Ansel Adams at 100
The following book review is part of a series writer Jordan Jones calls the “Environmental Canon,” books that have shaped the environmental movement. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
Photographer and naturalist Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is surely one of the most accomplished and ubiquitous artists in American history, his career a rare intersection between extraordinary popular success and widespread critical acclaim. Though now decades old, his striking black-and-white photographs still maintain a large cultural presence through museums, books, magazines, calendars, coffee mugs, posters, and clothing. Almost every American has had some contact with Adams’ work, if only in passing.
Despite this familiarity (or perhaps even because of it), I found my understanding of the man and his work to be incorrect, simplistic even. Adams was primarily a photographer of the natural world, and his most famous compositions are monumental landscapes, shot in stark black and white (Adams rarely worked in color). To the casual viewer like myself, these works appear to express the hugeness, the permanence, of nature — everlasting beauty. As I would come to learn, though, he sought not to depict the eternal, but the ephemeral.
Adams was born in San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century. Though he lived an urban existence and was the offspring of upper-class parents, he quickly developed a love of nature. He possessed an energetic, irrepressible personality well-suited to the rigors of the outdoors. Struck by the beauty of the West’s relatively unspoiled wilderness, he would devote his life to its preservation and be inspired to document it through photography.
As he aged, Adams deftly combined the roles of environmentalist and artist. He joined the Sierra Club at 17 and was deeply involved with the organization for the rest of his life, even serving as its director for a time. Though he wielded great influence through the group, Adams’ photography was arguably a more effective, and universal, means of communicating environmental concerns. His stunning photographs of the great Western wilderness — many taken before the bulk of industrialization occurred — are as eloquent and direct as any written argument. Indeed, if one’s aim is to depict ineffable beauty, words are unnecessary.
During the catastrophic years of the 1930s and 40s, Adams would be criticized for choosing to focus on the natural world rather than on contemporary social and political problems (the Great Depression, World War II, etc.); but, ultimately, history would vindicate him. As the natural world became more polluted and despoiled, Adams felt a pressing need to remind both the citizenry and the politicians of the worth and vitality of nature. In a sense, he was ahead of the curve. Decades before the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring — which electrified the public and the environmental movement — Adams had already been hard at work on these issues.
Examining his photographs, I came to realize that, as an artist, Adams was not interested in simply depicting the natural world, but in depicting the natural world and its relationship to light. He explored this relationship with his so-called “zone system” technique, which enabled him to measure and manipulate tones of light. He was also concerned with expressing the way a particular scene made an observer feel. His work then, as critic John Szarkoski observed, does not seek to present only the basic appearance of a scene — its “external event” — but also to convey the emotional content of a scene — its “internal event.”
A fine example of this is Adams’ breakthrough 1927 piece, Monolith, the face of Half Dome. In it, a massive slab of stone juts into a black sky, as grim and beautiful as an ancient fortress. Adams intentionally darkened the sky, in order to demonstrate the scene’s power and majesty, or at least the power and majesty he perceived. As he said of the photograph in his autobiography, “I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print.” He would more fully articulate this artistic philosophy with his technique of “visualization,” which, as one might guess, involved visualizing the desired result and feeling of a photograph before creating it.
The ephemeral aspect of nature is the primary concern of Adams’ work, as demonstrated by his fascination with nature’s most transitory element — light. In one of Adams’ most famous photographs, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, the tombstones of a village cemetery reflect the last light of a dying sun. In the background, a mysterious moon rises into the sky, already beginning to imbue the scene with its own eerie glow. The photograph is a beautiful meditation on the ephemeral nature of all things, including nature itself. A similar effect is achieved in Sunrise, Mount Tom, in which a black, gnarled stump dominates a barren foreground against a backdrop of shining, snow-covered mountains.
Adams’ work is really about the briefest of interactions between light and matter; it is about moments. And though these moments may occur in the seemingly eternal, natural world — on the surface of a lake older than humanity or on the jagged tops of primeval cliffs — they are moments, nonetheless. If nature is a “Divine performance,” as Adams said, then it is as fluid and fleeting as any play or recital.
Once one begins to view Adams’ photographs with these concerns in mind, they take on a completely different character. A pretty flower becomes a symbol of fragility. Distant mountains dwarfed by clouds and sky remind us of our own smallness. As I learned, “prettiness” or “bigness” are not Adams’ first priorities. They are, rather, byproducts of his pursuit of natural epiphanies. And epiphanies are not permanent.
This concern with impermanence and fragility highlights one of the major ironies of Adams’ career. His photographs and work with the Sierra Club were a driving force behind the creation, promotion, and maintenance of national parks, most notably Sequoia and Kings Canyon. But the popularity of his work — which celebrated the tremendous beauty of nature — also led to increased tourism to the same wildernesses he had worked so hard to protect. In his later years, he would become embittered by the National Parks Service’s philosophy of “resortism,” which, in its drive to allow the public greater accessibility to its national treasures, cheapened and despoiled many of them through the building of roads, hotels, and the like.
The vitality and wonder he labored so hard to depict were in danger of being lost — sold and commodified like something off a conveyor belt. He once wrote, “Wilderness is not only a condition of nature, but a state of mind and mood and heart. It cannot be confined to the museum-case, seen only as a passing diorama from superlative throughways.” It would prove extremely difficult to instill in the public (and the federal government) the deep reverence and understanding of nature that Adams desired them to have.
His work and life, then, have taken on an even greater significance since his passing. As Ansel Adams himself once said, “The response to natural beauty is one of the foundations of the environmental movement.” If this is true, then he is arguably one of the movement’s most articulate and influential figures. At the same time, his work is a chronicle of what has been diminished, or even lost. In addition to environmentalist and artist, Adams unfortunately took on a third role as well: historian.
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