Review: Rediscovering the masterworks of Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams’ “Golden Gate Headlands from Lincoln Park, San Francisco, California” exemplifies the tonality and texture in his signature style. Ansel Adams’ “Golden Gate Headlands from Lincoln Park, San Francisco, California” exemplifies the tonality and texture in his signature style.

Ansel Adams’ photography is one of those things that’s easy to dismiss because we’ve seen so much of it reproduced in calendars, outsize posters, and the like. But after spending time with the actual photographs now on view at UVA’s Fralin Museum in “Ansel Adams: A Legacy” through October 13, I rediscovered the magic in Adams’ images of desert, mountain, and forest.

Printed in the 1960s and ’70s by Adams for the San Francisco Friends of Photography, the Meredith Collection of photographs is, in effect, a retrospective of Adams’ career from his early explorations of the medium in the 1920s, to familiar masterworks. The photographs came into the Merediths’ hands in 2002 after the SFFOP was dissolved. At the time, Tom Meredith, a committed conservationist from Austin, Texas, was looking to acquire four prints for his wife, Lynn. With the auction of the SFFOP holdings looming, the couple was talked into purchasing the entire collection in order to keep it intact.

Passionate about both photography and conservation, Adams is known for the beauty of his tonalities and the majesty of his subject matter. Like the great manipulator of Western scenery, 19th century landscape painter, Albert Bierstadt before him, Adams was intent on creating a vision of the West, as he wanted it to be seen, moving beyond mere reportage and elevating the scenery to the mythic.

Adams used small apertures and long exposures in natural light to create precise detail. He further worked on his photographs in the darkroom, dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening) them to achieve dramatic effects of light and dark, finally printing the work on glossy paper to intensify tonal values.

Adams advocated a concept he called “visualizing,” imagining what he wanted his final print to look like before taking the picture. “I had been able to realize a desired image—not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print,” he said.

Though he is famous for his black-and-white photographs, Adams did shoot with color film. However, he wrote: “I have a problem with color, I cannot adjust to the limited controls of values and colors. With black-and-white I feel free, and confident of results.” Moreover, from a stylistic point of view, the western landscape is so dramatic as it is, color would be both too much and too ordinary. Opting for black-and-white, Adams was able to endow his work with immense gravitas and drama.

One of Adams’ most famous photograph’s, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” holds the record for the highest auction price ever paid for a single print: $609,600 in 2006. Taken just after sunset, Adams reputedly used the moonlight to calculate the proper exposure. Interestingly, there was some question of ownership of the print as Adams was employed by the Department of Interior taking pictures of national parks, Indian reservations, etc. for use as murals in government buildings. However as part of his contract, he was allowed to take photographs for himself. The position of the moon allowed the image to be dated November 1, 1941, a day he had not billed the department, so the image belonged to him.

The remarkable “Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, California,” appears to have three zones. At the bottom, dwarfed by the mountains, a horse grazes in a swath of sunlight. Behind the horse, in dark shadow, foothills rise, a blank mass of black that divides the foreground from the background where the mountains, like the horse are in high relief.

An abstract study of tones, “Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley National Monument, California,” is a perfect marriage of subject and technique. One marvels at the enormous, perfectly formed dunes just as much as the velvety blacks and grays Adams achieves.

With “Golden Gate Headlands from Lincoln Park, San Francisco, California,” Adams reveals an interest not just in tonalities, but textures. Here, he captures the gamut, from puffy clouds to craggy rock, water and scrubby pine trees.

“Aspens, Northern New Mexico,” looks like a stage set with the sentinel trees and dramatic light. Examining it, the bark on the trees seems to dissolve away from reality, transforming into something that looks more like a painting than a photograph.

“Adams’ work reminds me of the title of Wallace Stevens’ poem, ‘Reality is an Activity of the Most August Imagination’,’’ said Fralin Director Bruce Boucher. “The poem itself is not that memorable, but the title captures an essential truth—art shapes our perception of reality. Adams created an image of nature that is now archetypal. Looking at his photographs reminds us all that we have a stewardship of these natural treasures, which we’re not really living up to.”

Upstairs at the Fralin, “Looking at the New West,” presents the work of six contemporary photographers following in Adams’ footsteps. In conjunction with the exhibitions, OpenGrounds is sponsoring a September 27 symposium, “Changing Views: Photography and Environmental Action.” Given his tandem passions, there is no question Ansel Adams would approve.