One of the most beloved photographers of the 20th century, Ansel Adams was the most influential and renowned landscape photographer in the history of the United States. Ansel Adam touches a chord with me because of his inclination and utmost dedication in what appears to be a documentation of his country’s remaining untouched wild areas, like the national parks and the protected areas of the American West, as well as being a frontline leader of the conservation movement. That he produced art that raised awareness and that he fought vehemently to protect these fragments of wilderness is genuinely admirable to me.
His early works consisted of impressive landscapes that came from a period in the 1920’s, when he worked as a custodian in the Sierra Club’s lodge in Yosemite National Park. His utmost devotion to the Yosemite and an almost transcendental experience in his early years there, was responsible for his some of his greatest and most powerful works throughout his career (Britannica 2020). Majority of his works were influenced by his deep love of the western landscape, particularly High Sierra and the Yosemite, which are evident in the photograph below. The photograph imbibes the true essence of Adam’s works – intertwining the strong dark vertical lines of the tree trunks balancing the snow-tipped branches, while the clean precision print copies the crisp mountain air; the result of which functions as the visual equivalent of a natural experience (Met Museum, 2020).
In 1930, Adams exposure to American photographer Paul Strand’s work that he was doing in New Mexico at the time, led him to be deeply affected by the simplicity, richness and luminous tonality of the images. It was a style that was in complete contrast to the then popular soft-focus Pictorialist style of photography, and confirmed Adam’s belief in evolving towards a more pure and realistic style himself. It led to the formation of the group f.64, more on which can be found here. His articles, especially those written for a popular press Camera Craft, made him famous in the photographic community as his articles that were primarily technical in nature, covered thorough topics that brought clarity to the practical problems faced in photography. It was perhaps these articles that led Studio Publications (London) to commission Adams to create the book Making a Photograph (1935).
His concern with the transient and ephemeral led him to making the natural environment, his subject of choice, giving great attention to the specific details in his impassioned appreciation of the micro landscape as well. His works were recognised by Alfred Stieglitz in 1936, who offered him a solo show in his gallery known as An American Place. However many of his contemporaries critiqued his work as not being important enough and how all works of art must relate to issues of the current political and economic scenario. It was almost an entire generation later before it was realised that concern for the health of the natural landscape was in fact the priority of the highest significance (Britannica 2020).
Adams had a great command over the technical aspects of his craft, carefully considering not only the gradations of light in the image, but also manipulating the degree of exposure and experimenting with novel techniques to get the desired result.
John Szarkowkski, whose three decades long tenure as the director of the Department of Photography changed how the world thought about the art of photography, talked about the deeper significance of Adams’ work beyond his popularity as an environmentalist and rhapsodist of the American West.
“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. He was confessing to a private knowledge that is almost surely incommunicable but that he was nevertheless obliged to attempt to photograph.”(Szarkowski, 2004)
One of his most iconic images, Moonrise, Hernandez clearly displays Adam’s deep interest in the visual alterations of the technology that the photographic process involves. In this particular image, Adam, to convey the overwhelming experience that he had while making this image, progressively increased the contrast in the prints, to match the mood of the scene as he witnessed it. In his own word’s below is a video of the story behind this iconic image.
“There are no forms in nature. Nature is a vast, chaotic collection of shapes. You as an artist create configurations out of chaos. You make a formal statement where there was none to begin with. All art is a combination of an external event and an internal event… I make a photograph to give you the equivalent of what I felt. Equivalent is still the best word.”(Adams)
Adams took this photograph “Tetons and Snake River,” in 1942, in northwest Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park. The image is outstanding as it incorporates Adam’s acute attention to technical details perfectly. The image is a beautiful example of not only the balance between tonal values and shadows but also epitomises the relationship between the foreground and the background by drawing the attention of the viewer through the river to the mountains at the back. I think the fact that most draws me to Adam’s work is that he used these spectacular images to draw awareness towards conservation of our fragile eco-systems and an appreciation of nature.
In 1941, Adams was commissioned to create a photographic mural for the Department of the Interior Building in Washington D.C. but the project was shelved because of the World War II. The U.S. National Archives have 226 photographs taken for this project. The theme for this project that never resumed was nature exemplified and protected in the national parks and national monuments of the United States. Fig 8 above shows a view of the Glacier National Park, established by Congress in 1910 as the nation’s tenth national park.
Adam’s Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake is one of defining images of his career, It was one of the first images he made upon being granted the Guggenheim Fellowship and it was this image that inspired him to use the funding as a means of exploring unchartered territory and document the pure wilderness.
The photograph above in Fig 12, again showcases Adam’s typical and exemplary usage of depth to to lead the eye to the background, the sharpness in the entire image and the lovely play of light and shadows to create the perfect balanced image.
Key points and learnings from Adam’s works-
- Preference of the natural landscape.
- Pristine and technically perfect images.
- Concern for the transient and ephemeral.
- Stern & austere
- Pure & Sterile
- Strong vertical lines
- Technical Mastery
- Careful evaluation of gradations of light in the image
- Experimentation with new techniques
- Luminous Shadows
- Unmanipulated stark black & white images
- Exquisite play of light & dark
- Using art to promote awareness and conservation
- Established photography as an art form