The savage beauty of Ansel Adams’ America

Ansel Adams (1902-1984); Vernal Fall, Yosemite Valley, California; ca. 1948, printed 1963; Gelatin silver print; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas; P1966.11.6
“Vernal Fall, Yosemite Valley, California; ca. 1948” by Ansel Adams. ©2015 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

by Joanna Rutter

In the airy, unfussy space of Reynolda House’s touring gallery, it’s possible to stand in the figurative shoes of Ansel Adams, a quirky, prolific photographer renowned for his ability to capture the tangible holiness of an untouched, vast, terrifying and beautiful wilderness. His photos from the Tetons and Sierras are transporting windows to a less plundered world. 

“The exhibit expresses itself in just two words: his name,” Philip Archer, director of programs and interpretation at Reynolda House, said in a phone interview. “The show is going to expand people’s sense of him.” 

The exclusive collection came to Reynolda House in Winston-Salem out of a fortunate connection between museum Director Allison Perkins, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, its sole previous home.

Eloquent Light, a title borrowed from a 1980 book on Adams’ work of the same name, is fitting for the shimmering rivers and opaque clouds found in the almost 40 photographs in the exhibition, a viewing exclusive to Reynolda.

Adams is known for his technical use of light in capturing Western landscapes as he emotionally experienced them, using methodology that was revolutionary at the time of his work, yet still remains timeless.

“He saw the snapping of a shutter like composing a piece of music, and the way it gets performed and conducted, that’s the process in the developing room,” Archer said.

“One of his assistants called it a ballet.”

The dance and the music of his work is visible in the broad array of almost 40 works spanning his lifetime in Eloquent Light, in delicate, gentle captures of snowy trees, almost as if they are sitting for formal portraits; in fine-art shots in exacting detail that fools the eye into thinking his photographs are actually pencil and charcoal drawings; in haunting redwood trees shrouded in darkness; and, most obviously, in mountaintop shots of lush Western valleys and ranges, so raw and beautiful they evoke an immediate, visceral love for the earth.

Archer said Adams would use boards in the darkroom to give different sections of his photographs longer or short light; his process for each photo would usually begin in advance with pre-visualizing the shot and planning his strategy for the photo using a light meter, then often leaving before dawn carrying heavy equipment and battling mosquitoes for a perfect view he had scoped out earlier.

“Adams wouldn’t say ‘I took [a photo],’ he’d say, ‘I made it,’” Archer said.

His progression is traceable from small prints early in his career — to draw the viewer in close, forcing them to pay attention — to larger ones that could fully capture panoramic views of mountains and sky. That evolution began in his early teens with his first camera, a Kodak Brownie.

“In 1915, what photography was, was sort of an imitative art, trying to seem like romantic, gauzy paintings,” Archer said. “Adams made a break from that tradition with deep focus.”

Even though he distanced himself from that style, he still owes the romantics plenty.

“He’s definitely in a long, romantic tradition,” Archer said. “The Hudson River artists were concerned with landscape, [that’s] their heritage.”

The Hudson River group, landscape-minded artists including Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, would often join geological expedition groups to paint mountains and prairies, then bring their work back east to educate audiences about the still-mysterious west. Adams shared their love for manipulating light in order to perfectly capture the emotions that landscapes inspired in them.

A necessary detour for visitors, then, would be to go searching for similar mountainous landscapes on view in the permanent collection by Church and Bierstadt to experience the common reverence that guided all three artists.

Adams also had an environmentalist forefather in John Muir (whose work can be perfectly summed up in his quote, “All that the sun shines on is beautiful, so long as it is wild”), who founded the Sierra Club. The conservationist society eventually shaped a teenaged Adams’ love for nature and gave him a place on its expeditions to exercise his newfound love of photography.

“He was searching for something that correlated with his emotional needs,” Archer said.

“He was seeking oneness with the world.”

As a quirky young loner in San Francisco with a lineage of financial strain and relational tension in his family, some historians speculate that the outdoors may have been a powerful form of escapism and reformation for Adams at the beginning of his career, despite having terrifying trip responsibilities like stringing a cable for trekkers up the sheer face of Half Dome in Yosemite.

The power of nature’s splendor haunted his work for the rest of his life, and just at the right point in American history, too: The laying down of railroads made it easier for westward expansion. The easy access presented conflicting emotions apparent in Adams’ work, Archer said.

“There’s a duality of mind there, of wanting to share beauties, but a concern about what would happen,” Archer continued. “His answer was to push for conservation.” said Archer.

He added, “It’s nice to study an artist you like more, the more you read about him.”