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 unresolved.

Ansel Adams,  “Monolith, The Face of Half Dome,” Yosemite National Park, California, 1927, Gelatin silver print. © Ansel Adams.

Adams was not innocent of aspiring to be the world-famous photographer he became. His celebrity was no doubt enhanced by his having cultivated an image as the grand old man of the West, complete with Gabby Hayes visage and frontier demeanor, and by his lifelong efforts at publicizing and promoting the medium in which he worked. He befriended historian Beaumont Newhall and Newhall’s wife, Nancy, a writer, early on, helped them and David McAlpin found the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art in 1940, established a department to teach photography at the San Francisco Art Institute after World War II, and in 1967 founded the Friends of Photography near his home in Carmel, California. In 1977 he provided the funds to endow the Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellowship at the Museum of Modern Art.

In addition, Adams was the author of more than thirty-five books, some devoted to his pictures and some purely technical, and of a substantial number of articles and reviews, dating back to the 1930s, that advance the cause of the “photographic” in photography. He also was a figure in conservation circles, serving as a Sierra Club director from 1936 to 1970 and advocating the preservation of wilderness areas and national parks. Given such a record of activity, it is not surprising that he managed to be a respected senior figure in the photography community. Still, what made Adams so popular in the public mind first and foremost was his photography—especially those images that show the natural site as a majestic and indomitable force impervious to the depredations of weather and tourism alike.

These pictures are among the most visually imposing, dramatically printed images of twentieth-century photography. (Ironically, they are most often seen as reproductions, in books and magazines and on posters and postcards.) They reveal a dedication to the craft of photographic printmaking that finds its nearest equivalent in the turn-of-the-century Pictorialist era, when hand-applied emulsions and arcane toners were employed to achieve a misty, painterly “look.” Yet Adams’s photographs are otherwise diametrically opposed to the values of Pictorialism. If they have any precedent in the medium’s traditions, it is the straightforward, richly detailed early Western frontier views of William Henry Jackson, Timothy O’SuIlivan and Carleton Watkins. They are minutely descriptive in a way that seems transparently documentary, and they depict a topography that has yet to show the traces of human occupation.

Ansel Adams,  “Vernal Fall,”  negative: ca. 1948,  print: 1963, Gelatin silver print. © Ansel Adams, the Ansel Adams Gallery.

But unlike those nineteenth-century pioneers of American landscape photography, whose views more often than not suggest that the natural world is totally alien and inhospitable, Adams pictured nature as scenery. In his landscape images, the natural world presents itself for human delectation; whatever threatening quality its sharp cliffs, precipitous gorges and compacted thunder-heads may have had is by and large neutralized and neutered. As I had occasion to observe in reviewing the Museum of Modern Art’s 1979 exhibition “Ansel Adams and the West,” in Adams’s universe the moon seems always to be rising and storms always to be clearing—symptoms, it would seem, of Adams’s essentially modernist optimism about the future of the human spirit.

There is, however, another aspect to Adams’s landscape photography: It shows us a natural world so precisely ordered and so cleansed of ills that we might suspect it had been sanitized by a cosmic disinfecting agent in advance of the photographer’s appearance on the scene. This fundamentally hygenic conception of the world is apparent not only in Adams’s pictures but also in the ways in which he discussed the particular style of photography to which he was devoted. While he disliked the term “Purist” to describe this style, purity was essential to it. Writing in the photography magazine Camera Craft in 1940, he spoke of his commitment to “a clean, straightforward approach to photography.” Elsewhere he wrote of the need for “clean standards” to capture the “vigor” and “virility” of the natural world.

That this yearning for the hygenic also extended to nature is clear from a 1922 letter to his future wife, Virginia, in which he wrote, “I long for the high places—they are so clean and pure and untouched.” In the same letter, which is quoted in Nancy New-hall’s admiring 1963 biography The Eloquent Light, Adams complains about the crowds in the Yosemite valley—crowds that are never seen in his photographs—and says: “How I wish that the Valley could be now like it was forty years ago,—a pure wilderness, with only a wagon road through it, and no automobiles nor mobs.”

A similar desire for purity may lie behind his almost fetishistic concentration on craft, which in the 1930s led him to develop a systematic procedure for “pre-visualizing” the final printed image while the exposure was being made. Called the Zone System, it enabled Adams to adjust his exposure and development times to produce negatives ideally suited for enlargement—and, most important for Adams, negatives that contained within them the germ of his original “vision” of the subject. Adams was not the first photographer to place a high value on visualizing the final image in advance, any more than he was the first to swear allegiance to sharply focused and finely detailed prints (his friend Edward Weston, for one, preceded him on both counts), but he was the first to combine the science of sensitometry with the aesthetic of the expressive photograph.

Vision, for Adams, was what transcended technique and justified calling photography an art form. “A great photograph,” he wrote in a document called “A Personal Credo” in 1944, “is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed.” To rationalize the notion that a straight, unmanipulated print could express the personal vision of its maker as fully as any picture or painting made entirely by the hand of an artist, Adams drew upon the already existing aesthetic of the Equivalent, as conceived by Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz held that photographs, besides being documents of what they are of, are expressions of something else—that something else being the vision or feeling of the photographer.

For all its virtues in making us engage photographs more closely and complexly, the aesthetic of the Equivalent as it developed from Stieglitz through Adams and Minor White has one major shortcoming: after asserting that an apparently transparent image of the world is imbued with an individual vision or feeling, it has difficulty defining what that vision or feeling is. Used as a critical instrument, the theory of Equivalence is unable to determine any intended meaning in a photograph. But as a credo, it has served as the dominant aesthetic of American photographic modernist practice. Its assumptions are enshrined not only in the photography of Adams, Stieglitz, Strand, Weston et al. but also in Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present (1937), which serves as today’s gospel of the photographic tradition.

Not surprisingly, Adams throughout his life refused to speak of the meanings of his pictures—preferring, presumably, to let them speak for themselves. But if Adams’s pictures are expressive, as he made clear he intended them to be, the criticism of modernist photography has yet to describe what they are expressive of. If they are equivalents of the artist’s deepest feelings, what are those feelings? As the photographer Robert Adams has written in regard to Minor White’s imagery, “Sooner or later, one has to ask of all pictures what kind of life they promote.”

Mr. Newhall, in the 1964 edition of his history, has this to say about Adams’s accomplishment: “Mr. Adams, in his photography, his writing and his teaching, has brilliantly demonstrated the capabilities of straight photography as a medium of expression.” Of the Adams images shown at Stieglitz’s American Place gallery in 1936, Mr. Newhall says that they “had sensitivity and direct, honest integrity that were rare” (sic). Today, these efforts at getting to Adams’s importance seem not unlike the kind of evasions ambivalent critics sometimes undertake. But Mr. Newhall, a longtime ally of Adams’s, is not alone in stopping short of telling us what Adams achieves in his pictures. One can search all the panegyrical commentary on the photographer’s work and not find a single description of the meaning of Adams’s vision of the natural world—or, for that matter, any clue as to what his unmatched technical brilliance allowed him to express.

The silence, coupled with the absence of any body of criticism that takes issue with the work, is what has left Adams’s place in the art of this century surprisingly unsettled. One sign of this was the large degree of misinformation that accompanied the tributes marking his death this spring. Some obituary writers hailed him as the inventor of “straight” photography, others as the pioneer of Purist style, still others as the originator of the crisply delineated “f/64” style. More than one editorial claimed that he had revealed the splendors of Yosemite to us for the first time. Even so circumspect an historian as Peter Bunnell let hyperbole exceed clear judgment when he wrote that Adams “fundamentally altered our conception of photographic picture making in the twentieth century.” (This last appeared in the newsletter of the Friends of Photography, an organization Adams founded, so Mr. Bunnell might be excused.)

The truth is, Adams came on the scene too late to pioneer the style in which he worked. “Straight” photography was already being discussed as early as 1901 by the critic Charles Caffin, a member of Stieglitz’s early circle. “Purism” was first developed in the years following World War I by Paul Strand and Edward Steichen and was arrived at more or less independently by Edward Weston in Mexico in the mid 1920s—at a time when Adams was deciding to devote himself full time to photographing Yosemite National Park. As was clear from the Museum of Modern Art’s 1979 exhibition of Adams’s Yosemite work, “Ansel Adams and the West,” Adams’s early silver prints (which he called “Parmelian prints”) have a small, self-consciously arty look to them; it was only in 1930, the year Paul Strand showed Adams his photographs, that Adams’s pictures began to acquire the dramatic contrasts and expansive scale of his mature work. Through the Thirties and Forties he worked in close proximity to Weston, whose more abstractionist dramatic style no doubt strengthened Adams’s commitment to Purist practice.

Ansel Adams, “Rain, Beartrack Cove, Glacier Bay National Monument, Alaska,”  printed 1950, collection of SFMOMA.

As for who first showed the splendors of Yosemite to the American public, we have to go back to the mid-nineteenth century, when wet-plate photographers such as C. L. Weed, Carleton Watkins, and Eadweard Muybridge made the arduous journey into what then was unsurveyed territory. Watkins in particular was devoted to the Yosemite landscape, visiting it several times throughout his career with both mammoth-plate and stereo cameras. Adams himself recognized their precedents, claiming allegiance to them as a way of rejecting his immediate Pictorialist inheritance. In Adams’s photographs, however, we see Yosemite as if for the first time—his conception of it is so different from that of the nineteenth-century landscape photographers that Yosemite seems remade.

Perhaps the person who has come closest to suggesting the nature of Adams’s accomplishment as a picture maker is John Szarkowski, director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art and the curator of “Ansel Adams and the West.” In his wall label for that exhibition he wrote, “He is the last of those Romantic artists who have seen the great spaces of the wilderness as a metaphor for freedom and heroic aspirations.” Here we can begin to see the outlines of Adams’s vision, the limitations of its usefulness in describing today’s world, and the widespread appeal it continues to have in the face of its obsolescence.

Today, the experience of Yosemite depicted in Adams’s photographs is no longer ours, nor even available to us—as anyone who has visited the park in the last ten years surely knows. Our present-day experience is more like that depicted in Bruce Davidson’s 1965 photograph of a crowded campsite on the valley floor, all folding lawn furniture and cars among the trees. Here, the democratic nature of the photographic image finds its counterpoint in the democracy of the national park system, with none of Adams’s rarefied isolation and elegance. This isn’t to say that Davidson is Adams’s equal as a photographer, merely that he is—like most of us—beyond the reach of the romantic imagination. What is interesting to us in retrospect are the lengths to which Adams went in his time to avoid quotidian reality both in his choice of subject matter and in his printing style, which became increasingly theatrical and hyperbolic over the course of his career.

Clearly, however, there still exists a longing for the “clean and pure and untouched” spaces that Adams’s landscapes depict in such loving detail. This longing may be rooted in the trailings of the nineteenth-century notion of the sublime, which elevated landscape imagery to the status of religious icon, but it just as likely reflects an urge to escape the depredations and disillusionments of late-twentieth-century life. In the sanitized, immaculate arena of Adams’s West, its frontier virginity seemingly intact, there is comfort of a kind entirely lacking in the “man-altered” or “New Topographic” landscape photography practiced today by the likes of Robert Adams, Joe Deal, Lee Friedlander, and Frank Gohlke. Adams’s photographs are valued—and I mean the word in both its senses—because they function as surrogates of pristine, uncultured experience at a time when the domain of culture seems unbreachable. And inasmuch as the prints themselves are also clean and pure and un(re)touched, they now function in lieu of the scenic wilderness as artifacts of a lost contentment.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 3, on page 48
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