One of the most celebrated photographers in American history began his career by snapping the kind of family vacation pictures that betray no hint of visual genius. This should hearten any teenager whose early accomplishments with pen, camera, guitar or paintbrush seem inadequate to support dreams of artistic triumph.
Ansel Adams was 14 when he used a Kodak Brownie
camera to take his first pictures of Yosemite National Park's
luminous landscape. In the summer of 1916, when he and his family
took that first trip from their San Francisco home to California's
best-known national park, it required two days to drive across the
Central Valley and penetrate the Nevada foothills.
a journey whose difficulty emphasized the separateness of that
rugged place from the outside world. Once there, Adams fell in
love, and the dramatic objects of his affection -- those soaring
walls of granite, snow-draped crags, the interplay of light and
shadow on water, rock and tree -- came to dominate his professional
In turn, his work would come to dominate America's
imagination in a way that is difficult to appreciate today, when
the images he produced have become so well-known, so imitated, so
synonymous with the landscapes themselves, that we regard them
almost as clichés.
We forget that there was a time
when photographs of Yosemite and the other great Western parks were
not ubiquitous, when there was still a large public waiting to be
introduced to the labyrinthine depths of the Grand Canyon, the
gravity-defying towers of Grand Teton, the implacable immensity of
Denali in Alaska. And in forgetting this, we fail to appreciate the
role such images have played over the past century in creating a
broad public appreciation for landscapes as scenery, perhaps to the
exclusion of their other values.
An opportunity to
correct that amnesia and reflect on the mistakes in perception that
flow from it may be found at the Los Angeles County Museum Of Art.
Until May 11, the museum is hosting "Ansel Adams at 100," a
traveling exhibition organized by the San Francisco Museum of
Modern Art and now at its penultimate stop (it will move to New
York this summer, having already visited San Francisco, Chicago,
London and Berlin).
The exhibit encompasses the full
range of Adams' professional work, from small, yellowing snapshots
he took in the 1920s to document Sierra Club outings to the great,
iconic images of his best years, the 1930s and 1940s. The
accompanying catalog and audio commentary attempt, not altogether
successfully, to trace Adams' evolution as an artist and infer
meaning from his photographs of trees, mountains and lakes.
Many of Adams' most instantly recognizable photos are
included: magnificent panoramas of Yosemite Valley from Tunnel
View; a haunting moonrise over Hernandez, N.M.; a staggering shot
of Mt. Williamson in the eastern Sierra Nevada from the
boulder-strewn valley floor at Manzanar. There are gripping views
of the Grand Canyon that can only conjure sad wistfulness, for the
clarity and depth of field in those images from the 1940s has since
been erased by a ubiquitous haze produced by smoke from a nearby
power plant and smog blown in from as far away as Los Angeles.
The catalog discusses also Adams' role in the new
conservation movement, which harnessed his photos of sublime beauty
as justification for landscape preservation. It has been an
effective tool, but also a perversely dangerous one, for it has
helped foster the widespread sentiment that beauty is the
meaningful criterion upon which to base a conservation strategy.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton demonstrated the ubiquity
of that notion, and its unfortunate role as the guiding precept of
Bush administration policies, when she tried to justify efforts to
open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling by
deriding it in her recent Congressional testimony. She called the
refuge flat, white nothingness.
deserves protection on aesthetic grounds alone, but there are
qualities of the natural world worth valuing as well. Norton's
department oversees hundreds of wildlife refuges -- which, like the
wildlife refuge in Alaska -- exist to protect ecological
relationships rather than pretty scenery -- and she ought to know
this. But it’s a safe bet that she is not the only American
to display this primitive level of regard for the landscape.
Ansel Adams helped a previous generation to appreciate
the physical landscape of America. It is the task of the next
generation to learn to value the things that Adams left out of his