Extracting Art

TMA's Ansel Adams exhibit masterfully shows how photos are manipulated and crafted

On a winter's day in 1927, Ansel Adams and a party of friends were hiking in Yosemite National Park.

The young man from San Francisco was just 25, but he had started photographing Yosemite at the age of 14, and he was already experienced in the ways of the lens. In his satchel, he had 12 glass plates, part of the cumbersome paraphernalia required by his large-format camera. Along the trail, from time to time, he'd stop and slide one of the glass plates into his camera and shoot a view.

When the group got to a spot near Half Dome, a semicircle of granite rising nearly 5,000 feet into the sky, Adams pulled out his equipment again. To his dismay, he found that 10 of the exposed plates had slipped unnoticed into the snow, irretrievably lost. Making the best of the situation, he set out to use the remaining two plates to capture the beauty of Half Dome.

Adams had already developed his notion of "visualization." A photographer was not just to react to the reality of what lay before him or her, Adams believed. He had to create the image "in the mind's eye before pressing the shutter and making the necessary adjustments," as Ansel Adams: A Legacy, the show at the Tucson Museum of Art, puts it.

Following his own rule, Adams eyed the scene critically. It was gorgeous, of course, but the bright winter sky was not dark enough to suit him. He wanted a greater contrast to the white of the snow and the gray of the cliff. So he put a red filter over his lens and "radically darkened the sky."

The resulting photo, "Monolith, the Face of Half Dome," is full of the dramatic lights and shadows—and the detailed etchings in rock—that would became so characteristic of Adams' work.

This story illustrates a couple of points, both about an artist regarded as one of 20th-century photography's greats, and about the perils of the profession. Those lost plates, besides potentially serving as the basis of a terrific art-mystery novel—Where are the missing plates? Is Brad Pitt too old to play the young Ansel?—show the serendipity of the photographic trade: Some great shots disappear. Some are never made at all.

And many seemingly serendipitous images are deliberately manipulated and carefully crafted.

Adams' photography is not a precise rendering of nature: It's an art intervention. He not only used his considerable technical skills to change the reality in front of him; he tinkered with his prints again and again in the darkroom over the course of his long life. Whole shows have been organized around early and late Adams; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, on the occasion of Adams' centenary, demonstrated that in his later years, he tended to go for more dramatic contrast, for blacker blacks, whiter whites, like those in "Monolith."

The 112 Adams images in the TMA show were photographed from the 1920s to the early 1980s, but they are versions printed by Adams in the black-and-white last decades of his life. His most famous picture, the lovely "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," was shot in 1941; the late print seen at TMA has an inky black sky weighing heavily over the mountains. Earlier prints were lighter and revealed clouds going all the way to the top, as Britt Salvesen, the recently departed director and curator of the Center for Creative Photography, exhaustively demonstrated a couple of years ago. Salvesen hung multiple versions of the photo side by side, and proved once and for all how "Moonrise" changed over time.

The CCP was founded with Adams' donation of his prints, archives and equipment, but A Legacy arrived at TMA via another source. Shortly before his death at 82 in 1984, Adams donated this set of late prints to a group he had co-founded, the Friends of Photography. That group later mutated into the Ansel Adams Center, and went into bankruptcy in 2001. A Texas collector named Tom Meredith intended to buy four of the Adams photographs as an anniversary gift for his wife, Lynn, but ended up springing for all of them. Now named the Meredith Collection, the works have been exhibited in multiple venues, including the University of Texas at Austin, ably curated by Andy Grundberg, who provided the informative text.

Ansel Adams: A Legacy traverses Adams' well-worn paths through the American West, notably in Yosemite, which he visited every year. It ranges all the way to Alaska and often to the Southwest, where Adams delighted in the sweeping vistas in "Sunrise, Old Walpi Pueblo, Arizona," circa 1942, and "Monument Valley, Arizona," 1958. "Saguaro Cactus, Arizona," 1942, is a playful snake's-eye view of the towering desert emblem, planted against a medium-toned sky.

Best known for his broad views, Adams was prodigiously skilled at fine detail, whether it was the prickly crevices of that saguaro or the finely carved surfaces of rocks. Fortunately, this collection offers up some of Adams' lesser-known works, including a good sampling of his close-ups, from detailed still lifes—like his elegant eggs in a bowl—to his lovely array of pale dogwood flowers against dark bark. Again, the CCP led the way in bringing these small-scale gems to the public's attention, in the memorable Intimate Nature: Ansel Adams and the Close View, organized by former curator Trudy Wilner Stack back in 1998.

The photographer lived in the Bay Area his whole life, but his cityscapes are rarely reproduced. Curator Grundberg aptly notes that Adams tended to photograph the crowded city in the same way he approached the chiseled canyon: He goes for long views, with nature predominating over architecture. "San Francisco From the San Bruno Mountains, California," circa 1952, is a gorgeous vista of clouds, sky, water and distant hills, with only a tiny swathe of skyscrapers glistening distantly in the sunlight.

Unpeopled as his cityscapes are, Adams also reveals himself as an excellent portraitist. Some of his photos of the famous are well-known, such as a 1937 image of Georgia O'Keeffe (giving a rare smile), but some of his unknowns are luminous. A young Navajo woman sits stiffly for a formal portrait, but Adams manages to convey her intense curiosity about him and the outside world; a street hobo is marvelously depicted, Walker Evans-style, among the lettered signs of a cityscape.

The best of the lot is "Self-Portrait, Monument Valley, Utah," circa 1958. It captures a cracked rock wall, white lines snaking through gray stone, and a dark diagonal slanting down though the foreground. Shadows on the wall trace out the lineaments of a camera on a tripod and of Adams himself. The photographer raises a light meter in one hand and pushes the shutter button with the other. It's a portrait of a photographer at work, using all the technical skills at his command, extracting art from nature.