Returning to move forward: Ansel Adams and New “Old Photography”

di Rachel M. Sailor

Crepuscoli dottorali, n. 4 (pdf integrale)


Ansel Adams’ iconic status in the history of American photography has encouraged us to understand his work in terms of its uniqueness and its innovation. As an original Group f/64 modernist he wrote and spoke about a new approach to both photography and western subject matter, encouraging his viewers to focus on the novel qualities of his work. Because he was successful his connections to the photographic past in the American West have gone largely unrecognized or have been undervalued. These connections, however, do not detract from his oeuvre but instead add yet another layer of complexity to his work. This essay examines his ties to the previous “frontier” paradigm in early photography of the American West, and asks that we reconsider our assumptions about Ansel Adams particular brand of modernism.

Lo status iconico dei lavori di Ansel Adams nella storia della fotografia americana promuove la comprensione della sua opera in termini di unicità e innovazione. Come membro originario del Gruppo f/64 egli scrive e parla di un nuovo approccio sia alla fotografia sia ai soggetti caratteristici dell’ovest americano, spingendo il suo pubblico a concentrarsi sull’aspetto innovativo del suo lavoro. A causa del suo successo i legami tra la sua opera e il passato fotografico del West sono stati largamente sottovalutati o non riconosciuti. Questi aspetti, al contrario, non diminuiscono il valore della sua opera ma, anzi, aggiungono un ulteriore livello di complessità al suo lavoro. Questo saggio esplora il legame con il precedente paradigma della frontiera nella fotografia dell’ovest americano e rivaluta il contributo di Ansel Adams per l’elaborazione di una personale interpretazione del modernismo.

The history of Modernism is most often told as a process of moving forward into new aesthetic and conceptual territory. For most artists and photographers of the twentieth century, this movement was understood as a release of the past and an avant-garde forging into the possibilities of the new and changing world. For Ansel Adams, however, this movement towards the modern was also paradoxically a return to the previous century’s American landscape aesthetic.

Although most approaches to Adams’ early work focuses on its role in the development of what would become his most fully realized, mature style of the 1940s and beyond, a style defined by the sharp focus and “straight” photography effect created by the greatest depth-of-field aperture setting, an exploration of Adams’ conscious return to the earlier western photographers and an investigation of how that manifested itself visually in his work is rare (e.g. Weber). The literature on Adams is great, as scholars have assiduously sought to contextualize Adams through the veil of art photography via his relationship to contemporary moderns such as Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, and fellow members of Group f/64. Historians and art historians have also exhaustively investigated his socio-political relationship to the development of Yosemite National Park, the formation of the  f Sierra Club, and the legacy of John Muir conservationism.

Although a staunch champion for the modern, Adams unquestionably felt connected to and nostalgic for the previous century. Born in 1902, he anecdotally discussed the anachronisms of his childhood in San Francisco’s Bay Area in the early part of his autobiography. He expressed fondness for the artifacts and traditions that represented the earlier era. «There was always the distant bustle of the city, a deep and throbbing space-filling rumble of ironclad wagon wheels on cobbled streets and the grind of streetcars,» he wrote.

This was a resonance we cannot experience today; rubber tires on smooth paved streets have muted the old, rough sounds of iron and stone and the lopping of thousands of horses’ hooves, timing the slow progression of ponderous wagons and more sprightly buggies. It was a sound not to be forgotten; a pulse of life in vigorous physical contact with earth (Adams, Autobiography 5).

This nostalgia for the older «pulse of life» underscored Adams’ interest in the «vigorous physical contact with the earth» that he spent his life pursuing in the spaces of the American West.

Although most children grow up with the heritage of their parents’ generation surrounding them in the form of antique artifacts and wistful stories, Adams spent his life visually exploring the physical places of that heritage. Like many boyhood experiences that spur interest in the West, Adams’ recalled his (by now legendary) 1916 encounter with the 1888 publication In the Heart of the Sierras (sic) by J. M. Hutchings, recalling that he had «become hopelessly enthralled with the descriptions and illustrations of Yosemite and the romance and adventure of the cowboys and Indians (Autobiography 40).» Besides the descriptive text of Hutchings book, it was also full of engravings of photographs taken by early California photographers such as George Fiske, Charles L. Weed, Carleton Watkins and others. Later in his life, Adams came to greatly respect Fiske, especially, even more than the more widely regarded Carleton Watkins and Edward Muybridge. Adams was greatly familiar with these images, and wrote of Fiske: «I firmly believe, [that Fiske was] a top photographer, a top interpretive photographer. I really can’t get excited at Watkins and Muybridge—I do get excited at Fiske. I think he had the better eye (Newhall, “Preface” viii).» The photographers who worked in Yosemite had a significant amount in common, but Fiske unlike the others did not achieve stellar fame and an enduring popular legacy.

The romance of the old West infiltrated Adams’ life in numerous other ways, as well. A particularly formative experience was his boyhood adventures at the 1915 Panama Pacific-American Exposition in which he encountered the heavy handed ideological position favored in the United States regarding western lands and Native Americans (Adams, Autobiography 15). Although it is impossible to say to what degree these works influenced Adams, they do suggest a general ethos in the West during his childhood. He would have seen The Westward March of Civilization, in two panels by – Frank V. DuMond (Western Arch, Court of the Universe), Western landscape paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, and Thomas Moran, not to mention the sculptural works End of the Trail by James Earl Fraser, The Pioneer by Solon Borglum, and The Pioneer Mother by Charles Grafly. All told, the remnants, both photographically and otherwise, of the previous generations in northern California seem to have made a deep impression on Adams.

Adams was two generations removed from the “old west” photography, illustrated by the fact that both he and Carleton Watkins experienced the 1906 San Francisco earthquake—Watkins was seventy-seven and Adams was four. Their shared experience illustrates the temporal and geographical overlapping of the two generations of important photographers of the West. This intersection of experience of these two great names in American photography is also fascinatingly manifest in their images of many of the same western places and monuments (Figs. 1, 2). A comparison of the images of Yosemite Valley by these two photographers encompasses their clear aesthetic similarities as well as the differences. Both photographs show the valley in a clear manner, without an overt artful manipulation of focus or a self-consciously crafty cropping. Instead, they relied on the well-trodden picturesque tropes that framed the spectacular valley according to expectations. As well, both men sought wide audiences for their work and both relied on their spectacular subject matter to insure commercial success.

Despite the slight differences of framing presented by this comparison, a distinguishing factor relates to the technology available during their respective eras that allowed Adams to capture the details of clouds while Watkins’ sky remained uniformly over-exposed. Watkins used the nineteenth-century wet plate technology that was equipment intensive and technologically cumbersome. Adams’ produced crystal clear images with a modern photographic technology that allowed him a variety of film and camera sizes. He used smaller, 35 mm. cameras to streamline his field exposure work, as well as large format “view” cameras. Technology not only transformed the field of professional photography, it allowed photographs of unprecedented clarity and tonal value. Adams spent less time on the mechanics of exposure (with the help of his famed “zone” technique) and more on development—perhaps allowing him a greater freedom in his choices of subject matter and an ease to photograph at will.

Fig. 1. Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point, 1865-66, Albumen silver print, 39.7 x 52.1 cm. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Although these two photographs diverged technically, the most profound differences between their productions lie in their respective era’s rhetoric about photography and the West. Watkins, unlike Adams, was far more committed to the pictorial tropes of the picturesque and chose scenes that conformed to the highly cultivated nineteenth-century taste for landscape. Watkins consistently sought what Adams would later dub “gargantuan curio,” a term he used to designate the iconic images of grandeur that came to define the West as a region, scenes that were «appreciated for size, unusuality, and scarcity (Adams, “Problems” 47).» In contrast, Adams intentionally channeled high art, not visual culture, in his rendition. He self-consciously emphasized form as a signifier of emotional content rather than the model of didactic documentation that concerned Watkins who preferred a selective cultural content that emphasized nationalistic ideals. Adams’ passion for emotional content through formal composition firmly roots him in modernist America and makes an investigation of his link to earlier western photography one that goes beyond aesthetics. His awareness of his link to the nineteenth century was demonstrated when he wrote that

There is a perfection in many of these old photographs—a perfection of technique and aesthetic objectivity—that surpasses most of the camera work of today. I do not imply that we should entertain an “old-master” complex about such men as O’Sullivan and Watkins, but I am convinced that a careful study of their work would have a constructive effect on contemporary photography (Adams, “Photography”).

Although Adams promoted the relationship between the earlier model and the modern, the connection runs deeper than perhaps he even knew.

Professionally, Adams was in the right place at the right time to bridge the divide from the aesthetic and topical paradigms of that earlier era with the later concerns of a burgeoning modern America. Although the subject matter that could be found in Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada stayed the same, the conception of these western places changed dramatically. The nineteenth-century photographic approach to western sites was precipitated by a general unknowing about the West and a desire to interpret and construct meaning via a familiar visual format. Photographers were active instigators of meaning, creating the sense of place that ultimately determined how people understood the burgeoning region. Adams had a very real sense of that historical precedent. He didn’t believe as did the earlier photographers, however, that he was inventing or creating place identity. Rather, he promoted the idea that he had a fundamentally different photographic understanding of place, an understanding rooted in deep emotion and artistic sensibility.

While others revealed and created a new visual context for those western spaces building a relationship between Euro-Americans in the eastern states and the West, Adams refined that relationship by using the previous photography as a precedent upon which to solidify the mythic quality of the West through form and content. In other words, Adams’ self-conscious use of modern photography as a way to express his own experiences by returning the paradigms of the previous century and earlier photographers entrenched America’s emotional connection to iconic western places. For example, when he wrote that «here the land is so beautiful it cannot be denied,» and that «photography finds an admirable environment in the West. It is a new art in a new land,» he was not being original (Adams, “A Warning”). In fact, his statements reflect the still pervasive awareness that the West had to be touted and explained. The rhetoric demonstrated by nineteenth-century tourists, boosters, and photographers with wares to sell consistently emphasized the special nature of their locale in contrast with the stolid, more familiar spaces in the East. That western spaces were distinctive was a belief held by the majority of photographers in the era, as well as visitors and locals who engaged the actual landscapes or did so only through the images these men produced. Not only does Adams’ apology for the West tie him firmly to his photographic forebears, it demonstrates the reach of the West’s relative insularity deep into the twentieth-century—a remoteness described by its vast physical distance from the East as well as a perceived cultural differences.

By the 1930s, the West was considered both the ideal of American hopes and values as well as a distant cultural backwater. Adams sought to rectify the latter perception of the West through his ambitious insistence on meeting the great New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz and becoming part of his milieu. Despite Adam’s entrenched westernism, or maybe because of it, he sought out Stieglitz whose early century approach to straight photography greatly influenced Adams sense of his work as “art.” Born on the very western edge of the continent, Adams was disconnected from the trends in eastern artistic circles. Instead of travelling West to find a more purely American place as so many artists of that era did (including Stieglitz’ own wife Georgia O’Keeffe), Adams travelled to visit Stieglitz in New York so that he could hoist himself beyond his western heritage into the more rarified field of art photography.

Adams visited the aging Stieglitz at An American Place Gallery in 1933 to introduce himself and promote his photographs. In the letters that transpired afterward, Adams clearly expressed a reverence for the legendary photographer, as a devotee to a master. «I trust you will believe me when I say that my meetings with you touched and clarified many deep elements within me,» he wrote in a 1933 letter, «it has been a great experience to know you (Alinder 50).» Adams even unabashedly wrote that «In a sense, the history of Stieglitz is the history of modern photography—he is undoubtedly the Giotto of the photographic Renaissance (Adams, “Photography”).» On the news of Stieglitz’s death in 1946, Adams struggled to sum up his relationship to the old photographer, but ultimately admitted Stieglitz’s power over him by writing that «It will be very hard when the time comes to make a decision and know that he will not be there to approve or disapprove (Alinder 177).»

Adams’ beloved Stieglitz had been at the forefront of the pictorialist “secession” movement in the United States at the turn of the century, but quickly dropped the style between 1907 and 1910 when he moved toward the clear, focused view that would characterize Modernism in the medium. Adams’ transformation into a straight shooting modernist seems to have occurred in 1930, during a summer visit to Taos where he met Paul and Rebecca Strand, John Marin, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Mabel Dodge Luhan. Adams very quickly changed not only his style, but also his rhetoric concerning his photographs. Adams joined the elite of “straight” art photographers on both the East and the West Coast to promote a new style that would ultimately gain the medium acceptance into the art world at large, and into the galleries of major museums. In the years after photography’s stylistic sea change into modern art, Pictorialism continued to flourish despite its passé reputation among the fine art elite of photography. Through the 1930s Pictorialism even gained adherents as amateur camera clubs remained active and strong across America.

Adams admitted in 1932 that his «first work was definitely “pictorial.”» He described the situation (in third person) for a de Young exhibit, claiming that

While he never manipulated his negatives or prints, his compositions were reminiscent of conservative schools of printing, …It was not until 1931 that the veil of these relative inessentials was torn away and the emergence of a pure photographic expression and technic (sic) was revealed. Almost overnight, as it were, the fussy accoutrements of the Pictorialist were discarded for the simple dignity of the glossy print (“Drafts”).

Later, he again acknowledged the early change in work, by stating that while his «first selection of photographs was […] made with care and devotion, it was more representational in approach than my later productions and reflected a style of work less realized in character and emphasis than my photography after 1930 (The Portfolios v).» To his credit, Adams recognized that Pictorialism did little to express the western sense of place that defined his landscape interests, especially given his knowledge of and connection to the aesthetic and ethos of the pioneer era. Straight photography seemed a much more natural fit, and his introduction to Modernism in New York, Taos and Santa Fe allowed him, in effect, to maintain a connection to the preceding generations of western photographers, and to break from the perception of that earlier style as “documentary.” Adams created art photography and worked in connection to the lineage of the nineteenth-century practitioners as a way to have his cake and eat it too. His photography was steeped in the rhetoric of high art while retaining the veracity of experience that defined the approach of his forbears.

Adams broke with the pictorialist aesthetic very early in his career, leading to the formation of Group f/64, a movement whose vehemenceattested to the staying power and popularity of Pictorialism. The group was quickly championed by the upper echelons of the high art world by those who would see photography take its place alongside other more traditional fine art media.Founders included Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyck, and others, who agreed with the straight aesthetic as achieved by the f/64 aperture setting that would ensure crystalline clarity and the greatest depth of field.

Adams’ photographs continued to undergo significant stylistic change as he struggled to understand his place in the new modernist world of photography. Notably, his move toward the Modernism that he saw in the work of Paul Strand (whom he met in Taos in 1930) began to manifest in by the late 1930s. As early as 1948 he wrote that «Since 1938-39, all my work has been based on an exposure-development rationale in which visualization of the final print is the prime consideration (Yosemite 119).» Despite the stylistic battles during the era, and his conscious shift to the straight aesthetic model demonstrates his instincts to return to many of the principles of the more traditional nineteenth-century version of western landscape photography, despite the belief stated in Group f/64’s manifesto that «photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself (Peeler, 107-110).»

Fig. 2. Ansel Adams, Yosemite Valley from Wawona Tunnel Esplanade, c.1933, Gelatin silver print. Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Adams’ voiced his attitudes toward western photography in the previous century on a number of occasions. In an unpublished article he wrote about the «many stabilizing sources» in the efforts to understand photography as an art form. «Not the least of these sources,» he wrote, «are found in the achievements of early landscape and mountain photographers.» «There is a certain serinity (sic) and simplicity in their work (Watkins, O’Sullivan, Muybridge and Fiske) which is rarely to be found in contemporary photography (Adams, “Some Notes).» In a more official capacity, he wrote about nineteenth-century photography in 1940 when he participated as a Director of Photography for the “Pageant of Photography” exhibition in the Palace of Fine Arts on Treasure Island at the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. In his introduction, Adams wrote eloquently about the previous generations, explicitly connecting them to his fellow moderns.

Today, with due consideration for the startling technical advances, the best modern work suggests the basic qualities of the great photography of a century ago, plus the enlarged vision and increased social awareness of our time. The moving spirit of the Hills and the Camerons and the fine daguerreotypes lives again in the magnificent work of Stieglitz, Strand, Weston, and others who have assumed the responsibility of continuing a simple, incisive statement by means of the camera.

He continued:

We cannot fail to be impressed by the magnificent daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes, and the historic photographs of Brady, Gardner and others of the1850’s (sic) and 60’s in the Eastern United States, and the exciting work of the great Western photographers, such as Jackson, O’Sullivan, and Watkins….Above all, the work of these hardy and direct artists indicates the beauty and effectiveness of the straight photographic approach.

In this text, Adams demonstrated his understanding of the history of nineteenth-century American photography as two distinctly geographic traditions. Although he suggests they all represented the origins of the «straight photographic approach,» he clearly understood that the heritage within those two regions was discrete.

In 1942, as well, Adams was involved in an exhibition titled “Photographs of the Civil War and American Frontier,” an event that he described as his «most important contribution» to the Museum of Modern Art as the acting vice chair of the Department of Photography Exhibition Committee (Adams, Letter to the Director).Adams would have been a natural fit to assist with exhibitions relating to the American West, and did work on a number of exhibitions for MoMA including the “Sixty Print Exhibit” and “The Negative and Print Show.” His link to the nineteenth-century subject matter of the Civil War and the American frontier demonstrates his active interest in those photographic precedents. Instead of simply recalling the older photographic traditions as purely didactic, however, Adams chose images by Mathew Brady, William Henry Jackson, Timothy O’Sullivan and others for purely aesthetic reasons. While most viewers of frontier photography, then and now, assumed documentary content for the photographs included in the exhibition, Adams attempted to recast the American public’s perception of the earlier era by focusing on the emotions they inspired. In a letter to Alfred Barr, then director of the museum, Adams stressed that his purpose was «to concentrate on the asthetic (sic) aspects» of American photography «rather than on the historical aspects,» despite early criticism that the show demonstrated a «historical paucity (Adams, Letter to the Director).» Adams reprinted the most visually appealing images he could find and Beaumont Newhall hung the exhibition. Originally they wanted to include western film as a component, but settled on framed photographs, photographic albums by Gardner, Jackson and O’Sullivan, and «actual stereoscope viewing machines,» that were «fastened securely to the shelf (Adams, Letter to B. Newhall).» Alongside historic material culture, Adams subtly recast the earlier traditions of photography according to his 1940s modern sensibilities.

Adams began his career with an intuitive grasp on the importance of western landscape photography to the development of the region. While both the subject matter and formal qualities of his work demonstrated his understanding of western photographic traditions, the discussion surrounding both photography and the West had changed. In the arena of art, especially, ideals about photography as art transformed greatly in the twentieth century. About the 1979 Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Ansel Adams and the West,” a perceptive critic noted that

There is, of course, as one might expect at the Modern, where curators like to pretend that nothing matters except the artist’s intention, no recognition of the technological changes, the increases in speed and sensitivity to color, that enabled a 20th –century photographer to capture ephemeral effects that were quite beyond the reach of his 19th-century predecessors. Nor is there any attempt to place the quite extensive and interesting selection of early works in its historical context (Thornton 31, 41).

Clearly Adams was not the only one shaping public understanding of his work. «Despite the modernity,» the critic continued, «they are fundamentally old fashioned, composed in the grand style of the 19th-century landscape photography […] speaking with the kind of public voice that everyone can understand and that has almost entirely disappeared from modern art (Thornton 31, 41).» John Szarkowski, curator of the exhibition and influential director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, also saw the forward and backward looking sensibilities of Adams’ work. He acknowledged that Adams was «the last of that line of 19th-century romantic landscape artist who glorified the heroic wilderness, and—simultaneously—one of the sources of a new landscape tradition (Wolmer 1).» By the 1970s it was easy to recognize Adams as the last of an older type of photographer, despite Adams’ insistent Modernism. In explanation of the 1977 publication of various portfolios from the 1940s through the 1970s, Szarkowski wrote that Adams’ photographs were by then «anachronisms,» intuiting that they were «perhaps the last confident and deeply felt pictures of their tradition (Szarkowski xii).» Hindsight clearly distinguished Adams’ approach from the contemporary avant-garde of the 1970s, but Adams reputation continued as an early modernist instead of a late landscape photographer in the old style—he was rarely understood as both.

Sensitive to the pulse of his own era, Adams emerged as a visual spokesman for the new twentieth-century West, adapting the past to the new era, but also ensuring the importance of the iconic western landscape in the modern imagination. While the concept of returning to a previous photographic approach might seem anathema to a modernist like Adams, his conscious and consistent effort to ideologically disconnect himself from western photographic traditions is, paradoxically, why he became so successful despite his deep belief and insistence that his vision—his version of the West—was brand new.

Works Cited
Adams, Ansel. Ansel Adams: An Autobiography. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1976.

–                     . “Drafts, Final Version of Statement for De Young Exhibition, 1932.” Unpublished essay, 1932. Ansel Adams Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson. N. pag.

–                    . “Letter to the Director of the Museum of Modern Art.” 5 Sept. 1942. Newhall Papers, The Museum of Modern Art

–                    . Introduction. A Pageant of Photography. San Francisco: Crocker-Union,1940. N. pag.

–                    . “To Nancy Newhall.” 17 July 1946. Ansel Adams: Letters and Images, 1916-1984. Ed. Mary Street Alinder and Andrea Gray Stillman. New York City: Bulfinch Press, 1988. 177-178.

–                    . “A Note on the Photographs.” Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada. By john Muir. Ed. Charlotte E. Mauk. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948. 119.

–                    . “Photography.” Unpublished essay, c. 1933. Ansel Adams Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson. N. pag.

–                    . The Portfolios of Ansel Adams. New York: Little Brown and Company, 1977.

–                    . “Problems of Interpretation of the Natural Scene.” Sierra Club Bulletin 47 (1945): 47.

–                    .“Some Notes on Photography.” Unpublished essay, n.d. Ansel Adams Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson. N. pag.

–                    . “To Stieglitz.” 22 June 1933. Ansel Adams: Letters and Images, 1916-1984. Ed. Mary Street Alinder and Andrea Gray Stillman. New York City: Bulfinch Press, 1988. 50-52.

–                    . “A Warning to Easterner’s.” Unpublished essay, n.d. Ansel Adams Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson. N. pag.

Alinder, Mary Street and Andrea Gray Stillman. Ed. Ansel Adams: Letters and Images, 1916-1984. New York City: Bulfinch Press, 1988.

Hutchings,J. M. In the Heart of the Sierras. Oakland, California: Pacific Press Publishing House, 1888.

Newhall, Beaumont. “To Adams.”17 Feb. 1942. Newhall Papers, The Museum of Modern Art Archives.

–                               . Preface. George Fiske, Yosemite Photographer. By George Hickman and Terrence Pitts. (Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Press, 1980). vii-viii.

Peeler, David. “Group f/64.” Original Sources: Art and Archives at the Center for Creative Photography (Tucson:Center for Creative Photography, 2002): 107–110.

Szarkowski, John. Introduction. The Portfolios of Ansel Adams, Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1977. Vii-xii.

Thornton, Gene. “Ansel Adams—The Ephemeral in Nature.” The New York Times 16 September 1979, 31, 41.

Weber, Eve. Ansel Adams and the Photographers of the American West. San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 2002.

Wolmer, Bruce. “Ansel Adams and the West.” MoMA Quarterly, Summer (1979): 1.

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