevant. Insularity cuts both ways—a fact that the critics and curators of the little island of Manhattan have always been slow to grasp.
ooking back to "The Eloquent Light," Szarkowski detects several agendas, one of which troubles him. The 1963 exhibit, he believes, was part of a campaign by Adams and Newhall "dedicated to the advancement of Adams' work and—more broadly and more problematically—to a narrowing view of photography's potential." Adams and Newhall were certainly vocal about what sorts of photography they liked and disliked. (Often what they disliked was the work displayed at New York's MOMA.) But aren't exhibits usually organized around some theory? Isn't a certain tendentiousness par for the course? Tendentiousness certainly animates Szarkowski's present exhibit.
In "The Eloquent Light," Adams and Newhall were indeed arguing for one school of photography over others, but why is that troublesome? Szarkowski seems to confuse Adams's job with his own. As the director emeritus of photography at MOMA, he has a mandate to explore photography's potential. Adams's mandate as a photographer was to follow his own vision. What should Adams have done in that 1963 retrospective in order to embrace photography's potential more enthusiastically? When you are working a vein as rich as Adams's, is it really advisable to pull up stakes, flood your shafts, and go off prospecting for another lode?
But this notion of agenda is an interesting one, and it caused me to wonder about the agenda of "Ansel Adams at 100." Szarkowski has managed—I would not have thought it possible—to hang a dull Ansel Adams exhibit. His presentation is devoid of imagination. The pictures, all more or less the same small size, are posted evenly and at the same height. The show contains many wonderful images—the artist is, after all, Ansel Adams—but I have never before seen the photographer's work presented this way, with such a stubborn refusal to indulge any flair. In the exhibit "This Is the American Earth," Nancy Newhall varied image sizes dramatically, from what she called "little jewels" to prints several feet across. Here and there she arranged natural objects—seashells, stones, weathered deadwood from the timberline in the High Sierra. An argument might be made that this garnish was a distraction. Something can no doubt be said for austerity. But monotony is not the spice of life. Some images want to be miniatures; others cry out for size. Smaller pictures make us grateful for the big ones, and vice versa.
If, in "The Eloquent Light," Ansel Adams narrowed the view of photography's potential, then here Szarkowski has struck back. He has narrowed our view of Adams's potential. None of Adams's portraiture is included, because Szarkowski finds it "wooden." None of his commercial work is included, because it "seldom transcended technical competence," according to Szarkowski. ("His handling of human models was stiff and unpersuasive, even by the low standards of most advertising photography; his industrial illustration seldom gives any sense of work being done; in his reportage nothing of interest happens.") No images from the Manzanar series have made it into the show. None of the architectural studies from Fiat Lux, Adams's book on the Berkeley campus of the University of California, are included. (One architectural photo did pass muster. It came from east of the Missouri: Broad Street, New York City.) Few prints from Adams's maturity made the grade, except as foils for the early prints Szarkowski prefers.
Adams hailed John Szarkowski's replacement of Edward Steichen as MOMA's director of photography. When Szarkowski hung Ansel Adams's work at MOMA in 1979, he showed his predilection for small, early prints—a rediscovery that interested Adams and gratified him. But while Adams lived, the curator was never quite so frank in his opinion of the photographer as he is in the present exhibit. Adams would have been surprised, I think, by this centennial gloss on his life and oeuvre.
"Ansel Adams at 100" closes with a room in which Szarkowski has hung images by photographers he considers Adams's successors. The vapidity of Szarkowski's taste in nature photographs when he has no certified genius to glean from is dumbfounding. The vacancy of the room is epitomized, for me, by a landscape by Robert Adams (no relation), an image so profoundly nondescript that this can only be its point—nondescriptness. It shows an unlovely ridge with a couple of scruffy bushes on it. I stood a long time before this cipher, as one might stand before Mona Lisa and her smile. It looked as if Robert Adams had forgotten that his camera was loaded and the thing accidentally went off. Trying to imagine what Szarkowski saw in this picture, I came up with a number of theories:
Perhaps the curator admires a sort of faux randomness in the picture, an artlessness, a snapshot quality, perceived as giving a truer picture of the world than the pretty one provided by the studied, selective compositions of Ansel Adams and his ilk.
Perhaps for Szarkowski, the city dweller, the picture provides reassurance that nature is really not all that interesting.
Perhaps Szarkowski finds self-justification in the photo: Anyone can understand the art of Ansel Adams, whose images just knock one over. What role does that leave the critic? It takes a rarefied sensibility to see anything important in photographs like this one by Robert Adams.
Backtracking through "Ansel Adams at 100," it struck me that I had seen better Adams exhibitions at home. In my mother's living room is an "Ansel wall" of original prints, gifts from the photographer: A good-size Tenaya Lake, Yosemite. A good-size Aspens, New Mexico. A smallish print of what is probably Adams's most famous mountaineering photograph, David Brower and Morgan Harris, the Minarets, which shows two climbers, their rope, and their crag in silhouette against bright Sierra clouds.
For many years the Ansel wall was dominated by a 4' × 5' exhibition print of Aspens, New Mexico, on loan from the photographer between shows. It was there so long that I began to hope that Adams had forgotten about it—but no such luck. Today the print would be worth more than the house. It was an image you could lose yourself in. No fear of that with the bonsai aspens of "Ansel Adams at 100." Adams's notions about the power in size, his ideas about the virtue of inviting viewers into big pictures, his fondness for that howitzer of an enlarging camera, was all just grandstanding, apparently, and holds no weight with John Szarkowski. Szarkowski's print of Sierra Nevada From Lone Pine, California is smaller than the double-spread plate of the same image that opens This Is the American Earth. If that book was a brave attempt to bottle an exhibit, then Szarkowski's exhibit wants to bottle the book. It seeks to decant the photographer into a vial. The aesthete from the East has come out west and cut Ansel Adams down to size.
"Ansel Adams at 100" will be in London from July 4 through September 22, in Berlin from October 10 through January 5, in Los Angeles from February 2 through April 27, and in New York from next July 9 through November 4.
Kenneth Brower is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, specializing in ecological issues. He won the 1998 John Burrows Association Award for outstanding published natural-history essay. Brower is the author of more than a dozen books; his most recent is The Winemaker's Marsh (2001).
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July/August 2002; Ansel Adams at 100; Volume 290, No. 1; pp 132-138.