Ansel Adams

Thursday evening we watched an American Experience film on PBS about Ansel Adams. Adams started hiking in the Sierra in the 1920s, and now has both a federally-designated Wilderness and a Sierra peak named after him [the linked site includes the typo “Admas.”] He is, undoubtedly, America’s most famous photographer, and he was also one of our most important environmentalists. Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film is more great work by Ric Burns, brother of the more famous but no more gifted Ken. It includes some fascinating talk about this eccentric man’s approach to photography and printing, about what photography meant to him, what he was trying to convey in his pictures, and why he and contemporaries like Edward Weston were ridiculed by the documentary photographers who came to prominence in the ’30s. Lots of biographical data, of course, lots of beautiful natural scenes, and plenty of photos to admire or criticize depending on your taste.

For many years, I was not a great fan of what by the late ’60s had become the ubiquitous Ansel Adams photos of Yosemite and other areas of great beauty. I was more interested in and impressed by those war, political, and sidewalk shooters who got up close with their 35 mm Leicas and Nikons. I gradually changed as I learned more about the art and the craft of large format photography and especially the importance and effect of printing. I began looking more closely, and it began to dawn on me that Adams wasn’t simply making pretty pictures, but was expressing something simultaneously deeply personal and overwhelmingly universal. And in doing so, he was, perhaps against his own will, performing as political an act as, say, Robert Capa ever did. Much of this, hardly original to me, is reflected in the film.

In 1985, the three of us went to Yosemite for the first time. The valley is the most stunningly impressive place I have ever seen. We eventually drove up toward Tuolumne Meadows, and camped at Tenaya Lake for a couple of wonderful days and nights near a Mennonite family who swam fully clothed in their sober 19th century-style garb. I only later discovered Adams’s 1946 photo “Lake Tenaya,” which he had obviously taken from within feet of where we’d pitched our tent. A print now hangs in our bedroom. (A Weston pepper—not the famous one—is in our kitchen.)

Amercan readers can check with their PBS station to see when Ansel Adams will be shown. I hope others might be able to make some sort of internet connection. Terrific stuff.


Ansel Adams — 3 Comments

  1. I was lucky enough to go to Yosemite just over ten years ago and was overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of it. I also bought some Adams photos to remind me of a magical time.

  2. I see my favourite Ansel Adams image every morning – it hangs facing the stairs – “Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley”. A perfect composition of form, light and tone.

    I’ll try to catch the film!

  3. We are very fortunate to have the best part of Ansel Adam’s work in Edinburgh at the moment, on loan from the George Eastman House Collection.

    This fine exhibition is at the City Art Centre, 2 Market Street, Edinburgh until 19th April; not to be missed!

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