A is for Adams, Ansel (1902-1984)
California in black and white
I’ve had people say they’re kind of disappointed. They only know the park through Ansel’s eyes and he was only showing you the keepers. The park is not always as dramatic as his work.
~ Ansel Adams Curator Glenn Crosby
Ansel Adams, the most prominent nature photographer of California, was born in 1902 in San Francisco. In 1906, he experienced the big earthquake and tumbled off a wall, breaking his nose. He took another tumble making his first picture in Yosemite when he was 16: it was the best picture he had ever taken, he would later admit.
Adams was a very sensitive, sickly and depressed child. Shying away from social contact, he would confess that he had not been formed so much by his youth, peers or school but by the intimate relationship he had with his dad and the light of San Francisco, that, because, of the perennial fog, filters and breaks the light in magical ways.
He taught himself how to play the piano and contemplated a career in music, but he also loved nature and upon his first visit to Yosemite, the landscape that would make him famous, Yosemite became “his mistress”, relegating San Francisco to the realm of being “his (mere) bride” (Jonathan Spaulding). Shortly thereafter, his father gave him a camera which gave him a true artistic outlet and gave him a direction, even though he continued to play the piano. Moreover, like the Dutch masters before him who knew how to capture the light using oils, the same could be said for Adams who used his lens to bring out the innate drama of landscape and light.
Once Adams was married and had two children, he focused on photography completely. In the 1930s, his more “activist” colleagues scolded him that he did not portray the poverty of the Depression, but instead, continued to photograph rocks, trees and plants. He defended himself by saying he was not interested in politics or propaganda. Anything can be boiled down to politics, however, and with our present concerns about the environment and disappearing wild life, Adams was far ahead of his time and should be called a political, if not a visionary photographer. There is a clear kinship here with John Muir: what Muir did with words, Adams did with images. The oeuvre of both men has a mystical charisma and communicates the uncommunicable. The parallel with John Muir is also important in terms of nature and wildlife protection: while Muir inspired Teddy Roosevelt to conserve and protect land in parks, it was the first photo book of Adams (Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail) that influenced Franklin Roosevelt to turn King’s Canyon into a national park.
Carl Pope (Director of the Sierra Club) explained in a PBS documentary why Adams was so important to America: with the westward migration and population growth, there was a real fear that the frontier was vanishing and that this would pose a threat to the American identity as a whole. Adams, but certainly Muir also, proved that the unspoiled nature out West had not yet disappeared, and would not disappear if Americans cherished and protected it (even though Adams would complain about the commercialization of Yosemite when he was living in the park).
It is this wilderness and the significance of this wilderness to the American mythos that distinguishes the New World from the Old. Whereas in Europe the managed wilderness has the size of a postage stamp, in Yosemite you can still get off the beaten path and get really and truly lost: you will have to rely on your inner resources and character to find your way back. And that, in a nutshell, is the ultimate American story.
Interestingly, whereas New England Transcendentalism, the true intellectual and more secular minded beginnings of the US (the immanence of Nature rather than the doctrine of the Bible) coincided with the rise and importance of the North East, in the twentieth century, a different kind of transcendentalism emerged out West, coinciding with the rise and importance of California. While Emerson claimed in his famous essay Nature that we are one with nature, Adams’s “pure photography” was transcendentalist too in that he conveyed that nature is at once overwhelming and beautiful but also part of our core humanity. A photograph and a photograph of nature is, or so Adams seems to imply, never static but part of the human experience and perception while also being a force beyond ourselves (Emerson’s soul and oversoul).
In addition, Adams’s shimmering, ephemeral and at times desolate landscapes trigger a distinct American gothic feel: his pictures could be the backdrop for an uplifting adventure story (man will find himself in the wild) but at the same time, they could well serve as the backdrop of the opening of a thriller in which Liam Neeson gets eaten by wolves. (I am being flippant here, an inclination I feel when the narrative runs away from me as in: I am waffling).
Six months after Adams’s death in 1984, US Congress would recognize the importance of Adams’s oeuvre by naming part of the land south east of Yosemite the Ansel Adams Wilderness. By now, one could argue that Adams’s famous picture of Cathedral Rock is probably more well-known than the thing itself, and that, of course, is the lasting power of an iconic figure like Ansel Adams. Without him, Yosemite might have been just one of the many parks out West. If a preserved park at all…