Adams, Land, Photography

Ansel Adams was born on this day in 1902. In his autobiography Adams describes several converging events in the spring and summer of his fourteenth year as responsible for propelling him toward photographic fame. First, his aunt gave him In the Heart of the Sierras, a history-travel book by James Hutchings, one of the first settlers in Yosemite Valley. A sickly or hypochondriacal shut-in throughout his youth, Adams became “hopelessly enthralled” by Hutchings’s descriptions of Yosemite, and persuaded his parents to vacation there that summer. His first glimpse of the region he would spend a lifetime photographing was from an open-air bus, the tour guide “yammering names and heights and fake Indian lore” as the bus chugged up 2,000 feet over ten miles until “the splendor of Yosemite burst upon us”:

Little clouds were gathering in the sky above the granite cliffs, and the mists of Bridal Veil Falls shimmered in the sun.… One wonder after another descended upon us: I recall not only the colossal but the little things: the grasses and ferns, cool atriums of the forest. The river was mostly quiet and greenish-deep; Sentinel Falls and Yosemite Falls were booming in early summer flood, and many small shining cascades threaded the cliffs. There was light everywhere!

Adams’s first camera, given to him by his parents on this first Yosemite trip, was a Kodak Box Brownie, but it was the Polaroid Land — also linked to this week, Edwin Land having first demonstrated his revolutionary technology on February 21, 1947 — that became his camera of choice. Intrigued by Land’s work, Adams field-tested his instant camera and his many subsequent innovations, and the two became colleagues and good friends. Adams’s Polaroid Land Photography is dedicated to Land, “creator of new horizons for the mind and spirit,” and in his autobiography Adams describes his friend as a visionary and — given the iPhoto world that is upon us — something of a prophet:

He is convinced that images can be as effective as words and that every person has latent ability to make effective contact with another through visual statements. He felt that with the Polaroid process, “Everyone can be an artist.” I had a friendly disagreement with him about the definition of artist, but I knew what he intended by that statement — that everyone can become visually expressive and a fresh order of communication could assert itself.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.