Destined to be the definitive book on this master photographer and written to accompany a major international exhibition of his work, Ansel Adams at 100 is one of the most beautiful books ever created. Its author, John Szarkowski, is the most influential photography curator and critic of our time. Mr. Szarkowski is directing the Centennial exhibition, which opens in Adams' hometown, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in August 2001, and tours for more than two years to the great museums of Chicago, London, Berlin, Los Angeles, and New York. Szarkowski has painstakingly selected what he considers Adams' greatest work -- 114 images -- and has tracked down the single best photographic print of each. This is the first serious effort to reconsider Adams' achievements as an artist since his death in 1984. Szarkowski presents an unexpected and sometimes unfamiliar body of work. His lengthy critical essay speaks to his judgment of the importance of Ansel Adams as a modern artist.
Ansel Adams at 100 is a superlative piece of bookmaking. The exhibition prints have been scanned in tritone, faithfully reproducing the nuances of the original prints; the book is impeccably printed on special French paper and bound in linen cloth, with a matching slipcase. This magnificent centennial volume truly defines the term collector's edition.
About the Author: Widely known as the leading theorist and historian of photography of his generation and as one of the most eloquent writers on the visual arts in the English language, John Szarkowski served from 1962 to 1991 as Director of the Department of Photography of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. He now holds the title of Director Emeritus.
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About the Author
In a career that spanned over six decades, Ansel Adams was at once America's foremost landscape photographer and one of its most ardent environmentalists. A master photographer, teacher and naturalist, the profound impact of his work continues to expand as each generation discovers the magnificent, luminous beauty of his art.
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Ansel Adams and Landscape Photography
During the quarter century between the late twenties and the early fifties, the photographer Ansel Adams made tens of thousands of negatives, and completed many hundreds of photographs, of the American landscape. Most of them were made in the continental United States, west of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Most of that majority were probably made in his home state of California, and perhaps most of those in Yosemite Valley, or in the High Sierra that guarded the Valley on the east. Yosemite and the High Sierra constituted the place he knew and loved best. Perhaps it was the thing he knew and loved best.
Adams' pictures have revised our sense of what we mean when we say landscape. Even those who are more at home in the mysterious swamps or in the incomprehensible boreal forests, or even those who are more at home in great cities or in a handkerchief-size garden at the rear of the eighth-acre town plot -- even many of these have been moved and enlarged by Adams' pictures, which demonstrate that even in the great theatrical diorama of Yosemite the mountains are no more miraculous than a few blades of grass floating on good water. His pictures have enlarged our visceral knowledge of things that we do not understand.
First Trip to Yosemite in 1916
In 1916 the Adams family visited Yosemite Valley, sixty-five years after a European had first laid eyes upon it and eleven years after John Muir had taken President Theodore Roosevelt there on a four-day camping trip, trying, with partial success, to bring the great man into his light. In 1916 it was a two-day trip from San Francisco to Camp Curry on the floor of the Valley, where the Adams family took its place among the ten thousand visitors that the camp accommodated during the short tourist season. Ansel had never seen anything so wonderful, and he blossomed physically and socially. He climbed the trails with abandon, and wrote his Aunt Mary, back in San Francisco, that "yesterday I went up to Sierra Point and enjoyed lying on my chest and looking over the edge -- about fifteen hundred feet down -- perpendicular." He also reported that he had already made thirty photographs with his new Kodak Brownie -- his first camera. There was nothing very unusual in 1916 about a fourteen-year-old child of a middleclass family making snapshots on the family vacation. George Eastman and his competitors had begun to make photography universally available a quarter century earlier, and by 1916 only poor people did not have cameras. Nor did the first snaps of the young Adams indicate any special genius, although one might say that they were neatly framed.
The snaps were memory aids; it was the memory that was the essential thing. Yosemite took hold of the child, and for the rest of his life he returned as frequently as he could. When he was away, Yosemite was never far from his thoughts. We might think of it as the source of his sanity and his strength.
Ansel's marriage to Virginia and his photographic career in the 1930's
After a seven-year off-and-on courtship, Adams and Virginia Best were married precipitously on the second day of 1928, in her father's studio and souvenir shop in Yosemite Park, during the deep Sierra winter. Adams wore a blazer, plus fours, and sneakers, and Virginia her best available dress, which happened to be black. Soon after the marriage Adams announced himself as a photographer available for hire, and by early 1930 the couple moved into a new house and studio, next door to Adams' parents.
Neither marriage nor the obligations of business kept Adams at home. Since 1919 he had spent much of his summers in Yosemite or the Sierra, and from 1929 onward he seems to have served as photographer, equipment manager, and chief entertainer for the extraordinary mass camping trips that were called the Sierra Club Outings. During the winter he was often in Santa Fe, working on current or potential projects. He missed getting home -- if only by a day or two -- for the birth of both his children: Michael in 1933, and Anne two years later. This peripatetic life did not lend itself either to an idyllic life at home or to the normal demands of a commercial studio.
As noted, by 1930 Adams had decided to make photography his career, and by about 1935 he was a semi-famous photographer. It is not altogether clear how he managed this, but it surely depended on Adams' famously phenomenal energy level, and on a physical constitution that periodically bent but did not break. During this five-year period Adams -- besides meeting the demands of his business -- had at least five one-man exhibitions, produced (with a homemade enlarger that used daylight as a light source) thirteen hundred original prints to be tipped into his book (with Mary Austin) on the Taos Pueblo, reviewed photography exhibitions for the short lived San Francisco review The Fortnightly, and wrote articles on photographic technique for the periodical Camera Craft; in addition to spending much of each summer dealing with the Sierra Club trips, he also spent part of each winter making prints for the members, at prices that even then were extremely modest. He opened and briefly ran a photography gallery; he wrote the first book that was his alone, the very influential Making a Photograph; and he studied. Adams, the hopeless student who completed his formal education with an eighth-grade diploma negotiated by his father, seemed by the mid-thirties to understand more about the theoretical basis of practical photographic technique than any other working photographer, and he was willing -- eager! -- to share the fruits of that understanding with anyone who would listen.
Ansel Adams' career -- relevancy of his photographs
Adams' greatest work was done in the thirties and forties, and by the end of this time (to repeat) he was famous, even if financially insecure. After Stieglitz and Steichen (one of whom, many people knew, was the husband of Georgia O'Keeffe) and possibly Margaret Bourke-White, he was perhaps the best-known American photographer. Nevertheless, he and his work were not universally admired. Adams was in fact never quite in step with the drummer of the political moment. During the thirties he did not photograph the dust bowl, or the Okie migration, like Dorothea Lange, nor did he measure the pulse of American culture, like Walker Evans. In the forties he did not photograph World War II and lesser conflagrations, like Robert Capa, or the death camps, like Margaret Bourke-White. He was instead somewhere in the High Country, making photographs that would neither end the Great Depression nor help win the War. Some felt that his work was not quite relevant; their feeling was summed up most memorably a little later in a purported remark of Henri Cartier-Bresson to Nancy Newhall: "Now in this moment, in this crisis, with the world maybe going to pieces -- to photograph a landscape!" Newhall did not say whether Cartier-Bresson specified what a photographer should photograph while the world might be going to pieces, but it seems clear that his remark was not frivolous and that he had given the matter serious thought in regard to his own work. It would seem that about this time Cartier-Bresson decided that it was no longer good enough to photograph a man jumping over a puddle, or a boy bouncing a ball against a wall, or other such innocuous, quotidian scenes and that a photographer should instead make photographs that were more likely to be of interest to the magazines. Such photographs were made in places where large issues were in the balance -- generally places on continents other than one's own. The magazines may have hoped that the photographer's innocence concerning the meaning of his subjects might add a certain piquancy to his or her observation.
During his best years Adams was photographing (from a political point of view) the wrong subjects. Years later, after Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson had helped change the climate of values, Adams was credited, retroactively, with being socially relevant after all, but the prize was awarded on the basis of a misunderstanding. Adams did not photograph the landscape as a matter of social service, but as a form of private worship. It was his own soul that he was trying to save.
Copyright © 2001 by the Trustees of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust
An Interview with John Szarkowski
Question: When did you first meet Ansel Adams?
John Szarkowski: It must have been in the fall of 1962, shortly after I came to The Museum of Modern Art. I was planning an exhibition called The Photographer and the American Landscape, and the preliminary work took me to California. There were a lot of photographers in that part of the world I hadn't met and wanted to meet, to give them some idea of what I wanted to do at the museum. Ansel was very conspicuously included in the exhibition, and that was the context in which I met him.
Q: In your essay for Ansel Adams at 100, you relate how Adams became deeply involved with MoMA in the early 1940s but then broke with the museum. When you introduced yourself as a representative of MoMA, was he cordial to you?
JS: Ansel was cordial even to the penniless, unknown photographers who showed up at his doorstep. Bill Turnage has told me that every night -- every night -- there were photographers at his home at cocktail hour with photographs for him to look at. He was a terribly kind man and would have been cordial to me in any case. But he did know something of my work and I believe admired it.
Also, despite whatever estrangement he may have had from MoMA, he kept up a very great interest in the Museum of Modern Art because he had been so instrumental in founding its Department of Photography. I think it's very likely that the department would not have been founded, at least not at that time, if not for Adams. He was always interested in the possibility of photography being exhibited in a museum context, and not only shown but also preserved and made available for study.
Q: How influential was Adams on your own development?
JS: I am a working photographer, and was a working photographer for many years before I became a curator or critic. Like most serious photographers of my age, I first knew of Ansel in the late 1930s or early 1940s from his book Making a Photograph, which in a sense represented him both as an artist and as a teacher. For a popular book -- as opposed to a book for photochemists -- it gave an idea of photographic technique that was much more precise and much more focused than the other books of the period. One might include the books of the present period as well. Making a Photograph also contained spectacular photomechanical reproductions, unmatched at the time and very rarely matched now. We simply had never seen anything like it. From that point on, Ansel was known to virtually all serious photographers.
His creative work became more widely known beginning around 1950, when he did the first of his large-format books, My Camera in Yosemite Valley. But it's very difficult to separate the creative and technical achievements. Adams demonstrated a new dimension in landscape photography. Nobody else did it so persuasively and in such a broadly accessible way. Since then, it has been impossible for a photographer to deal with the issue of landscape -- an issue that has always been important for me -- without somehow confronting Adams. I would include in that statement those photographers who reacted against him, whether consciously or not, who rejected the idea that landscape has to be pristine in order to be significant as an artistic subject.
Q: You say that Adams's creative and technical achievements are difficult to separate. Why?
JS: Unlike the landscape photographers who had come before him, Adams was interested in the natural world not as a solid, immutable thing but rather as an event. He was always concerned with the ephemeral. In that sense, he was as much a photographer of his time as was Cartier-Bresson and the rest of them -- photographers who had been born on the line between the 19th and 20th centuries, and who were concerned with the ephemeral partly because the technical vocabulary came to allow it.
For example, when Ansel started his career, he used plates. Then he switched to film -- and with film, you can make many more exposures. You can afford mistakes; you can take a chance because you've got another sheet of film instantly available. Then there was the introduction of panchromatic film, which allows filtering. If you were to look at all the mountain photographs made in the 19th century and compare them with all the mountain photographs of the 20th century, you'd find that 20th-century photographs have a lower horizon. Why? Because given the color sensitivity of 19th-century photographic plates, the skies always came out white or a streaky gray, so intelligent photographers pushed the horizon up and used the sky as some kind of a shape. When panchromatic film was introduced, and blue need no longer be rendered as white, you could deal with the sky as a space.
These are merely specific instances of the general proposition that the difference between Adams's photography and earlier landscape photography lies in his concern with the ephemeral. His landscapes aren't about geology; they're about weather.
Q: You organized a major exhibition of Adams's work at MoMA in 1979. Did Adams participate in planning the exhibition? If so, how did he work with you?
JS: He was very involved, but at the same time he let me do what I wanted. So far as I know, that was the first time in his career he gave control of an exhibition to somebody else. He worried a good deal about that -- although, because of his regard for the museum, he thought, "OK, this is the right thing to do." He remained very concerned until he saw the show on the wall. Then, I think, he was happy.
Of course, he did manage to exert a certain degree of control over the content. If I saw a proof print of a photograph that I wanted to include and if he didn't like the image, he might say, "Oh, I could never print those highlights today." Once in a while he was telling the truth -- but in other cases he was just being nice about saying no.
Q: For the book and exhibition Ansel Adams at 100, you not only identified what you consider to be the artists' best work, but also located what you consider to be the best existing print of each image. Why was that second step so important?
JS: The earlier exhibitions on Ansel Adams basically revealed his work at one moment. If it was a 1976 show, you saw only 1976 prints. In Ansel's case, the change from one period to another was radical. If one saw a late Adams show, what one really saw was a show of what he thought of his work at that particular point in his old age. Ansel Adams at 100 gives a much fuller and more complete -- and certainly, in my view, an enormously richer -- sense of who he was as an artist, because everything hasn't been rethought as of the date of the exhibition. There has never been an Adams exhibition or an Adams book that is comparably responsive to the shape of his artistic life. The prints span close to 50 years.
Q: How did you go about locating the prints?
JS: I visited the six or eight important public collections and at least corresponded with the four or five significant private collections. And then there are other sources -- a wonderful picture here, a wonderful picture there. I was in touch with other scholars in the field, asking them, "Do you know where there's a good early print of this or that?"
Fortunately, most of the important public collections were started early enough to have pictures that are not late prints. I don't mean to underestimate those late prints, but they exist in a lot of different places; they're not hard to find.
Q: How long did the search take?
JS: I've been working at it for close to four years. It took a lot of traveling and a lot of looking to identify the best prints -- or try to do it. If you look at half a dozen different prints of a photograph, in half a dozen different cities over half a dozen months, you can't always be exactly sure which is best, no matter how good your visual memory!
Q: As you've noted, Ansel Adams set a new standard for the reproduction of photographs in books. What are your thoughts about the reproductions done for this book by Richard Benson and Thomas Palmer?
JS: With Adams's pictures, the quality of the reproduction is critical. If you lose the tonal character of the print, it's like hearing somebody play great music on a piano that's out of tune. It's not a simple business of one-to-one translation. Ink on paper is different. You need to have a sense of what the chemical photographic print feels like, and then try to match that sensation.
Starting in 1973, when he brought out a book of his own photographs called Lay This Laurel on the Saint-Gaudens memorial on Boston Common, Richard Benson has been one of the great geniuses of photomechanical reproduction. More than anyone else, he has applied an analytic intelligence and a technical imagination to the potentials of multi-impression lithographic printing. Thomas Palmer, the hands-on guy who figures out exactly how to execute the thing, has collaborated with Richard for a long time, so working with the pair of them is always great fun and very educational.
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