The Road to Iconicity: “Ansel Adams: A Photographer’s Evolution,” at the Taft Museum of Art, June 23-September 16, 2018

August 26th, 2018  |  Published in *, July/August 2018

One way to see the goal of the Ansel Adams show at the Taft is that it traces the trajectory of Adams’s aesthetic and accomplishments from some of his earliest Pictorialist photos in the 1920s to a climax of sorts with his iconic “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941). As the show begins, Adams is a photographer with a set of tools (and assumptions) that most 19th century landscape photographers would have recognized; as it ends, he has contributed new ways of seeing the American sublime and works with darkroom tools and techniques so complex that it required several books to explain, and which today could be mastered by a relatively neophyte digital photographer with the touch of an onscreen button or two. Another way to see the show is that it follows his career from his first portfolio, the eighteen tissue-mounted photographs of Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras (“parmelian” is a type of lichen, a nonsense word used in the title by Adams’s publisher in the hope that it might lend gravitas to the work of this young photographer) to his work in 1975 to select the crucial images that would populate his “Museum Set,” a portfolio never to be broken up by its owners, of 70 essential pictures (plus five bonus images). In either case, it is fair to ask whether the connection between the two extremes is a long and twisting route or a straight shot. It is also interesting that in each case, his goal by the end of his career was to locate and highlight the iconic.

Ansel Adams, portrait by J. Malcolm Greany (c. 1947)

But what even does “iconic” mean? It seems fair to say that it defines a certain sort of fame. These are pictures that people would recognize; their grandeur may be unsettling, but their familiarity is reassuring. This is true of the artist as well. After all, how many photographers are recognizable from their portraits? Adams’s familiarity is inseparable from the exoticism of his subject matter. He has gone to places we haven’t. At its best, his work and his persona (and his hat and beard) are iconic because we accept that it is heroic for a certain kind of person to confront firsthand the vastness of the American landscape. Towards another end of the spectrum, an image may be iconic because it encourages us to suspend our critical thinking. Photographs may even be iconic because they are symbolic of themselves. One thing that is clear is that such a standing does not happen by itself. One perfectly interesting part of this show is that it suggests that Adams’s status was acquired partly because of his integrity and partly because of its marketing. The wall tags mention, but do not require us to confront, the Hills Brothers coffee cans with Adams’s photographs printed on them, or the Datsun ads to which he lent his name and face.

The exhibit asks us to follow Adams’s “evolution”: the ways he made and remade himself as an artist (and public figure). The backbone of the show is some of his least familiar work, the complete set of eighteen prints from the Parmelian series, lent from the extraordinary collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg. In part, these pictures illustrate the Pictorialist tradition out of which Adams came. “A Grove of Tamarack Pine” (c. 1923) has no interest in the grandeur of its environment; it could just as easily have been taken in the Hudson River Valley as the High Sierras. It is a woodland scene with dappled shade, intimate in scale as it was printed as a contact print directly from the glass negative, printed on tissue and mounted on warm beige stock. It features a wall of trees, a motif that Adams found himself drawn to throughout his career. It looks like dancing nymphs might emerge from behind the trunks. Unlike many of his more famous pictures, it is backlit, and features a soft focus. The blurriness of its lines and shapes was the sort of thing that aroused the ire of those who felt that Pictorialism was a thing of the past, driven by a desire to make a photograph look more like a painting. Adams himself declared that the Pictorialists “betray[ed] the natural traits of our medium,” though I think there are things about Pictorialism that he found hard to resist. Together with the more familiar “Monolith,” this is the only one of Adams’s early photographs that was included in his career-summing Museum Set.

That sense of betrayal helped lead Adams in 1932 to become a co-founder (with Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, and others) of the f/64 Group. The name was chosen to call attention to the extraordinarily small lens opening that would render everything in the image in the sharpest possible focus. Its members practiced a studio-based aesthetic, bringing frosted lighting to bear on botanical specimens or a chambered nautilus or a green pepper, finding both simplicity and lush sensuality in the tangibility of objects. Adams celebrated the photography of such practitioners as “a tremendously potent pure art form, an austere and blazing poetry of the real.” For these photographers, a “pure” art form meant one that owed nothing to previous artists or media or movements. With its roots in a West Coast response to the cultural dominance of New York, and fed in part by the ideals of high modernism, f/64 was also a tribute to advances in lenses, film speed, and printing papers. Ultimately, its relationship to technology was even deeper. In some ways, f/64 embraced photography’s mechanistic potential. A human should be brave enough to see the world as a machine does.

“White House Ruin, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona” (1942). Photograph by Ansel Adams. Image courtesy of Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. (c) The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

Adams’s work fit uneasily in the movement he helped start. Though his studio space came to mean more and more to him as his darkroom manipulations increased (he would come to say that “I think of the negative as the ‘score’ and the print as the ‘performance’ of that score”), he generally did not photograph indoors. Though he may have sought to distance himself from all previous artists and art forms, it is relatively easy to see the relationship between his work and the pioneering painted western landscapes of Thomas Moran and Alfred Bierstadt, for example. His relationship to earlier photographers is vividly illustrated by the picture he took of “White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly, Arizona” (1942).  His photograph was so similar to Timothy O’Sullivan’s picture of the same scene that Adams came to realize that he had chosen to stand in almost exactly the same spot at almost exactly the same time of year and day as his predecessor had some 70 years earlier. Perhaps the greatest difference between the two is that Adams’s image isolates the ruins from the viewer even more than O’Sullivan’s, which includes a more accessible set of ruins in the foreground.

Throughout the early years of his career, Adams captured the sublimity of the open spaces of the West as artists would have done at the turn of the century, using the tools and vision of the picturesque. The picturesque brings order to enormous amounts of space and distance by imposing a foreground, middle ground, and background. We can see this in a picture like “From Glacier Point” (1927), where a tree is right in front of us leading out to a semi-distant point from which one can see the magnificent backdrop of the distant peaks of Yosemite. “Roaring River Falls” (c. 1925) is the sort of photograph that would have made an outstanding stereocard in O’Sullivan’s time, with the rushing mountain stream coming in an unbroken line from the distance right at the viewer. The modernity of Adams, in large part, comes from his ability in his later work to discard foreground and middle ground, and just capture the sublime background and the air in between, as he does in “Yosemite Valley from Wawona Tunnel Esplanade” (c. 1935).

“Yosemite Valley from Wawona Tunnel Esplanade” (c. 1935). Photograph by Ansel Adams. Image courtesy of Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. (c) The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

There’s room for the human in the picturesque; we know where we are located and we know where we might go next. Where does the human fit in with Adams’s mature work? Though he took a few portraits—and one of them, a picture of Alfred Stieglitz at his desk in his New York gallery, is in the show–perhaps the most substantial representation of humans in Adams’s work are the photographs he took in 1943 at the Manzanar Internment Camp. This was one of the sites where American citizens of Japanese descent were interned shortly after World War II began. The Manzanar photographs are not represented in the Taft show, but are an interesting part of the story of Adams’s work. He felt that his work spoke to the unjust conditions imposed on the Japanese-Americans and published a collection of them in 1944 called Born Free and Equal. The pictures tend to be relatively warm scenes of individuals, families, and social groups doing work or farming or playing baseball. If the people in them seem unreasonably content with their situation, the argument seems to be that they’ve learned to make the best of their cruel situation. Over the years, Adams’s work at Manzanar has been compared unfavorably with pictures taken by Dorothea Lange of the same site, which were suppressed almost immediately by the government, and the work of Toyo Miyatake, a Japanese-American photographer who was confined in Manzanar, and who received some support from Adams over the years. Adams’s Museum Set contains only a half dozen pictures with human faces; none are from the Manzanar work.

The Manzanar photograph that is in the show is “Mount Williamson, from Manzanar” (1944). In this picture, Adams has put the camp behind him and captured an immense field of almost identical boulders that go right to the foot of the distant mountain where sunlight is starting to break through the clouds. Its argument might be that nature’s grandeur persists in spite of human suffering, or that the landscape somehow reflects the suffering. But it seems clear that Adams spoke most easily to the human condition if the humans were removed. As he once said, in explaining his general lack of activism, “I still believe there is a real social significance in a rock—a more important significance therein than in a line of unemployed.”

Humans have, more typically, an implied presence in his work. The chief way to be human is to be the photographer. The human presence is the photographer’s eye, an eye that has been brought to bear on rugged American grandeur by the athleticism of the photographer’s body. Adams’s West is the West of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt: I climbed and clambered to get here for this shot. There is a selfless quality to many of Adams’s images that would be at home with f/64’s interest in a kind of objectivity. On the other hand, it is hard to forget that it is through the exertions of a certain kind of self that these pictures have been brought home for us. Some of the earlier pictures show the trails by which the photographer ascended to his perch to take the pictures. Later work does away with pathways, and leaves us to think that the photographer’s eye is itself practically a part of the landscape. He will argue that he is putting himself more and more into the photograph on the one hand—that what a photograph truly represents is his feelings—while on the other, he is steadily taking himself out. Part of the trajectory of Adams’s career is in following the uneasy balance he tried to find between subjectivity and objectivity.

This is a familiar issue in American Romanticism. In Song of Myself, Whitman wrote:

Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me,

If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me.

We would be overwhelmed by Nature if we were not just a part of its grandeur and a witness of it, but also part of its source. Adams embodies this same tension in his view of nature and his art. Sometimes he described the grandeur of Nature as a thing that came entirely from outside him: “my life has been colored and modulated by the great earth gesture of the Sierra.” He freely personifies Nature, referring to the Monolith as “the brooding cliff” and seeing aspens as “cool and aloof.” He hoped to take pictures that would be faithful to the “expressive-emotional quality” contained in what he saw. But when it comes to taking the picture, Adams proposes that it is not exactly about what he sees outside of himself, but what he feels inside that matters: “When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I see something in my mind’s eye that is not literally there. I’m interested in expressing something that is built up from within, rather than extracted from without.” This doesn’t sound like f/64 to me. Is the spiritual energy that counts something that inheres to the subject matter or something that comes from the perceiver? These are not irreconcilable, but they do complicate our sense of Adams’s commitment to objectivity and what he once described as the pureness of his art form. He would explain that his images came from his “visualization” of the subject matter that becomes realized by the making of the negative and the darkroom work that followed.

As the exhibit makes clear, Adams did not merely revise his career as he grew into his changing vision and technical mastery. He also revised his photographs. The comparisons are subtle and repay careful looking. The turning point photograph of his early career is “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome” (1927). The version included in the Parmelian portfolio was a contact print on tissue paper on a warm-toned paper. In it, the side of Half Dome facing us is dramatically jet black. The Mattis and Hochberg collection is fortunate to also own a later print from the same negative. It is many times the size of the original, printed in much cooler tones, and with much more detail visible on the rock. I prefer the earlier version—I’ll take drama over the details—though it’s a serious consideration that he came to this later version after a decade and a half of thought and experience. I would probably argue that the later version was truer to the ideals of f/64 while the earlier version, for all its grandeur, still shows some alliance to the Pictorialists. The more human intervention he was capable of providing in the darkroom, the more he wanted the finished image to seem machine-made. At the core, the two versions represent a changing view of just what a photograph is, and what it hopes to capture and represent.

One of the most interesting non-landscape pictures in the show is “Museum Storeroom, de Young Museum, San Francisco, California” (c. 1935). It shows a room filled with what American museums (including, of course, the CAM) used to display—plaster casts of the great art of other cultures and earlier centuries. We see the Museum’s collection of replicas crowded together: a kouros and a kore, something Hellenistic, a multicultural zoo of animals packed tightly together, a pair of imitation bronze legs sticking up in the air, all to varying scales. There is a touch of humor in the picture, something we don’t see often in Adams, and the image gives off a whiff of surrealism. Culture is a jumble, and in any case, this is the Museum’s closet of inauthenticity. I thought it was interesting to read the show through this image, to ask what would happen if we viewed this picture as a lost key to the rest, rather than just the exception. It certainly gives us another way to see the solarized photograph of “The Black Sun, Tungsten Hills, Owens Valley” (1939). A sort of faux eclipse, where the sun is both blacked-out and yet shining normally, it freely combines the normal and the extraordinary. Adams says of the picture that is turned out to be “a striking surrealistic image. It was proof that the subject may prompt ideas, ideas crave visualizations, and craft makes their realization possible.”

I understand that it may be a bit of a stretch, but I’m also interested in reading some surrealistic overtones into one of Adams’s most iconic pictures, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941). If I were to describe to you an image where the most important thing was to capture both sunlight and moonlight in the same picture, you might think de Chirico before you thought of f/64. An uninhabited settlement arises out of the desert, which is rich with life and tonalities. The things that catch the brightest light of the setting sun are the crosses. There are buildings but no sign of living people. This is an elegy to a city of the dead.

“Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941). Photograph by Ansel Adams. Image courtesy of Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. (c) The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

“Moonrise” is another picture where the Museum has been fortunate enough to secure printings from two different phases of Adams’s career, one from the 1940s, when the picture was taken, and one from the mid-1970s, when virtually all of Adams’s creative time was spent in the darkroom. (It is a sobering thought, as a wall tag notes, that Adams printed about 1300 copies of this image during his lifetime.) In the earlier version, the sky—which is darkening but not yet black—is streaked with clouds, and the desert floor is vibrant and alive. In the later printing, the sky is jet black and the few clouds that remain are more like harsh linear streaks than anything puffy. It is more solemn and absolute. I’d like to say that the more recent version is aware of its iconic status. It’s not clear that the changes represent an improvement.

There is something about what he had learned to do in a darkroom that was like catnip to Adams. I wondered what he might have thought of the today’s digital imaging and editing, where everything that was part of his painstaking craft is available at the touch of a few buttons to anyone persistent enough to read the damn manual. It’s important to know about his relentless self-revision, and how he came back to his own oeuvre both as individual pictures and in groupings. He ended up being extremely conscious of the canon of his work, focusing his energies in his last decade on producing the prints for, and trying to place, the Museum Sets. The Taft show was able to supplement the outstanding photographs from the Mattis and Hochberg collection with a half dozen images from the Museum Set owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art (plus a few pieces owned by local collectors). His estate continues to guard the canon fairly zealously; I’d love to be able to share a picture of the “Museum Storeroom,” for example, but The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust places strict limits on the nature and the number of pictures that may be reproduced in connection with this, or any, show.

But in its own way, that seems part of issues the show is able to raise about Adams’s career, which has ended up being, to some measure, about his own iconicity. We are still able to trace the growth and interests of a crucial American Romantic who fell in love with what machines and technology could do. He engaged robustly with the land and brought back visual testimony about what he had seen, and presented it in commercially viable ways to those who were less robust and differently engaged with America. And while he moved in many ways steadily away from his roots in Pictorialism, I couldn’t help noticing that as the scale of his prints increased, made possible by the fine and powerful enlargers he used to make his prints, there was no longer an f/64 sharpness to anything in his printed photographs. Storms swirl across the plains, clouds open to reveal mountaintops, but they appeal through the veil of a genial blur, a look almost painterly in nature.

–Jonathan Kamholtz

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