Not everyone has had the privilege of discovering the majestic American West in person, but many people around the world know Ansel Adams’s miraculous vision of America’s most scenic lands—his arresting images of a moon rising above the monolith of Half Dome, the dramatic rock face of El Capitan, or a winter sunrise in the Sierra Nevada.
In 1916, when Ansel Adams was 14 years old, he made his first trip to Yosemite National Park. The natural beauty he witnessed while on this family vacation so affected him that he would return to Yosemite every year for the rest of his life. Soon after his first visit, he began working summers as a custodian for the Sierra Club’s headquarters in Yosemite, and before long he was guiding annual group expeditions in the national park. In the early 1920s, he began seriously exploring the surrounding mountains of the Sierra Nevada, taking photographs as he went and publishing his early work in the Sierra Club Bulletin. His growing passion for photography and nature would eventually take him throughout the Southwest, into California, further north to Alaska, across New England, and over the ocean to Hawaii.
Lugging his 40-pound view camera into remote areas of wilderness and mountain terrain, Adams made strenuous climbs to find the perfect vantage and often rose before dawn to get the right light. He would gain a reputation for challenging himself to achieve extreme depth and focus, rendering the contrasting textures of a cliff face as meticulously as he would the soft glow of a cut rose. The clarity of his photographic style and his insights into the process of printmaking greatly impressed fellow photographers Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and the influential Alfred Stieglitz, who gave him an exhibition in his New York Gallery in 1936.
As Adams’s reputation and career grew, he lobbied Congress on behalf of environmental preservation and the creation of more national parks. Although adamant that he never consciously made “conservation photographs,” he allowed his work to be used in the service of environmental causes.
“No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied—it speaks in silence to the very core of your being.”
Visualization over Documentation
Adams was a generous teacher who wrote books on mastering technique and encouraged students to develop a personal artistic vision. He emphasized that he never took pictures—he made them, intensely imagining what he wanted to elicit from the splendor that lay before him and applying great technical skill to achieve drama. He gave this deceptively simple advice to aspiring photographers: “What you have to learn is that the lens sees, the camera sees, very differently from the eye. And you have to train yourself to see as the camera sees … [to] see the final picture in your mind’s eye.” For Adams, much of the artistry took place before the exposure was made, in reasoning out what the picture should look like and how it would be developed in the darkroom. He upheld the importance of “visualization” over documentation and quipped, “There is nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept.”
Drawn from the full “Museum Set,” which Adams, in the last phase of his career, carefully selected and printed himself, the 48 black-and-white images in Masterworks are what he considered to be his finest achievements. The selection shows his broad range of interests and includes not only many of his most popular iconic landscapes—Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941); Winter Sunrise, The Sierra Nevada, From Lone Pine, California (1944); The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (1942); and Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley National Monument, California (circa 1948)—but also lesser-known portraits of people and close-ups of nature, like Rose and Driftwood, San Francisco, California (circa 1932).
The show may surprise visitors who only know the emotional power of Adams’s wilderness panoramas. Just as compelling is an image of children living in a trailer camp in Richmond, California (1944), or the weathered profile of a Spanish American woman near Chimayo, New Mexico (1937). A human presence is felt in his 1930s picture of a barn in New England and in Buddhist Grave Markers and Rainbow, Maui, Hawaii (circa 1956). More an ideal representation of the depth of an artist’s vision than a chronological retrospective, Masterworks presents photographs from the early 1920s to the late 1960s. “Over a career spanning more than five decades,” says Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary Art Linda Dougherty, “Adams became one of the most well-known and influential photographers of the 20th century, and his impact on photography as an art form continues today.”
Click pinpoints to see locations where Ansel Adams photographed works in the NCMA's special exhibition Masterworks. (Important note: pop-up landscape photographs are from Google Maps and are not the work of Adams.)
Ansel Adams understood himself to be more than a nature photographer. “Everything we perceive is ‘alive’ and people are included!” he said. “To the creative eye,” he wrote, “beauty is not categorized; it is an essential dimension of any statement in any media. I feel fortunate in retaining my original excitement in the presence of beauty in the world around me.”
Karen Kelly is senior editor at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
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