Chapter OneAnsel 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 I9I6 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. Ansel Adams at 100 John Szarkowski