PRINT December 1963


Ansel Adams at the De Young Museum

OVER FOUR HUNDRED PHOTOGRAPHS were chosen by Ansel Adams to represent his forty years as photographer, and the museum has created a truly magnifi­cent setting in the entire wing which is devoted to temporary shows. The show traces Adams’s development from his early pictorialism to the present day. From 1923 to 1930, he, like other photographers of the time, made ro­mantic, soft-focus photographs of peo­ple and landscapes. In 1930 he was connected with the f/64 Group, whose contribution to photography was their insistence that the camera must look honestly and clearly on the world. Since 1930, Adams has photographed the western landscape with a clarity of vision that has seldom been matched, and with a sparkling techni­cal brilliance that is all too uncommon today.

Adams was fourteen years old when he first saw Yosemite and made his first photographs with a box Brownie. As a young man, he planned to become a concert pianist, and for several years he studied music in the winter, and spent his summers photographing Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada. In 1927, his first portfolio of photographs was published, and in 1930 he decided to devote himself full time to photog­raphy.

He has worked in many fields of pho­tography—as commercial photog­rapher; as portraitist; as organizer of exhibits; as consultant to the Pola­roid Corporation; as writer about pho­tography (his technical manuals are standard reference books); as teacher (he founded the first college of pho­tography at the California School of Fine Arts); and most important of all, as interpreter of the western United States. He is a devoted conser­vationist, and has dedicated much of his work to the cause of preserving the wilderness for the people of today and tomorrow.

The exhibit at the De Young is cer­tainly the most emotionally overwhelm­ing display of photographs to be seen in San Francisco since “The Family of Man,” although the two shows are entirely different in form and content. “The Family of Man” was a tightly­ edited show, the work of many photog­raphers who illustrated the theme of universal brotherhood. The Adams show is a sprawling collection of the forty years’ work of one photographer, whose best photographs present the grandeur of the landscape in the American West with the plea that it be cherished and preserved for future generations. “The Family of Man” showed people all over the world responding to basic human emotions, love, hunger, grief. The Adams photographs are the soul of one man who is close to nature and who reveals it with rare sympathy and understand­ing.

Although Adams exhibits many pho­tographs of people, he is not a particu­larly successful portraitist. Most are little more than personal records of his friends—Edward Weston, Edwin Land, Georgia O’Keeffe. Many are nothing more than very elegant snapshots. There is a great sameness about the portraits, an over all placidity that is in part inher­ent in working with a large camera, in part the result of the personality that Adams imparts to his people

Adams is not a skillful abstractionist, or, as he might prefer to call it, “extractionist.” His patterns of wood and whitewash, layers of snow or rivets are forced and uneasy. Yet, in the same gallery, in the same category, there are splendid photographs of the patterns of limpets clinging to rocks and of tree of heaven leaves, and it is in this field that his photographs come to life and convince us that here is a man who is filled with a tremendous under­standing of nature and can not help telling us what he knows. It is in this field that Adams makes great photo­graphs.

The West is full of photographers who attempt to record the magnificence of its scenery. Few are as successful as Adams, because few have his deeply ­felt philosophy of the place of man in the natural design. His philosophy is expressed with a breathtaking techni­cal skill, so that every vein in a white dogwood flower gives texture, every needle on a redwood tree becomes im­portant. He has a remarkable ability to select and photograph exactly the right elements which give the landscape its character. His photographs of the Yo­semite Valley are, rightly, probably his best-known photographs, because he has lived at Yosemite and photographed its many aspects at all times of the year. But his photographs of the roll­ing hills of the Coast Ranges, oak trees draped with garlands of lichen, and his photographs of Monument Valley in Utah, the tall buttes in the background, the agave and rabbit brush in the fore­ground, the sand patterned with beetle tracks, show us that here is a man who sees deeply and understands what he sees. He is interested in showing us the relics of the people who once lived in the country that fascinates him, abandoned graveyards, tombstones, the sad face of a deserted house in the snowy Nevada winter. Print after print moves us with the intense vision of a dedicated man.

Ansel Adams is a great photographer. He is a man who lives with and loves nature; he understands the complex re­lationships that make one landscape different from another; he photographs with honesty and an unusual pride in craftsmanship that makes every print a great emotional experience for both the photographer and the viewer.

Adams’s scrupulous photographic honesty is nowhere so apparent as in the gallery showing some of his com­mercial work—a university brochure, an essay on a winery, photographs for an oil company. All these photographs are as technically brilliant as the rest, they are well thought through—the companies bought good photographs and can be proud of them, but they bought nothing which was a part of Ansel Adams. Adams’s photographs which live now and will live in the fu­ture are those which are rooted in his deeply personal view of the relationship of man and nature.

Margery Mann