1968 was the most tumultuous year of my childhood, when budding awareness of world events met with assassinations and race riots and my mother’s remarriage brought a hot-tempered step-father and two troubled stepsisters into my life. But 1968 was also the year Ansel Adams photographed “El Capitan, Winter Sunrise, Yosemite National Park,” an image of heartbreaking clarity that I might never have appreciated without my step-father’s obsessive camera hobby and adulation of Adams. Perhaps because I lost so many childhood hours waiting in the station wagon for the right light to illuminate my step-father’s next shot, I’ve never pursued photography myself. But I’ve known ever since that photographs are a way of appreciating nature both when you are immersed in it and when you are far removed. Whatever traits others admire in Adams’ technique and artistry, I feel deep gratitude for the connections his work gave me to Yosemite, the Sierra, and wild Alaska, places where I could escape even if I couldn’t get there.
You can imagine my delight when I learned that Washington, D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery is hosting a traveling exhibit of 130 Adams prints (September 15 through January 27). The photos celebrate six decades of Adams’ development, from his early painterly efforts to iconic masterpieces such as “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.” Bought directly from Adams’ by William and Saundra Lane, the prints offer a rare chance to see Adams’ work at its finest, in images he developed himself. “The negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score,” says Adams, “and the print the performance." No matter how often you’ve seen Adams’ posters, calendars and notecards, it is vital see his prints firsthand.
Though I haven’t seen the show yet, an article in The Washington Post notes that it includes an example of Adams’ commercial work, a prosaic shot of a potash company. To writer Blake Gopnik, Adams’ industrial photos reveal the artist was not, as popularly understood, a pure nature photographer. The power of Adams’ most lauded photos, says Gopnik, is not from Adams’ love of the natural environment but from “the particular confrontations between technology and landscape that made those photos possible.” Gopnik relates that when he sees an Adams view of “Moonrise,” for instance, he thinks not of the New Mexico desert but of the Pontiac Adams was driving when he spotted the potential shot in his rear-view mirror. Ignoring the fact that young Adams hiked, aided only by a mule loaded with glass camera plates, to capture images of Yosemite’s backcountry, Gopnik claims Adams was as much about pride in ownership of nature and in technological domination of distance and access as about wild nature itself. In contrast to my own experience, Gopnik also states that Adams’ photos sent him and others exploring not outdoors but in camera shops and darkroom supply stores, “and into the depths of all the complex how-to books that Adams wrote.”
I think--or hope-- that Gopnik is wrong. To me at least, Adams was depicting the feeling of a mountain, forest, or snowfield, not his machine-assisted confrontation with it. Adams’ eminent colleague Edward Weston once explained their shared view that “the camera should be used for recording of life, for rending the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.” Adams’ birch trees, aspen leaves, even rock faces never fail to palpitate for me, and one mark of their personal effect was my children’s book about Adams’ environmental lifework Eye on the Wild: A Story about Ansel Adams. But perhaps his impact today is fading, as the forested ranges he once scoured for artistic angles are overrun by bus tours, converted into ski slopes, or dried & fried from climate change. Who wouldn’t prefer the thrilling discoveries of a darkroom lab to a mournful visitation of a birch woods, marked for clear-cutting? Will even our so-called permanent records of wilderness lose their potency if the reality dwindles and vanishes from the earth?