Acclaimed photographer Ansel Adams fixed a keen eye on the landscapes of the American West
There is a consensus among curators, photographers and collectors: Ansel Adams was a brilliant landscape photographer and his contributions to art photography are significant and numerous.
His photographs of mountainous regions, valleys, forests and other uninhabited lands are majestic, breathtaking.
Adams had a keen and evocative eye, an understanding of how to create narratives through still life.
He also was a master technician - in the field and darkroom - as the detailed sharpness in his gelatin prints revealed delicate subtleties.
"Ansel Adams: Masterworks," which opens Friday at the Columbia Museum of Art, is an exhibition that will resonate with viewers and bring landscapes to life.
The appeal of the show is twofold: Everybody can see beauty in landscapes and everybody knows what it's like to take a picture.
A mounted show of Adams' work presents this question: Which was more important to his brilliance, his eye or his technique?
"It's sort of delicate balance of the two," said Julian Cox, curator of photography for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. "He definitely had an extraordinary vision and feel for the natural landscape.
"His feel for the landscape, that becomes more important than the technique."
Kathleen Robbins, the coordinator of photography in the University of South Carolina art department, said Adams' eye and technique can't be separated.
"His aesthetic is directly connected to his darkroom technique," she said. "His eye is not fully realized until he takes the negatives into the darkroom."
It took a technical and scientific mastery of the camera and lens for Adams to create the dramatic and enduring images from such places as Yosemite National Park.
Adams used mathematical relationships to guide him in the use of color filters that heightened tonal contrasts. In more simple phrasing, Adams learned to control the lightness and darkness of colors before taking photos.
The process, called pre-visualization, unified his eye and technique.
"It took him a long time for his own eye to know what the camera will see," said Todd Herman, chief curator at the museum of art.
A RELATIONSHIP TO THE ENVIRONMENT
Before Adams could use his skills, though, he had to find the places and moments that spoke to him.
Paramount to Adams' photographs was his relationship with the environment, and the inherent understanding of what his photography could convey.
It's almost as if the cliffs, bluffs and plains were characters with a story waiting to be told. Adams was a novelist.
"He wanted to make pictures that spoke to everyone," Rebecca Senf, curator of photography for the Phoenix Art Museum, said. "He could look at the natural scene and capture the feeling he had when he looked at that landscape.
"He knew how to take what he felt inside him and how to make it a visual language."
For instance, in "Monolith, Face of Half Dome," a mountain face in Yosemite is shrouded in sunlight and shadow. The photo, taken in 1927, was one of Adams first to use pre-visualization.
The granite mountainside is revealed as a face with a history longer than humanity will ever experience. He exposed the personality of mountains and edifices.
Adams' love of nature - and Yosemite in particular - is evident. He spent a lot of his time roaming the wilderness, observing the subtle changes of life.
"That's what he was able to capture in his pictures, the corroding turmoil of nature and its effervescence and luminosity," Cox said.
Adams' images have a physical presence that vibrates even on a flat surface. "Tetons and Snake River," in particular, photographed in Grand Teton National Park in 1942, is an example of the grandiosity Adams saw and captured.
The sun is blanketed by clouds hovering above snow-tipped mountain peaks. A river zags to the front of the image of peace and beauty.
It's easy to overlook the importance of the natural landscape. A great deal of patience was required of Adams to get the images right, said Cox, who will give a gallery lecture at noon Friday.
"He really had to stalk the mountainside to find the ideal vantage point," he continued.
Adams had to know his characters well.
"For the general public, he does the same thing that the Ken Burns documentary series does," Robbins said, referring to "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," Burns' recent six-part PBS Series.
"(Adams) makes those scenes," she said. "He sort of defines what those places are in our imaginations."
ADAMS TRANSFORMED PHOTOS INTO ART
Photography is ubiquitous.
Images are now taken with phones; sent through text and e-mail; and posted with almost frightening immediacy.
Photography is an artistic medium that anyone can experience.
Quite possibly more important than Adams' eye, technique and relationship to his surroundings, was his hand in making photography art.
Before Adams, photographers made prints to resemble works of art. Senf said Adams asserted this notion: If photography is to be an art, it shouldn't copy another form of art.
"He tried to make prints that were gorgeous, exquisite," she continued. "It looked like a photograph. It didn't look like anything else."
Cox referred to Adams as the first "rock star" photographer.
"In the mid-'70s, he started to make a good living from sales of his prints, which coincided with the development of the photography market," Cox said.
Adams was one of the first photographers to sell his prints in different sizes and price points. He made fine art photography, and he made it accessible.
"He was there in the formative stages of creating a market for photography in every sense," Cox said. "He was very shrewd in doing that."
Some art historians, though, discount Adams because he was so successful at finding what was popular. Senf said, Adams desired to create pictures that everyone would understand.
His art was not for the art elite.
"When elitism is the goal, then Adams isn't the best answer," she said. "I think in some circles that's hurt him."
Robbins agreed, noting that some refer to Adams as the Thomas Kinkade of photography (referring to the California artist who has sold his sentimental pictures in malls and on QVC).
"You can't deny the quality of his prints," she added about Adams' work. "He took advantage of that, and as a result he lost a lot of respect.
"He's often dismissed for that."
But he will always be remembered.
"There is a reason why he's a household name," Herman said. "He came up with brilliant solutions. He was a great technician."
And he had a great eye.
"He realized what the camera sees and what we see," Herman said. "And that's two completely different things."
All, perhaps, equally important.