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Ansel Adams: Nature and Art


The Museum will feature approximately twenty-five photographs by Ansel Adams, one of America's great photographers, from June 22 - September 15, 2002. The majority of the works in Ansel Adams: Nature and Art are from the Museum's photography collection, one of the finest in the Southeast. Several others are on extended loan to the Museum or have been lent by private collectors. Most of the photographs are from the 1940s, some of Adams's most creative years.

A number of the photographs present Adams's dramatic views of Yosemite National Park, which inspired him to become a photographer. The Museum show spotlights the evocative Half Dome and Moon, Yosemite National Park Clearing Winter Storm, and Oak Tree, Snowstorm, Yosemite National Park, among others. Also on view is one of his most widely published and accomplished photographs, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. (left: Yosemite National Park Clearing Winter Storm, 1944, gelatin silver print, 15 1/2 x 17 1/2 inches, Purchased with funds from the NEA and FACF grants, Copyright © By the Trustees of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. All Rights Reserved.)

During his long, productive life, Adams (1902-1984) produced a wide array of photographs, including scenes of architecture and memorials, suggesting the human imprint on the landscape, and modernist images combining representation and abstraction. But he is most closely identified with his exploration and depiction of the natural world. In fact, humans rarely appear, if ever, in his photographs of Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada, the mountains and terrain of New Mexico, and the untamed wilderness of Alaska.

Adams's reverence for nature led to photographs with a profound spiritual or animistic dimension. He once wrote: "The whole world is, to me, very much 'alive' -- all the little growing things, even the rocks. I can't look at a swell bit of grass and earth, for instance, without feeling the essential life -- the things going on within them. The same goes for a mountain, or a bit of the ocean, or a magnificent piece of old wood."

In fact, Adams seemed as or even more interested in the emanation of light as in the towering cliffs and mountains he photographed. The pioneering photography scholar John Szarkowski, who curated the important Ansel Adams retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1979, has written that "Adams' pictures seem as dematerialized as the reflections on still water, or the shadows cast on morning mist: disembodied images concerned not with the corpus of things but with their transient aspect."



Ansel Adams is one of the most beloved and influential figures in the history of American photography. Alfred Stieglitz, photographer, gallery owner, and champion of American art, once commented that "it is good for me to know that there is an Ansel Adams loose somewhere in the world."

A native Californian, Adams described himself as a "hyperkinetic brat" of a child, who never fit into school and had to be tutored at home. He did turn to the piano at a young age, however, and showed remarkable talent. His interest in music gave him a sense of structure and discipline, which he later brought to his work as a photographer.

His interest in photography was stirred when he took his first trip to Yosemite with his father in 1916 and took pictures with a Kodak Brownie box camera. Adams was immediately captivated by Yosemite and returned there nearly every year throughout his adult life. He completed one of his signature images, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, in 1927.

Adams was instrumental in establishing photography as fine art. He practiced previsualization, trying to conceive of the image before he took the photograph and making the technical decisions which would lead to his desired result. He said many times that "a photograph is made, not taken."

His work has been featured in exhibitions at major museums and selected for their collections. Stieglitz grouped his work with paintings by other progressive American artists, thus equating photography with the other fine arts. At the same time, his images became popular with the broad American public, and he was one of the few fine art photographers to ever grace the covers of such news magazines as Time. His photographs have become iconic images of America, and he himself, with his cowboy hat and full beard, became a symbol of the American spirit, akin to the poet Walt Whitman. Photographer curator and critic Andy Grundberg has pointed out that in Adams's work, "we can sense a rude and abiding faith in the endurance of the American way of life as Adams conceived it."

He was also an ambassador for fine art photography as a teacher, organizer, and curator. In 1939, he helped found the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, a critical development in the acceptance of photography in the art world. Along with other leading American photographers like Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, he formed the Group f/64. He also established the photography department at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. One of the founders of the Friends of Photography, Adams helped create the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.

Adams' photographs encouraged respect for nature and even influenced Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Congress to make California's Kings Canyon area a national park. He was a strong environmental advocate and gave money and photographs to benefit the work of the Sierra Club. He stipulated that his ashes were to be scattered over the Sierra Nevada. He ended up being recognized for both his photography and his environmental activism and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Carter in 1980.



A convincing advocate of his art form throughout the country, Adams played a significant role in the development of the Museum's photography collection. Alan Du Bois, the Museum's Assistant Director from 1966-1984, came to the MFA with a master's in photography from Indiana University. Like many museums at that time, MFA had no photography collection, but Museum founder Margaret Acheson Stuart (1896-1980) was interested in photography. She arranged for a darkroom to be included in the original Museum building, and some other personal equipment is still being used by Thomas Gessler, the MFA's photographer.

Du Bois noted that Mrs. Stuart and then Director Lee Malone encouraged him to acquire photographs for the permanent collection. Du Bois drew up a list of what were considered the top twenty-five fine art photographers at that time. Adams was at the top of the list, along with other figures such as Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind.

Du Bois was awarded a purchase grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and had to secure a local match. One of the first donors was Carol A. Upham, now President of the Museum's Board. Du Bois, now the Curator of Decorative Arts at the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, also began corresponding with Adams, who actually donated key photographs to the Museum.

Adams once wrote to Du Bois: "The effort you are making to develop a photography collection, and to enable other museums to exhibit the collection, is most welcome. I hope you will continue and expand your initiatives in this area. If I can help in any way, please let me know."

With Du Bois' foresight and leadership, the photography collection became first-rate and has grown dramatically since. Gifts from area collectors like Lee Arnold, Dr. Robert and Chitranee Drapkin, Mrs. Upham, and William Knight Zewadski have greatly enhanced the holdings. Many of the Adams photographs on view in this exhibition are gifts from Virginia Wallis in memory of her husband William R. Wallis.

In addition to Du Bois, two of the Museum's curators have taken a keen interest in photography. Dr. Jennifer Hardin, the current Chief Curator, has organized numerous photography exhibitions, has recommended new acquisitions, and has worked closely with potential donors. Her predecessor, Dr. Diane Lesko, now Director of the Telfair Museum in Savannah, did the same. In one of his first acts as the Museum's new director, Dr. John Schloder dedicated the Lorena C. Hannahs Gallery to the presentation of photography. The MFA's
photography collection now numbers more than 1,100 images.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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