University of Michigan Museum of Art

Ann Arbor, MI



Ansel Adams Photographs

December 19, 1999 to February 27, 2000

Works on Paper Gallery


The majestic American landscape was a constant subject for the lens of photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984). Scenes of the wilderness areas of the western United States have become icons in the American conservation movement, particularly of the Sierra Club, an organization with which Adams was closely linked for many years. The black and white photographs in this exhibition record locations such as Yosemite Valley, Canyon de Chelly, and the Grand Tetons with starkly dramatic light.

Many of the images in the exhibition come from the Museum Set Edition, a portfolio that Adams produced toward the end of his life that included prints from negatives dating back to the 1940s. This portfolio came to the Museum through the generosity of alumnus and photography dealer and collector Harry H. Lunn, Jr. Lunn, who was editor-in-chief of the Michigan Daily during his student years at the University of Michigan, remained interested in the U-M and the Museum of Art until his untimely death earlier this year.

When you ask someone to describe the western portion of the country, the image that most Americans carry in their minds is of the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, the Pacific coast, and other majestic features of the American landscape. Photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) captured the stark grandeur of the American West, combining dramatic compositions and thorough knowledge of technique to create monumental black and white prints of these quintessential American landmarks. Although monochromatic, Adam's photographs convey the same pristine beauty and dramatic appeal as the paintings executed by artists working in the West as that portion of the country was opened up to European settlers from the East. Rarely does the presence of man intrude upon these works; they situate the viewer in a virgin wilderness not unlike those encountered a century before by painters such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. (left: Ansel Adams, Tetons and the Snake River, 1942, Gelastin silver print, 15 11/16 x 19 1/8 inches, The University of Michigan Museum of Art, 1982/2.74)

Just as Moran's paintings of Yellowstone contributed to the designation of that land by Congress as America's first national park, so Adams' photographs had been embraced by conservation groups such as the Sierra Club, on whose board Adams served for many years. Ironically, Adams' photographs have contributed to the increased visitorship at America's national parks and wilderness areas. This burgeoning popularity of America's National Parks was of great concern to Adams because of the effect of these visits on the degradation of the land. As he wrote, "Wilderness is rapidly becoming one of those aspects of the American dream which is more of the past than of the present. Wilderness is not only a condition of nature, but a state of mind and mood and heart."

Ansel Adam's subject matter ranged from specific peaks in the Rocky Mountains to single snow-covered trees, from the forests of Oregon and Washington to the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. Of the sites included in the exhibition, Yosemite National Park was a subject which had special signifigance to the artist. After a visit with his family in 1916 Adams returned to Yosemite every year for the rest of his life. Under different seasons and varying weather conditions, the Half Dome and other peaks in Yosemite Valley were conveyed with a forceful intensity. His photographs become almost an archetypal image of America's remaining Western wilderness areas. What do you picture in your mind when you think of the American West? Most likely, among the mental images that you carry there will a number of photographs by Ansel Adams.

Rev. 11/29/99

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rev. 11/22/10

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