High aspirations

How Ansel Adams’ Photos Made America a better place

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Ansel Adams/Courtesy of Jim Alinder

If it doesn’t meet my standards, tear them up,” Ansel Adams tells his chief assistant Mary Alinder.

It’s 1979, and Alinder sits at a table with a stack of 22 prints of “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” in Adams’ photography studio in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California and begins to seek out the photographic qualities that merit Adams’ approval. But by the time lunch was called, she hadn’t trashed one.

“I sat there thinking … they were selling for $10,000 on the open market, and it could feed a family forever in India,” she recalls.

Irresolute, she explains herself to Adams.

“You’re standing between me and how people consider my work,” Adams protests. “If prints go out that don’t meet my standards — it’s impossible for me to think of. You have to do this.”

So, Alinder did. She later scrutinized over 70 other photos that made it into the collection along with “Moonrise,” a body of Adams’ work that’s traveled the world’s museums and galleries for decades called the Museum Set.

Almost 50 of those photos are being shown at the Foothills Art Center in the exhibition Ansel Adams: Masterworks. The set includes iconic images like “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” and “Monolith, The Face of Half Dome.” Lesserknown portraits of Adams’ friends and everyday rural scenes, like “Oak Tree, Rain,” appear in the collection.

“[Masterworks] is a great combination of things that he personally responded to as well as things that he knew everybody wanted to see and have,” says Marianne Lorenz, Foothills Art Center’s curator.

This patchwork of Adams’ life’s work not only showcases his diverse interests and sought-after artistic technique but also translates across a strong preservationist philosophy. The photographer’s drive for artistic perfection helped carry out that message and, ultimately, preserve the wild places he loved the most.

Every print in the Museum Set was handmade by Adams during the last few years of his life, a time when his technical skills were highly refined. He met the project with thrust. Well into his 70s, he spent nearly 13 hours every day in the darkroom retouching images to his liking.

“It kind of killed me to see him doing the museum sets,” Alinder recalls. “He had a valve replacement in his heart in 1979, and he was not super strong. He was aging quickly at that point. [He was] very bright mentally but, physically, it took its toll on him.

Alinder was also hired to complete Adams’ autobiography during those years and spent considerable time with him while he was busy making prints. 

“He did not believe in days off — it was hard for me to get a day off. It was always work.”

Adams was reprinting pictures to create high-contrast and dark tones. Only through years of daily practice did he reach the point where technical proficiency led to creative innovation.

“As he got old, lots of the prints became very, very dark,” Lorenz explains. “He really started to love that sort of highcontrast look.”

Training as a professional pianist in his teens gave him the rigor needed to achieve those high standards in craftsmanship. His 8-by-10 inch view camera allowed him to control every aspect of focus and exposure. He even helped develop the Zone System, a method for perfecting exposure and development used by many photographers today. He mastered this technique in black-and-white and preferred the classic look to colored photographs. Through such precision, Adams illustrated the magnificence of the many American landscapes he visited throughout his lifetime.

“What Ansel stood for all of his life was the creation of beauty. … That was the most important thing he could do,” Alinder says.

Adams found beauty in the mountains and valleys not far from his home on the foggy banks of the Golden Gate in San Francisco, California. He was raised as a transcendentalist and believed exploring nature was a gateway to “the Eternal.”

“He felt that, with the greatest of his photographs, what he was trying to do was transcend reality and provide for the viewer a glimpse into that higher reality,” she adds. 

His yearly summer visits to Yosemite National Park led to his affinity for the Western wilderness and its expansive landscapes. On steep hikes through the mountains with the members of the Sierra Club, Adams learned to capture ephemeral light using long exposures. And in 1927, he adopted the unique style of using light to create drama, a technique that the Museum Set so explicitly highlights. He used a dark red filter to capture the emotions brought on by the contrast of a clear sky and Yosemite’s snowy peaks at 4,000 feet when photographing “Monolith, The Face of Half Dome.” The Museum Set’s “Frozen Lake and Cliffs, Precipice Lake, Sequoia National Park” and “Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, California” are other examples of his manipulative technique.

The position of sunlight in “Frozen Lake” and “Monolith” seek out sharp, vivid details in the granite, giving the viewer a sense of time and presence. The Foothills Art Center identifies the geological processes in placards next to these and most other prints in the set to give an idea of exactly how light functions as an interpretive tool in Adams’ photographs. The placard next to “Frozen Lake” notes how the sunlight accentuates “joints” in the rock surface that appear as a result of “mountain building” and the melting of glaciers over geological time.

His goal was to show detail in the darkest of blacks and the lightest of whites, Alinder says. “[He] need[ed] to have light at the right angle to make the most of a rock … and to highlight all of the edges and the insides, to achieve and communicate the textures that he was seeing.”

Adams’ style quickly lent him attention. In the late ’30s, his career bloomed as he began creating collections of his alpine photographs and worked as the Sierra Club’s official photographer. The environmentalist’s 53-year-long involvement with the club could be best represented in his 1937 book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, a collection of photos he took while trailing through the High Sierra. As a result of this book, U.S. Secretary of Interior Harold L. Ickes lobbied Congress to create Kings Canyon National Park. The combined power of Adams’ activism and art led to many other environmental triumphs as well. He campaigned to protect the areas he loved until his death, even while printing the thousands of photos for the Museum Set by hand.

“He wrote political letters every single day of his life,” Alinder explains. “Every president asked to meet with him on environmental matters.”

Indeed, Adams’ photographs carried more than aesthetic value. Many argue his pictures defined the sacred value of Western wilderness at a time when America was searching for identity and environmental security in the early 20th century. The landscape photos in Masterworks, like early shots of Yosemite, were patriotic in that way.

“The Frontier had just closed when he was born. He had these high ideals and these amazing photographs of the America that we all idealized,” Lorenz explains. “It’s not America as it really was, it’s America as we wish her to be.”

Members of The Nature Conservancy gave a lecture at the Foothills Art Center last month to commemorate Adams work as a symbol of inspiration. The visitors argued his vision led audiences to reconnect with the outdoors. Senior Conservation Ecologist of The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado Program Chris Pague saw Adams’ relationship with wild places shine through in many prints of the set.

“[Adams] could see in a picture not only what it was that he loved about what he was seeing but what he wanted that photograph to give to you and me,” Pague told the audience at the lecture.

Adams’ contribution to environmentalism was greatly realized after his death in 1984. The Minarets Wilderness near Yosemite National Park is now the Ansel Adams Wilderness and Mt. Ansel Adams stands near the Merced River on the edge of the park. In looking through the Museum Set, the Foothills Art Center sees why.

“[Adams’ work] is something that we can look at, that we can aspire to,” Lorenz said at the lecture. “It’s something that we can go back to time and time again and refine our roots, which are so closely associated with the wilderness and, consequently, with conservation and preservation.

“[Adams] reminds us of where we come from, and he also reminds us what we can become.”

On the bill: Ansel Adams: Masterworks. Foothills Art Center, 809 15th St., Golden, 303-279-3922. Through Aug. 30. Lecture Series on Ansel Adams: Artist and Conservationist, 2 p.m., Sundays, July 12, 19, 26, and Aug. 2.  

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