Ansel Adams’s artistic interests were not limited to behind the lens. As a new exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art reveals, Adams was a failed concert pianist before he became a master of black-and-white landscape photography.

Adams pursued a career as a classical musician until his late twenties. That chapter ended following a dinner with Georgia O’Keeffe and the photographer Paul Strand in Taos, New Mexico, in 1930. Strand offered to show Adams some of his work, and the next day brought over a box of four-by-five inch negatives showing the New Mexico desert. Adams held the negatives up to the light streaming in from a nearby window one by one and was struck by the powerful simplicity of Strand’s work. Adams made up his mind. He would end the emotional and financial exhaustion of dividing his energy between the piano and the camera and pursue the greater expressive potential witnessed in those “glorious negatives.”

It did not take long for the results to vindicate his decision. The Smithsonian Institution hosted a solo exhibition of his work the following year, and an exhibition in Alfred Stieglitz’s illustrious New York gallery in 1936 put the “photographer from California” on the map. Adams’s wife Virginia supported his decision. His mother and aunt did not. “Do not give up the piano! The camera cannot express the human soul!” his mother argued, to which Adams replied, “perhaps the camera cannot, but the photographer can.”

Ansel Adams, Half Dome, Cottonwood Trees, Yosemite, California, 1935, Gelatin silver print, printed 1979.Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Andrea Gray Stillman, 2018.586. Photo: © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

“Ansel Adams: Compositions in Nature” explores how Adams’s early passion for piano shaped his ambitions in the darkroom.1 Nearly fifty years of the artist’s life are represented in this survey. All of the photographs on display were taken and printed by his own hand. The tonal alchemy that Adams pioneered and mastered over his lifetime is on full display throughout the exhibition, from the striking Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California (1927) to Winter Sunrise, the Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California, December (1944, printed 1980). To capture the former image, Adams swapped a yellow filter for a deep red one, which made the daytime sky appear as dark as pitch. “I consider this my first visualization—seeing in my mind the image I wanted before the exposure,” he explained in his handbook of photographic techniques, The Negative, published in 1948.

Visitors to the museum hear Adams before they see him. Echoing throughout the gallery are languid strains of Beethoven, Bach, and Scriabin from rare piano recordings Adams made during a visit to New York. “The recordings come from a 1945 vinyl record that Adams cut as a Christmas gift for friends and family,” the exhibition curator Dr. Christopher Oliver told me, and they offer a “very visceral connection with the creative process of the artist himself.” More than a curatorial gimmick, the pairing of Adams’s piano recordings with his photography unlocks new ways of seeing and understanding his work.

“The piano has eighty-eight keys, and you have to be able to play all of them,” Adams once said. “And the range of white to black is analogous to the eighty-eight keys and you have to be able to play all eighty-eight keys in that palette from white to black.” In his photography Adams composes symphonies of visual tones that come alive as the exhibition progresses. A river of melted platinum runs thick and unctuous through The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park (1942), while streams of thin, milky fog unfurl from the treetops in Clearing Storm, Sonoma County Hills (1951). Adams commands his eighty-eight shades of gray with such ease that you would be forgiven for believing he captured each landscape as nature presented herself. In reality, the tones and hues of each photograph were carefully planned from start to finish. Camera equipment and exposure settings were among the many elements that Adams experimented with and manipulated to produce the final image.

Ansel Adams, Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley National Monument, CA, 1948, Gelatin silver print, printed 1974.Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Andrea Gray Stillman, 2018.584. Photo: © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

To understand Adams’s soaring landscapes, listen to Bach. When Adams was thirteen, his father hired a local piano teacher to bring discipline to the hyperactive teenager’s life. According to Adams’s autobiography, she was “an extraordinary, elderly maiden lady of very definite Yankee determination” who had Adams perform endless grueling exercises at the old upright piano in the family home along San Francisco’s sand dunes.

“She showed me no mercy whatsoever,” Adams recalled of Miss Butler’s exactitude. When teaching Adams how to play Bach’s Invention No. 1, she had him spend a month mastering the exact notes of the twenty-two-measure composition before allowing him to explore the musicality of its sparkling Baroque harmonies. But once Adams had achieved technical mastery, Miss Butler guided him through the “wondrous putting-together of the simple phrases in all their independence.”

These piano-bench epiphanies translated to the lightroom. Miss Butler’s tutelage gave Adams a thirst for technical precision and the belief that artistic sensitivity was gained by mastering the rules of an art form, not defying them. This attitude put Adams at odds with most post-WWII art movements in the United States and contributes to the unfair perception that his body of work is a stale collection of mountain vistas and placid lakes.

Ansel Adams, Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California, 1944, Gelatin silver print, printed 1973–1975. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, 75.29.2. Photo: © The Ansel Adams Publishing.

Two prints of Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, produced fifty-three years apart and displayed together, attest to Adams’s neverending pursuit of perfection. The image of the massive granite cliff jutting above the snow-covered valley in Yosemite National Park, captured in 1927, is one of Adams’s most iconic. Adams was continuously finding new ways to bring out additional details from the negative. The 1980 rendition is twice the size of the original version and is printed on glossy paper that amplifies every hair-thin line. The sky, intensified to a deep, velvety black, accentuates the gravitational force of the sheer rock face. There is nothing stale or predictable here.

In the final years of his life, Adams stretched the creative limits of his early career work. Winter Sunrise, the Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California, December (1944, printed 1980), is a reprint made by Adams in his eighties of a negative taken in his early forties. A gently-lit forest occupies the bottom of the foreground. Onyx-black foothills rise beyond the trees, while jagged mountain peaks like torn bleached paper ascend even further. The textural and tonal contrasts are electrifying, capturing the freedom of an artist in control of his vision. Adams also pushed the physical limits of his negatives, enlarging earlier works like Aspens, Northern New Mexico (ca. 1958), into immersive prints spanning several feet.

Intense spirituality resounds across Adams’s prints and recordings, which both seem to offer a glimpse into his inner world. Three of Adams’s piano recordings play on loop unobtrusively in the gallery: Alexander Scriabin’s Prelude Op. 16, No. 3, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 14, Op. 14, No. 2, and Bach’s BMW 156. The last of these, Bach’s instrumental arioso from the cantata Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe (Here I stand, one foot within the grave) offers a haunting and serene meditation on mortality. This particular recording played as I viewed Adams’s expansive Redwoods, Bull Creek Flat, Northern California (1960), in which a line of mature redwoods is set against an impenetrable darkness, each trunk alive and defiantly luminous.

Never mind Bach, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 might be the required listening here. With enthusiasm and deft handling, Adams’ eighty-eight tones ring out with the spirit of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy libretto: Every creature drinks joy at nature’s breast

  1.   “Ansel Adams: Compositions in Nature” opened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond on September 25, 2021 and remains on view through January 2, 2022.

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