Sharp Shooters

A Trio Of Legendary Landscape Photographers Celebrates 'Arizona Highways' And Byways At The Center For Creative Photography.

YEAR AFTER YEAR, we've all seen those beautiful color photographs in Arizona Highways.

Unfortunately most of us probably skim the state-financed magazine as we're standing in the supermarket checkout line waiting for our turn and feeling annoyed that the wanker ahead of us is trying to cash a check on the Bank of Binkie The Wonder Bunny.

In other words, we generally don't approach these photographs with the reverential attitude they deserve, nor do we devote the proper amount of time to absorb and internalize the great and glorious beauty of our home planet -- indeed, of our own backyard -- they sometimes capture to perfection. The jangly Muzak in the supermarket of modern life too often interferes.

Which is why you owe it to your soul to make a trip to the UA's Center for Creative Photography to view the works of Ansel Adams, David Muench and Jack Dykinga in the exhibit Arizona Highways: Celebrating the Tradition. These three are among the American West's absolute masters of the cumbersome, cantankerous view camera.

And it was the view camera -- early in its life a great wooden, leather, glass and brass contraption -- as much as anything else that gave rise to the United States' extensive system of national parks and monuments.

In the hands of Carleton Watkins, who photographed California's Yosemite Valley in the early 1860s, the view camera prompted an awed army of the embryonic enviro movement to press Congress to preserve the area as a state park for California, which it did in 1871. Photographer William Henry Jackson's photographs of Yellowstone are generally credited with knocking the socks off President Ulysses S. Grant and aiding in the creation of America's first national park.

Adams, of course, is the master whose work is most closely associated with this movement. In the late 1930s the Sierra Club used Adams' photographs to convince Congress to create Kings Canyon National Park.

As a young man in the early teens and 20s of the century just past, Adams cut his eyeteeth on Yosemite, where he lived for a time as caretaker of Sierra Club property there.

One of Adams' many photographs of Yosemite's spectacular Half Dome could be said to mark the beginning of modern landscape photography. It was while photographing the massive rock face on a chilly April 17, 1927, that Adams realized he needed a filter over his camera's lens to balance the tonal values of rock and sky. Thus did he manage to capture on a lifeless sheet of film the visual drama his eyes and heart were experiencing on the spot.

"The simple act of looking at a subject and imagining it as a photograph became an integral part of Ansel's approach...from that point on," writes John P. Schaefer. He's the former UA president, founder of the Center for Creative Photography, and a close friend of the late photographer, whose archives are housed at the Center.

Adams, a precise and exacting artist, soon codified that approach into what he called the Zone System, which Schaefer, himself an accomplished photographer and authoritative writer on the medium, describes as "a understand exposure and development and how these variables would impact the photographic print."

For the most part Adams' impeccable prints displayed in this exhibit are not his most famous works, but they amply demonstrate the tonal mastery of black-and-white film inherent in the Zone System.

This mastery is displayed with striking intensity in a vintage Adams' study of Mission San Xavier del Bac southwest of Tucson. Anyone who doubts this brilliant artist knew precisely what he was doing circa 1948 should study this photograph in this exhibit and then drive out to the Mission and take a gander himself.

It's the same old Mission. But through the eyes and lens of Ansel Adams, the structure takes on a gorgeous, eternal quality otherwise attainable only by dint of a thorough intellectual effort to comprehend the Mission's place in Southwestern history. A picture is worth...well, you know. While he was also a genius in the darkroom and undoubtedly worked hard to achieve this print, Adams seems to sum up the Mission's greatness on film in one amazing instant.

There is only one color print in Adams' portion of the exhibition, and it's done in the honey-colored, early morning or late afternoon light that once led the Soviet Union to ban Arizona Highways as yet another example of decadent capitalist propaganda unfairly depicting America as heaven on earth.

It's a look David Muench has perfected, and little wonder, for he stands on the shoulders of a giant -- his father, Josef, was himself blessed with an awesome eye for beauty. The late Josef Muench was a longtime contributor to Arizona Highways and a pioneer in color landscape photography.

The feel of Josef and David Muench's work is probably what lights up in most people's heads when someone mentions the magazine in casual conversation.

There are those who consider the sheer beauty of the Muenches' large body of color work as something to be scorned and ridiculed, much as those old Soviets once scorned Highways. But to those who understand the inherent limits of color film and the view camera, the Muenches, father and son, are every bit landscape photography gods like Adams.

It's oddly both annoying and inspiring to stand among David Muench's photographs and listen as some of the other patrons in the room actually gasp out loud -- repeatedly -- at the grandeur and glory of his colorful vistas.

Muench certainly seems to have gotten up much earlier than Adams, but that's because the black-and-white film favored by Adams can be shot at any time, while color film is a far more difficult medium on which to capture beauty in the hard light of midday.

Also, Adams, in his later years, tended to do much of his work not far from his car. Adams' most famous print, "Moonrise, Hernandez New Mexico, 1941," which is not in this exhibit, was taken after he screeched his car to a halt. He and his assistants hurriedly assembled his bulky view camera as the perfect late afternoon sunlight on the foreground grave markers and buildings disappeared. (The exposure and filter calculations Adams performed in his head as all this was going on were worthy of an advanced computer.)

Muench, on the other hand, certainly doesn't seem to mind hiking to places of great beauty and waiting, waiting, waiting for the decisive moment, to borrow the phrase of Henri Cartier-Bresson, a titan of the entirely different genre of street photography.

In a way, compared to Adams, David Muench seems a bit of a street photographer -- at least his compositional style is noticeably less formal than Adams' most widely known works. Undoubtedly this is due in no small measure to improving technology in the 1970s, when Muench's prodigious output helped set the standards for the Highways genre. That and the fact that Muench has always been a bit of a maverick among landscape photographers, preferring to take his cues from nature rather than from any formal school of thought.

The technology is evident in one of his least beautiful, but certainly most intriguing photographs, "San Francisco Peaks, Petroglyphs, Arizona, 1990." We see a wide-angle, extreme closeup of ancient Anasazi rock writing in darkness above a narrow, eye-slit view of the mountains at a distance. Some fancy lens work, and perhaps even a split-focus adapter, was necessary to give us this image, something Adams, the purist, would have eschewed.

But to anyone who has ever journeyed among the eerie ruins scattered across the landscape outside Flagstaff, this photograph brilliantly expresses the idea that an almost alien, ancient intelligence once roamed our now mundane world.

Which brings us to Jack Dykinga, who is neither particularly ancient and certainly not alien.

He's a Tucson resident and Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper photographer who chucked it all in 1981. Dykinga now hikes for hours and sleeps on the ground -- or, on easier shoots, in the back of his truck -- and gets up before dawn, or waits until sunset, to set up his view camera and participate in America's great photographic tradition of romantic landscapists.

A genuinely nice man with a journalist's gift of friendly banter, Dykinga is the American West's heir-apparent to all that is great in the work of Adams and Muench, which he has admirably taken to the next level.

Dykinga, who works exclusively in color, and whose prints are every bit as beautiful as Muench's and as strongly composed and sharply realized as Adams', has a photographic vision that seems more muscular and alive than that of both of his more formal predecessors. When compared to the others, viewing Dykinga's work is a bit like seeing the natural world through the eye of a prowling panther -- that is, if a panther hungered only for composition and color in combinations of startling beauty.

Dykinga has the advantage of modern lenses -- he's a champion of Schneider Optics, a famous German company -- and Fuji's Velvia, which sounds like a repugnant cheese-like product but is really a supersaturated Japanese slide film favored by landscapists for its eye-popping palate and spectacular sharpness. The Schneider lenses give Dykinga's photographs their muscularity, and the Fujichrome ratchets up their intensity, but the deeply felt vision which ties it all together is purely his own.

In what has become his signature shot of late, "Stone Canyon, Arizona, 1992," we see a twisted piece of dead, bleached wood lying in the foreground in a shallow pool of water, sheltered -- almost embraced -- by delicate orange sandstone walls lovingly carved by the eons. In one gorgeous glimpse, Dykinga seems to be telling us that water and wood are artifacts of the living world, but look at this rock, this canyon wall, the eternal stuff of Mother Earth herself -- this, too, is very much alive.

It's part of a profound message to which every great American landscape photographer since at least Carleton Watkins has struggled to contribute.

Ironically, the Center also displays some machine-made photographs of Mars, taken by Pathfinder, which landed there in 1997. As a technological achievement, they are, of course, stupendous. But when these dry, unromantic visual surveys are contrasted with the Arizona Highways exhibit, they point up something that goes well beyond the old saw that beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder:

Beauty, and the birthright of creation that allows us to comprehend it -- as the works of Adams, Muench and Dykinga make gloriously clear -- is a deeply embedded feature at the very core of our being. The grungy, soured old Soviets among us can deny it all they want, but beauty is, quite simply, an inescapable part of who we are.

Pathfinder's photographs of Mars are amazing, but Jack Dykinga's photographs of Mars, now those would knock our socks off and blow our minds.

Somebody call NASA.

Arizona Highways: Celebrating the Tradition, photographs by Ansel Adams, David Muench and Jack Dykinga, continues through April 9 at the UA Center for Creative Photography, located at the south end of the pedestrian underpass at Speedway Boulevard and Park Avenue. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free. Pay parking is available in the Park Avenue Garage, just north of Speedway, with direct access to the Center via the pedestrian underpass.

The Center hosts a gallery talk with Jack Dykinga at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 21. Admission is free.

For more information, call 621-7968. To learn more about membership, exhibitions, and resources at the Center for Creative Photography, visit their website at

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