Hardly a year has passed since the death of Ansel Adams, and already he has begun that long, slow journey into lasting fame, or oblivion, which is the fate of every wellknown artist. His work, and his life, are now a fixed phenomenon, a neat package ready to be analyzed, appraised, and merchandised. Even while living, Adams was by far the best-known American photographer. He could perhaps have laid claim to being the most famous American artist in any serious medium. His work enjoyed the kind of widespread popularity rare among living artists, having entered the public consciousness so deeply as to be considered a form of popular culture. What wellappointed coffee table is complete without a copy of Yosemite and the Range of Light Known among photographers, with and without affection, as “Saint Ansel,” he was even naively credited in a recent interview with the “discovery” that photography is, indeed, an art form.

Now, with his death, the process of canonization has begun, as exemplified in a two-page spread in People Magazine hawking his various publications. The headline modestly proclaims “A LEGACY OF GENIUS, FOR ALL TO SHARE.”

His fame not withstanding, in recent years Adams has become a subject for debate in the photography community. It has become fashionable among the medium’s literati to dismiss his work as a kind of sentimental pablum, safe and inoffensive enough to allow for mass digestion, but ultimately not nourishing. While some see him as a weakminded romantic, others see his prints as simply cold, technically-perfect descriptions of natural phenomena. His concentration on nature has led to the criticism that his work is not socially “relevant,” and is a morally bankrupt attempt to escape from the hard realities of life. This attitude is exemplified in the words of the famous French photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson, “The world is falling to pieces, and Weston and Adams are doing pictures of rocks.” No doubt some of these comments can be attributed to jealousy and to a tendency to knock our heroes “down to size.” Their persistence, however, makes it hard to dismiss all of these criticisms as products of jealousy or misunderstanding. It is interesting, then, to approach Adams’ work with these two ideas in mind: his incredible fame and the nagging doubts about the real significance of his work.

A first look at any Adams’ print usually brings forth a comment on his technical prowess. Each image is perfectly sharp, grainless, generally with a full range of tones from the richest black to the purest white. There is ample indirect evidence of the selective control of individual areas, as when prominent features are lightened, less prominent features darkened, all in harmony with a well-conceived visual logic. They are, simply, beautiful. In his writings Adams spoke ill of technique as an end in itself, referring to it as “playing scales at a concert.” It is clear, nonetheless, both that he was a consummate master craftsman and that a flawless technique lay at the heart of his aesthetic.

Although Adams’ work is dominated by classic magnificent landscapes, he often focused on smaller, more intimate scenes as well — a group of Aspen trees, a burst of spray above a waterfall; and there are the simple formal studies reminiscent of Edward Weston. This refreshing variety in his point of view is augmented by a quality not often mentioned in Adams’ “scholarship”: a remarkably uncliched and free approach to visual design. A frequent tendency in dealing with the complexities of nature is to rely on compositional habits and formulas. But with Adams one looks in vain for the s-curved stream leading into the sunset, or the two solid tree trunks framing the sprouting fern. Instead, there is a noticeable freedom from such artificial restrictions. One image is dominated by a group of tree trunks which exactly bisect the frame, another consists of a mass of rushing water with few definable forms, while a third is composed of a set of delicate ripple patterns which extend with little variation across the entire frame. The designs seem to arise from the structure and movement of nature itself, rather than from any preconceived formal notions.

This perhaps provides a clue into the nature of the man. There is “gentleness” in his approach to composition. In the introduction to “Portfolio One” (1948), Adams contrasted the method of some photographers who “take reality as the sculptors take wood and stone and upon it impose the dominations of their own thought and spirit,” with others who “come before reality more tenderly,” to whom a photograph is “an instrument of love and revelation.” Clearly he considered himself in the latter category, and the lack of cliche in his compositions suggests that he was true to his words. One senses an uncluttered mind, uniquely open to both the experience and forms of nature. Such a heightened receptivity both allowed him to be spontaneous and freed him from the deadening formal cliches often observed in lesser workers.

However, it may be misleading to suggest that the subject matter predominates in Adams’ work. After all, the same could be said about the most banal sunset snapshot. There is clearly something of Ansel Adams in these images. For example, “Mt. McKinley and Wonder Lake, 1947,” shows a vast landscape containing a brilliant lake surrounded by darkened hills in the foreground, reflecting a hugh, snowcovered, sunlit mountain which dominates the background. Yet this image is less a picture of a mountain, than an idea of a mountain — an image of transcendental grandeur not unlike certain Frederick Evans photographs of cathedrals looming mysteriously over the English countryside. If Adams’ own writings are an indication, he has most certainly changed the natural, “realistic” tones of black, white, and grey present in the scene in a deliberate effort to produce this effect. He is altering reality in an attempt to communicate an idea, or what he calls a “visualization.”

He explains these intentions clearly when he states that “a photograph is not an accident, it is a concept.” He doesn’t mean a mathematical or even a philosophical concept, but rather a kind of experience, at once emotional, intellectual, aesthetic, and, yes, physical – – a moment of perception in which the photographer sees something outside himself, clearly, yet sees it still within a very personal and symbolic context. Rather than a simple document or record, such an image is an expression of a relationship between photographer and subject. In other words, when Adams “sees” Mt. McKinley rising out of the valley floor like a vast, sunlit cathedral, he is expressing a truth about both himself and the mountain.

Yet one might ask, how can he be expressing the truth when, by his own admission, he is “lying?” That is, when the essence of creative photography for Adams lay not in recording but altering reality. In reply, one may suggest that much great art is a gentle lie in the service of truth. As far as the specific “truth” contained in this particular image is concerned — well, anyone who thinks a mountain is a lifeless piece of rock has never lived near one.

After such a spirited defense of Adams (as if he needs it!), I cannot escape a certain feeling of uneasiness. Adams was not without his flaws. One looks in vain in his non-nature, architecturally-oriented images for the same sense of freedom described earlier. Adams apparently relied more on both the formal and symbolic richness of nature than he himself was aware.

Furthermore, there is something quite safe and unimaginative in his approach to the problem of style. After viewing a number of technically-perfect, pristine prints, one begins to miss the sense of stylistic play which led another photographer (Ray Metzger) to interrupt his own pristine formal constructions by sticking his hand in front of the lens, or led Picasso to skillfully distort the human figure. Adams was not, ultimately, a pioneer, despite the fact that his early insistence on the unmanipulated image was somewhat revolutionary in its day.

At times, his writing does exhibit a gentle wisdom and passion, as in his response to a question about why there are no people in his images: “There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” Or in his statement, “I have faith in people and believe it is our fault if we have not touched them with the best we have to give.” Yet he at times exhibited a degree of ignorance which bordered on the embarrassing, as when he almost totally dismissed Rembrandt and in the same breath proclaimed Norman Rockwell to be the artist of the future.

Perhaps we should not expect him to be a scholar, but it is clear that, as an artist, he was somewhat one-dimensional. This may ultimately affect his standing in the celestial pantheon. At the same time it does not diminish the strength and beauty of what he did achieve. The fact remains that a viewer with any sensitivity to nature and any willingness to approach these images with the innocence of Adams can’t help but be moved by his work. The photographs evoke, most of all, a sense of quiet. One’s sense of time is subtly altered, expanded, having been briefly touched by the larger, more patient rhythms of nature. If this experience causes the viewer to reexamine, even for a moment, the effect of the modern world on both his own psyche and on the environment, then one suspects that “Saint Ansel” is smiling up there in that “great darkroom in the sky.” Herein lies the beginning of an answer to Cartier-Bresson’s “moral” objection to Adams’ work. There is a subtle moral statement (which Cartier-Bresson obviously missed) in the very fact that these photographs are idealized and “unrealistic.” Critics of the media have said that a viewer can quickly become numbed by a constant barrage of images of man’s inhumanity to both man and nature. But once seen and felt, Adams’ tranquil and timelessly beautiful world is perhaps harder to forget. His best images allow one to experience directly and privately, a sense of transcendental calm which is one side of nature. The viewer is then left to evaluate, in light of this experience, the world in which he or she lives.

As the months pass into years and today’s crises become tomorrow’s trivia, Adams’ photographs — like the products of any creative mind — will be remembered or forgotten depending on the degree to which their real content can be appreciated by future generations. While the importance of the relationship between an artist and his or her own time can’t be underestimated, this still must be considered the harshest test: is the substance of an artist’s work so rich, so in touch with the most primal of human experiences, that it will still offer sustenance to untold future generations whose language and culture may be both unpredictable and unrecognizable? Here the competition, if one may call it that, becomes rather stiff. But it is in these turbulent waters that all artists must swim.

Whether Adams will sink or swim is best left to those who, by their care or neglect, will be his ultimate judges. In my opinion, Adams, like any artist, was engaged in that long groping struggle to communicate a small kernel of his own experience. Long after much of today’s dry formalism and minimalism is consigned to the history books, Adams’ best images will remain as living evidence that his effort was successful.

Brian Peterson is a free-lance photographer who lives in Philadelphia and teaches at the University of Delaware. Mr. Peterson has organized an exhibition of historic photographs which is now on tour but can be viewed at Lehigh University, February 28 through April 9, 1986. Brian, like Ansel Adams, has also known and loved mountains.

Advertisements