When Ansel Adams died in April 1984 he was the best-known and most widely admired photographer in the United States, if not the world. In the last decade of his life he maintained the high profile of a public figure—appearing on television in automobile advertisements and in print on the cover of Time, being interviewed by Playboy, having a private audience with President Reagan—and his photographs took on the status of public monuments. His 1941 image “Moon-rise, Hernandez” became the hit of the auction and collecting world in the late Seventies, but public taste gravitated equally to his classic images of Yosemite valley, including “Monolith, The Face of Half Dome” of 1927 and “Clearing Winter Storm” of 1944. For all the popular acclaim and critical plaudits during his lifetime, however, the exact nature of his aesthetic achievement is remarkably...


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