The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on July 22, 2002 with permission of the Oakland Museum of California and the author. Oakland Museum of California is presenting the exhibition Ansel Adams: Inspiration and Influence, which will be on view through September 22, 2002. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Oakland Museum of California directly through either the following phone number or web address:
Inspiration and Influence: The Visions of Ansel Adams
by Drew Heath Johnson
The year 2002 marks a symbolic milestone in the history of photography. A century ago, on February 20, 1902, Ansel Adams was born in San Francisco. (In an unusually good week for California creativity, John Steinbeck was born exactly seven days later in Salinas). A flurry of tributes, from books and documentary films to a record number of museum exhibitions, is currently honoring the centennial of America's favorite photographer. For many, he is the only photographer. The vision of Adams, with broad-brimmed hat and beard, fussing with his view camera in some rocky Sierran landscape, is one of the defining images of photography. His pictures appear among us as comforting friends on postcards, posters and calendars.
But Ansel Adams did not spring fully formed from some photographic half-shell. Like all artists, he was the product of complex influences and human contacts. The inspiration of Yosemite on the budding photographer is obvious and often acknowledged, but the role of other artists, as well as his influence on younger photographers, is less often noticed. The Oakland Museum of California explores these connections in Ansel Adams: Inspiration and Influence, an exhibition which places Adams in the context of a century and a half of photographic art.
A restless child who had difficulty fitting in, the young Adams nevertheless was given ample opportunity for self-expression by an indulgent father. At the age of 13 the elder Adams gave Ansel, in lieu of school, a year's pass to San Francisco's Panama Pacific International Exposition. Adams later credited the art exhibits at the fair, which included photography, with instilling a love of art.
At about this time he also began serious studies at the piano. Adams the photographer would become renowned as a dedicated and fastidious (some would say obsessive) technician. He attributed this interest in technique to the early training as a pianist, where he learned to combine long hours of practicing rudimentary skills with intuitive creativity. He was fond of musical metaphors when describing the act of making photographs. The negative, he claimed, was the score which the musician/photographer interpreted in the act of making a print. And like a score, each negative was capable of infinite variations with each "performance."
For many years, Adams struggled with the dilemma of which career to pursue -- photography or music. Over numerous trips to Yosemite and the high Sierra, photography gradually won out. This gradual slide towards photography was aided by an unusually colorful, if small, community of Northern California photographers who both mentored Adams and provided a social circle. Throughout his career, from novice to elder statesman of the camera, Ansel Adams enjoyed rewarding, if sometimes prickly and competitive relationships with his photographic peers.
And what peers! Besides Adams' own work, Ansel Adams: Inspiration and Influence features images by Imogen Cunningham, Dorothea Lange, Edward and Brett Weston, Minor White, Wynn Bullock, Willard Van Dyke, Judy Dater, Ted Orland, Jerry Uelsmann and Don Worth, all of whom knew or worked with Adams.
When Adams began his photographic career, the style known as Pictorialism was in vogue for photographers with artistic pretensions or, as with Adams, aspirations. Influenced by New York photographer Alfred Steiglitz, whom Adams called "the greatest photographic leader in the world," photographers created meticulously hand-crafted prints on soft-focus, textured papers. "Steiglitz taught me what became my first commandment," Adams recalled. "Art is the affirmation of life."
Early in his career, Adams wholeheartedly embraced pictorialist techniques and materials. He never felt comfortable with the pictorialist's subject matter, however, preferring portrayals of unblemished nature to allegories, nudes and portraits. The most famous disciple of Pictorialism in Northern California was Anne Brigman, the only West Coast photographer elevated by Stieglitz to Fellowship in his group, the Photo-Secession. Like Adams, Brigman drew her primary inspiration from the high Sierra, but her approach could not have been more different, as a comparison of their work reveals. Where Brigman emphasizes a spiritual connection with nature by placing nude figures in juxtaposition with rocks and ancient trees, Adams preferred to let nature speak for herself.
By the early 1930s, Adams was tiring of this type of imagery altogether. "Increasingly, I detested the common pictorial photography that was then in vogue," he wrote, "and also questioned the more sophisticated work of some San Francisco photographers because it clung to those pictorial skirts. There was nothing I responded to in this mannered style of photography." Like others on the West Coast, Adams was questing for a different form of photography, one which eschewed retouching. He wrote: "With high energy I began to explore a personal photographic direction based on the inherent qualities of the photographic process itself. I abandoned my textured photographic papers and began using the same smooth, glossy-surfaced papers used by Paul Strand and Edward Weston to reveal every possible detail of the negative.... I felt liberated...."
Together with a small group of colleagues in 1932, Adams formed the legendary Group f.64. More a loose affiliation of like-minded friends than a formal organization, f.64 met at Willard Van Dyke's Oakland gallery and later mounted a controversial exhibition at the M.H. De Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. From these humble beginnings Adams and his colleagues (Weston, Cunningham, Alma Lavenson and Van Dyke, among others) fostered a photographic vision which became, arguably, the most influential photographic movement of the 20th century.
The opportunities for influence and cross-pollination (not to mention the spur of competition) were great in such a circle. So were the opportunities for philosophical disagreement. The dissident Group f.64 was itself torn by dissension as the Great Depression worsened. Members split over the question of photography's social responsibility. How could an artist waste time with still-lifes and nudes, the argument went, when people were starving? Some (Van Dyke, Lange) believed photography had a duty to present the suffering of the poor to the larger World. Others, such as Weston and Adams, believed the artist's responsibility was to beauty and self-expression. Adams' 1935 letter to Lange, with whom he enjoyed a long if thorny friendship, stands as a summation of his attitudes toward his art:
Besides the inspiration he derived from colleagues, Ansel Adams was also a student of the work of photographic pioneers. He had a keen awareness of the history of photography, unusual at a time when that history was, as yet, largely unwritten. Adams possessed a collection of daguerreotypes, the first practical form of photography, which were popular in the 1840s and '50s. He was entranced by the subtlety and sharpness of the silvery images. "In the daguerreotype the microscopic revelation of the lens was fully expressed," he wrote. "I confess that I frequently appraise my work by critical comparison with the daguerreotype image; how urgently I desire to achieve that exquisite tonality and miraculous definition of light and substance in my own prints!"
The work of 19th-century landscape photographers such as Timothy O'Sullivan and Carleton Watkins naturally appealed to Adams. We know he owned an O'Sullivan album, which he lent to Beaumont Newhall's landmark exhibition on the centenary of photography in 1937. When he came to photograph the cliff dwellings at Canyon de Chelly in 1942, Adams unconsciously duplicated O'Sullivan's famous view right down to the lighting. He admired Watkins and selected some of his photographs for exhibitions he curated. Clearly appreciating the technical restrictions of these pioneers, he wrote, "how the great early photographers managed their arduous wet-plate process in Southwest heat and dust, and how the glass plates endured months of mule-back transportation without breakage, have always been beyond my comprehension!"
Ansel Adams' work, a century after his birth, is becoming as distant in time as O'Sullivan's was to him. To some, his vision is nearly as quaint and historical. And yet his popularity, his fame, has never been greater. This celebrity is both a blessing and a curse, for while, nearly 20 years after his death, he is still the best-known photographer in the world, critical opinion regarding his work is divided. Adams' rigorous emphasis on technique, his devotion to beauty and, most of all, the ubiquitous presence of his imagery (particularly as they appear on products), are somehow suspect. So, too, was his reluctance to embrace social causes other than conservation. To many, his very popularity speaks against him.
But this is nothing new. As early as the 1930s, Adams found it necessary to defend himself against charges of producing "superior postcards." He had many defenders willing to point out the transcendent nature of his best work. "Nature never seems so grand, romantic, sensuous, and magical elsewhere," wrote Minor White, "nor the buildings so architectural, nor the artifacts of man and details close to the ground so full of presence. . . We find, if we gaze long enough, that behind his more literal images. . . there rests a sense of awe before creation, life and death, man and nature."
Against one particular charge Adams was utterly unapologetic: The creation of beautiful images. "I am not afraid of the term 'beauty,'" he wrote to his old friend, Dorothea Lange, in 1953. "By it, I do not mean prettiness. I mean intensity and clarity. I cannot see how the omission of beauty achieves anything."
About the author
Drew Heath Johnson is Curator of Fine Art Photography at the Oakland Museum of California and the Editor of Capturing Light: Masterpieces of California Photography, 1850-2000.
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Oakland Museum of California in Resource Library Magazine.
Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.
This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.
Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.