San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

photo: John Hazeltine

San Francisco, CA



The following essay excerpt (closing paragraphs -- pp.47-52) is reprinted with permission from The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It appears in the catalogue for the SFMOMA exhibition Ansel Adams at 100, on exhibit August 4, 2001 - January 13, 2002.


Ansel Adams at 100 (excerpt)

by John Szarkowski


Adams' greatest work was done in the thirties and forties, and by the end of this time (to repeat) he was famous, even if financially insecure. After Stieglitz and Steichen (one of whom, many people knew, was the husband of Georgia O'Keeffe) and possibly Margaret Bourke-White, he was perhaps the best-known American photographer. Nevertheless, he and his work were not universally admired. Adams was in fact never quite in step with the drummer of the political moment. During the thirties he did not photograph the dust bowl, or the Okie migration, like Dorothea Lange, nor did he measure the pulse of American culture, like Walker Evans. In the forties he did not photograph World War II and lesser conflagrations, like Robert Capa, or the death camps, like Margaret Bourke-White. He was instead somewhere in the High Country, making photographs that would neither end the Great Depression nor help win the War. Some felt that his work was not quite relevant; their feeling was summed up most memorably a little later in a purported remark of Henri Cartier-Bresson to Nancy Newhall: "Now in this moment, in this crisis, with the world maybe going to pieces -- to photograph a landscape!"[39] Newhall did not say whether Cartier-Bresson specified what a photographer should photograph while the world might be going to pieces, but it seems clear that his remark was not frivolous and that he had given the matter serious thought in regard to his own work. It would seem that about this time Cartier-Bresson decided that it was no longer good enough to photograph a man jumping over a puddle, or a boy bouncing a ball against a wall, or other such innocuous, quotidian scenes and that a photographer should instead make photographs that were more likely to be of interest to the magazines. Such photographs were made in places where large issues were in the balance -- generally places on continents other than one's own. The magazines may have hoped that the photographer's innocence concerning the meaning of his subjects might add a certain piquancy to his or her observation.

During his best years Adams was photographing (from a political point of view) the wrong subjects. Years later, after Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson had helped change the climate of values, Adams was credited, retroactively, with being socially relevant after all, but the prize was awarded on the basis of a misunderstanding. 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. The young Adams wrote, "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 streaming above the peaks." He was confessing to a private knowledge that is almost surely incommunicable but that he was nevertheless obliged to attempt to photograph. But there is -- alas! -- no way to test the public, objective picture against the private, subjective experience: no trustworthy way to measure how well the art matches the emotion. One might even suspect that, to the degree that the art succeeds, it has so distanced itself from the emotion that the latter is remembered only like an old love. Wordsworth said that poetry was emotion recollected in tranquility, meaning that good poems are written in cold blood, as good generals fight wars. And yet behind the calculation, the knowledge, the expert cabinetmaking, there must stand the vital memory of deep experience, against which we try to measure the adequacy of what is at best only a picture, or a poem.

Ansel Adams' great work was done under the stimulus of a profound and mystical experience of the natural world. When he attempted to work without the support of that knowledge, or when its memory had become blunted or blurred, he was capable of empty self-imitation, but for the most part he declined to work without motive. In 1958 he made his superb Aspens, Northern New Mexico and in 1968 one of the best of his splendid pictures of El Capitan, but in general the fifties and the sixties were dry decades, and after that Adams' energies were devoted to his duties as a conservation leader and to the obligations of fame, and to the reinterpretation of work done years before.

Toward the end of his career this reinterpretation seemed at times to amount almost to parody. The lyrical precision and perfect balance of his earlier work he reworked in his old age, too often replacing the elegance with melodrama, and the reverence with something approaching bombast. His consistent response to implicit queries about his radical recasting of his earlier work seems fundamentally an evasion: he said, "The negative is the score, and the print is the performance." Granted, but as a musician Adams had surely heard too many performances that had trespassed beyond the most elastic boundaries of the score's meaning and floundered into caricature. The change imposed on Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake thirty years later is not easy to understand. Why this radiant peak, a reflection of our highest and purest aspirations, should have been transformed into a dirty snowdrift is a mystery to this viewer.

And yet it was surely Adams' right to make the change, and we should not be too swift, or too confident, in judging him wrong. It has been suggested that the change may have been caused by Adams' faltering vision, but the explanation seems not wholly persuasive.[40] And in fact, perhaps there is a kind of logic in the radical late prints: perhaps they describe the completion of a change of view that had been taking place for many years. Those who are committed to the idea of art as self-expression might value these late prints as the last testament of an artist whose view of the world and the future had darkened.

Adams was -- by strength of will, if not by nature -- an optimist. As an optimist he saw the forces of environmental responsibility as ascendant, and the minds and hearts of the people moving steadily toward the understanding that something similar to reverence for our planet was the essential precondition to ethical life on it. He could point to many victories in support of this optimistic view: new parks, new laws, burgeoning memberships for environmental organizations, etc., and these victories were undeniably real.

But in between the parks and the national monuments and the wilderness areas -- in the farming country, and the grazing country and the logging country and the mining country, even on public lands, and on the ocean banks, and along the lengthening strip developments, and in the new suburbs that no longer related to an urban center -- the picture provided much less ground for cheer.

As a conservationist, a democrat, and a deeply moral man, Adams was committed to the social duty of doing the best he could, of making the best possible bargain, of slowing the advance of barbaric greed until there came a great change of heart, or until some great geologic objection might resolve the question in its own unanswerable way. But in his darkroom he did not need to be the reasonable, responsible, kindly representative of a reasonable position; perhaps there he could give free rein to his intuition of the future.

William James held that order and disorder were human inventions. I think that most artists would disagree. The elder Renoir said, "At the start I see my subject in a sort of haze. I know perfectly well that what I shall see in it later is there all the time, but it only becomes apparent after a while."[41] Adams would also disagree, perhaps citing harmonic overtones to support his view. But if finally brought into James' light, he might then insist that, once invented, the new structures of order are factual and objective, and possibly even permanent, within the measure of man's tenure.

The interests of an artist and of his audience are in the end quite different. As Adams' audience we are grateful to him for enlarging our emotional knowledge of the natural world, the knowledge of its constant mutability -- that it is (one might say) alive. If we avert our eyes for a moment, we will
return them to a different world, a constant source of wonder and deep surprise, which we love not only as an aesthetic delight but as a deep moral cryptogram to which we have no key.

An artist is also a member of art's audience, and as such shares our interests; but finally he is interested in something else. He is interested in demonstrating to himself, by the authority of his work, that his world is not an illusion, not an invention of the imagination, but rather a real world, of which he is therefore a real part. So if we ask the question, what did Ansel Adams do for us? One useful answer would be: nothing; he did it all for himself.



39. Nancy Newhall, "Controversy and the Creative Concepts," Aperture, no. 2, 1953. Reprinted in N. Newhall, From Adams to Stieglitz (New York: Aperture, 1989), p. 4.

40. Andrea Stillman was told by Pirkle Jones that when he worked as Adams' assistant in the early and mid-fifties, Adams was already rejecting (and destroying) his earlier prints because they "were weak and lacked strength." (Memorandum from Andrea Stillman to Leslie Calmes, CCP, 8 Jan. I998..) There is no indication that Adams' eyes were failing in this period. William Turnage and Andrea Stillman. both very close colleagues of Adams during the period in question, give greater weight than I to the influence of Adams declining vision on his printing style. Stillman writes (AGS to JS, 4 Jan. 2001) that although the shift in Adams' printing style "for mast of his life was very gradual...the dramatic shift from about 1978-79 was altogether different. It was no longer just an aesthetic change for more drama but a need to compensate for his inability to actually 'see' black."

41. Jean Renoir, Renoir, My Father (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1961), p. 202.

About the author

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.

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