San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

photo: John Hazeltine

San Francisco, CA



Ansel Adams at 100


The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will commemorate the centennial of the birth of photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) with Ansel Adams at 100, on view at the Museum from August 4, 2001, through January 13, 2002. Although his work has been more widely exhibited than perhaps any artist in the 20th century. Adams' oeuvre has not been fundamentally reevaluated since his death in 1984. Organized by guest curator John Szarkowski, director emeritus of the Department of Photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Ansel Adams at 100 presents an aesthetic reappraisal of Ansel Adams as an artist and working photographer by bringing together 114 of Adams' finest photographs, represented by exemplary prints drawn from important public and private collections of Adams' work. According to Szarkowski, "Ansel Adams was one of the great photographers of this century. He was also one of the best-loved spokesmen for the obligations we owe to the natural world. It has been easy to confuse the related but distinct achievements that earned him these twin honors. The subject of the exhibition and catalogue for his centennial year will be Adams the artist." (left: Rondal Partridge, Ansel Adams, n.d., gelatin silver print, Collection Ansel Adams Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, © Rondal Partridge)

According to Sandra Phillips, senior curator of photography at SFMOMA, "We are delighted to host the official Ansel Adams centennial exhibition here. John Szarkowski is a distinguished and highly original curator who is assembling a compelling reconsideration of this prominent photographer, so central to our understanding of American photography and so great a presence, even today, m any discussion of the Western landscape tradition. Ansel Adams at 100 should give viewers a deeper understanding of Adams as an artist. We are grateful to Hewlett-Packard for their generous support in making this exhibition possible."

Ansel Adams has become a monumental figure in popular culture. Yet, despite his creation of thousands of photographs and an immense range of publications, Adams' signal contribution to the development of modern photography has ironically been obscured by his popularity. While Adams is widely recognized for such classic photographs as Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, 1927, and Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, this exhibition -- drawn largely from the first part of his career, the '20s to the '40s -- situates such icons within the context of an unexpected and unfamiliar body of photographs that affirms Adams' contribution to 20th-century art. (left: Ansel Adams, Aspens, Northern New Mexico, 1958, Collection MoMA, NY)

From a centenary vantage point, it is clear that one of Adams' primary accomplishments was to revise the public's thinking about landscape. As Szarkowski writes in the companion book, "Adams' pictures ... demonstrate that even in the great theatrical diorama of Yosemite, the mountains are no more miraculous than a few blades of grass floating on good water. His pictures have enlarged our visceral knowledge of things that we do not understand." Although he devoted a lifetime to the cause of wilderness preservation, "Adams did not photograph the landscape as a matter of social service, but as a form of private worship. It was his own soul that he was trying to save. . . . Ansel Adams' great work was done under the stimulus of a profound and mystical experience of the natural world." After a camping trip in the High Sierra in the 20s, Adams later recalled, "I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light. . . . I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds steaming above the peaks." Using this moment of vision as a touchstone for understanding Adams' impetus to capture the American West, Szarkowski argues that "Adams spent the next quarter century trying to make a photograph that would give objective form to this sense of ineffable knowledge." (left: Ansel Adams, El Capitan, Merced River, Against Sun, Yosemite, California, c. 1950, Collection MoMA, NY)

One of San Francisco's most famous citizens, Ansel Adams was born in the city in 1902, lived there for 60 years and spent the last two decades of his life in Northern California. As a youth he first photographed Yosemite Valley with a Kodak Brownie box camera, and Yosemite became the lifelong subject for which he is best known. In 1932 Adams helped found Group E/64, an affiliation of Bay Area artists -- including Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston -- committed to promoting photographic expression in a pure, modernist vein. In his later life, Adams became an important educator and proselytizer for the medium of photography, an advocate for the Sierra Club and America's best-known environmentalist and the author of numerous publications on photographic technique.

Adams was one of the driving forces behind the photography program at SFMOMA from the time of the Museum's establishment in 1935. He was cofounder of the world's first museum department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1979, Szarkowski, working closely with the photographer, organized the exhibition Ansel Adams and the West at MoMA. Devoted to preserving the high quality of photographic reproductions in books and other publications throughout his career, Adams established the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust in 1975 in order to ensure that these standards would continue to be applied in the production of books and publications after his death. Ansel Adams at 100 is being organized with the cooperation of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust and the Adams family. (left: Ansel Adams, Oak Tree, Snowstorm, Yosemite, 1948, Collection MoMA, NY)

To mark the 100th anniversary of Adams' birth and coincide with the opening of the exhibition, Little, Brown and Company -- the exclusive publisher of the work of Ansel Adams--will release Ansel Adams at 100. Written and edited by Szarkowski, this definitive volume on the artist and his work features prints that have been meticulously reproduced for the book under the supervision of Richard Benson -- Dean of the Yale University School of Art, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant and a pivotal figure in recent advances in photographic production -- and printed on specially made French paper. Bound in natural linen cloth with a matching slipcase, the oversized, 192-page book has been designed by the award-winning J. Abbott Miller of Pentagram Design. Featuring 114 tritone and 23 duotone illustrations and a frameable reproduction print of an Adams photograph, complete with facsimile signature,

The exhibition's presentation at SFMOMA will be followed by a prestigious international tour; venues include the Art Institute of Chicago (February 20 to June 2, 2002); Hayward Gallery, London (July to September 2002); Kunstbibliothek, Berlin (October 10, 2002, to January 5, 2003); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (February 2 to April 27, 2003); and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (summer 2003).


An interview with John Szarkowski, director emeritus of the Department of Photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), curator and author, "Ansel Adams at 100."

Question: When did you first meet Ansel Adams?

John Szarkowski: It must have been in the fall of 1962, shortly after I came to the Museum of Modern Art [MoMA]. I was planning an exhibition called The Photographer and the American Landscape, and the preliminary work took me to California. There were a lot of photographers in that part of the world I hadn't met and wanted to meet, to give them some idea of what I wanted to do at the museum. Ansel was very conspicuously included in the exhibition, and that was the context in which I met him. (left: Ansel Adams, Tree Against Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite, c. 1944, Collection MoMA, NY)

Q: In your essay for Ansel Adams at 100, you relate how Adams became deeply involved with MoMA in the early 1940s but then broke with the museum. When you introduced yourself as a representative of MoMA, was he cordial to you?

JS: Ansel was cordial even to the penniless, unknown photographers who showed up at his doorstep. Bill Turnage has told me that every night--every night--there were photographers at his home at cocktail hour with photographs for him to look at. He was a terribly kind man and would have been cordial to me in any case. But he did know something of my work and I believe admired it. (left: Ansel Adams, Mount Robson, Jasper National Park, Canada, 1928, Collection of Margaret Weston, Weston Gallery, Inc.)

Also, despite whatever estrangement he may have had from MoMA, he kept up a very great interest in the Museum of Modern Art, because he had been so instrumental in founding its Department of Photography. I think it's very likely that the department would not have been founded, at least not at that time, if not for Adams. He was always interested in the possibility of photography's being exhibited in a museum context, and not only shown but also preserved and made available for study.

Q: How influential was Adams on your own development?

JS: I am a working photographer, and was a working photographer for many years before I became a curator or critic. Like most serious photographers of my age, I first knew of Ansel in the late 1930s or early 40s from his book Making a Photograph, which in a sense represented him both as an artist and as a teacher. For a popular book -- as opposed to a book for photochemists -- it gave an idea of photographic technique that was much more precise and much more focused than the other books of the period. One might include the books of the present period as well. Making a Photograph also contained spectacular photomechanical reproductions, unmatched at the time and very rarely matched now. We simply had never seen anything like it. From that point on, Ansel was known to virtually all serious photographers. (left: Ansel Adams, Rocks, Baker Beach, San Francisco, c. 1931, Collection MoMA, NY)

His creative work became more widely known beginning around 1950, when he did the first of his large-format books, My Camera in Yosemite Valley. But it's very difficult to separate the creative and technical achievements. Adams demonstrated a new dimension in landscape photography. Nobody else did it so persuasively and in such a broadly accessible way. Since then, it has been impossible for a photographer to deal with the issue of landscape -- an issue that has always been important for me -- without somehow confronting Adams. I would include in that statement those photographers who reacted against him, whether consciously or not, who rejected the idea that landscape has to be pristine in order to be significant as an artistic subject. (left: Ansel Adams, Base of West Arch, Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Utah, 1942, Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona)

Q: You say that Adams' creative and technical achievements are difficult to separate. Why?

JS: Unlike the landscape photographers who had come before him, Adams was interested in the natural world not as a solid, immutable thing but rather as an event. He was always concerned with the ephemeral. In that sense, he was as much a photographer of his time as were Cartier-Bresson and the rest of them -- photographers who had been born on the line between the 19th and 20th centuries, and who were concerned with the ephemeral partly because the technical vocabulary came to allow it.

For example, when Ansel started his career, he used plates. Then he switched to film and with film, you can make many more exposures. You can afford mistakes; you can take a chance because you've got another sheet of film instantly available. Then there was the introduction of panchromatic film which allows filtering. If you were to look at all the mountain photographs made in the 19th century and compare them with all the mountain photographs of the 20th century, you'd find the 20th-century photographs have a lower horizon. Why? Because given the color sensitivity of 19th-century photographic plates, the skies always came out white or a streaky gray, so intelligent photographers pushed the horizon up and used the sky as some kind of a shape. When panchromatic film was introduced, and blue need no longer be rendered as white, you could deal with the sky as a space. (left: Ansel Adams, In Joshua Tree National Monument, California, 1942, Collection SFMOMA)

These are merely specific instances of the general proposition that the difference between Adams' photography and earlier landscape photography lies in his concern with the ephemeral. His landscapes aren't about geology, they're about weather.

Q: You organized a major exhibition of Adams' work at MoMA in 1979. Did Adams participate in planning the exhibition? If so, how did he work with you?

JS: He was very involved, but at the same time he let me do what I wanted. So far as I know, that was the first time in his career when he gave control of an exhibition to somebody else. He worried a good deal about that -- although, because of his regard for the museum, he thought, "OK, this is the right thing to do." He remained very concerned until he saw the show on the wall. Then, I think, he was happy.

Of course, he did manage to exert a certain degree of control over the content. If I saw a proof print of a photograph that I wanted to include, and if he didn't like the image, he might say, "Oh, I could never print those highlights today." Once in a while he was telling the truth -- but in other cases he was just being nice about saying no.

Q: For the book and exhibition Ansel Adams at 100, you not only identified what you consider to be the artist's best work but you also located what you consider to be the best existing print of each image. Why was that second step so important?

JS: The earlier exhibitions on Ansel Adams basically revealed his work at one moment. If it was a 1976 show, you saw only 1976 prints. In Ansel's case, the change from one period to another was radical. If one saw a late Adams show, what one really saw was a show of what he thought of his work at that particular point in his old age. Ansel Adams at 100 gives a much fuller and more complete -- and certainly m my view an enormously richer -- sense of who he was as an artist, because everything hasn't been rethought as of the date of the exhibition. There has never been an Adams exhibition or an Adams book that is comparably responsive to the shape of his artistic life. The prints span close to 50 years.

Q: How did you go about locating the prints?

JS: I visited the six or eight important public collections and at least corresponded with the four or five significant private collections. And then there are other sources -- a wonderful picture here, a wonderful picture there. I was in touch with other scholars in the field, asking them, "Do you know where there's a good early print of this or that?"

Fortunately, most of the important public collections were started early enough to have pictures that are not late prints. I don't mean to underestimate those late prints, but they exist in a lot of different places; they're not hard to find.

Q: How long did the search take?

JS: I've been working at it for close to four years. It took a lot of traveling and a lot of looking to identify the best prints -- or try to do it. If you look at half a dozen different prints of a photograph, in half a dozen different cities over half a dozen months, you can't always be exactly sure which is best, no matter how good your visual memory!

Q: As you've noted, Ansel Adams set a new standard for the reproduction of photographs in books. What are your thoughts about the reproductions done for this book by Richard Benson and Thomas Palmer?

JS: With Adams' pictures, the quality of the reproduction is critical. If you lose the tonal character of the print, it's like hearing somebody play great music on a piano that's out of tune. It's not a simple business of one-to-one translation. Ink on paper is different. You need to have a sense of what the chemical photographic print feels like, and then try to match that sensation.

Starting in 1973, when he brought out a book of his own photographs called Lay This Laurel, on the Saint-Gaudens memorial on Boston Common, Richard Benson has been the great genius of
photomechanical reproduction. More than anyone else, he has applied an analytic intelligence and a technical imagination to the potentials of multi-impression lithographic printing. Thomas Palmer, the hands-on guy who figures out exactly how to execute the thing, has collaborated with Richard for a long time, so working with the pair of them is always great fun and very educational.


About the curator

Widely known as the leading theorist and historian of photography of his generation and as one of the most eloquent writers on the visual arts in the English language, John Szarkowski served from 1962 to 1991 as director of the Department of Photography of the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA). He now holds the title of director emeritus.

While at MoMA, Szarkowski oversaw the organization of more than a hundred exhibitions, including theoretical works (such as The Photographer's Eye, 1964); thematic surveys (such as The Photographer and the American Landscape, 1963, and Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960, 1978) and retrospectives (of the work of Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaî, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Harry Callahan, William Eggleston, Ansel Adams, Eugene Atget, Irving Penn and Garry Winogrand). The Photographer's Eye revolutionized the field by presenting works by acknowledged masters side by side with magazine spreads and anonymous documentary photographs. (Szarkowski's 1973 book Looking at Photographs, now in its seventh printing, was a demonstration of the critical principles outlined in The Photographer's Eye.) Toward the end of his tenure at MoMA, Szarkowski organized the equally influential exhibition Photography Until Now, 1989, which reflected on 150 years of photography and celebrated the medium not only as an art form but also as a vehicle for technological evolution and social change. Szarkowski wrote the catalogues for The Photographer's Eye, Photography Until Now and many of the other exhibitions organized under his leadership.

Szarkowski is himself a distinguished photographer. Before he came to MoMA, solo exhibitions of his work were held at George Eastman House, the Walker Art Center and the Art Institute of Chicago. His images of Louis Sullivan's buildings, published in his 1956 book The Idea of Louis Sullivan (reissued in 2000), were praised by Frank Lloyd Wright as "the best photographs of a Sullivan building that I have seen." More recently, in 1997, Szarkowski brought out a new book of his own photographs, Mr. Bristol's Barn.

Born in Ashland, Wisconsin, in 1925, John Szarkowski attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, from which he received a B.S. in the history of art in 1948 and an honorary doctorate in 1991. He also has received honorary degrees from the Philadelphia College of Art, the School of the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts, the Portland School of Art and Parsons School of Design. He has taught at many schools, including Harvard University, Columbia University, Williams College, Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Partial listing of other articles in this magazine featuring Ansel Adams:

Other American photography articles from this magazine:

Other internet resources featuring Ansel Adams:

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