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Ansel Adams: The Masterworks

August 17 - December 31, 2010


Not long before he died, photographer Ansel Adams paused to reflect and selected the best times of his life as an artist. From his eighty-two years, most of them spent with his eye pressed to a camera viewfinder, he selected seventy-five moments in which he accomplished his best work.

Those moments, all snaps of a shutter, captured on film the images he selected to comprise what he called "The Museum Set." Of that number, forty-eight are featured as part of the exhibition Ansel Adams: The Masterworks. It goes on display on August 17 at R.W. Norton Art Gallery, where it will remain through the end of the year.

"We're delighted to have this wonderful exhibit for nearly half the year," comments Jerry Bloomer, secretary of the board and director of public relations for the gallery. "Ansel Adams' works portray some of the most incredible landscapes in America. Adams was once quoted as saying 'Sometimes I do think I get to places just when God's ready to have somebody click the shutter.' These are images that speak of place and the importance of place, and that's an ideal that people in our part of the country instinctively understand."

The exhibit also marks the return of Adams' work to the Norton. The first showing held in the Fall of 1992, drew an attendance record of over 8,500 visitors. This was followed by Ansel Adams: Celebration of Genius in 2004-2005 which brought in 6,500 persons during its three-month run, Bloomer recalls.

The photographs come to the Norton from the collection of The Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California. Except for one portrait of the photographer by James Alinder, all are framed, gelatin silver prints of images Adams captured across the nation from Hawaii to Massachusetts. Most, however, portray places in the West.

They also span much of his life (1902-1984). The San Francisco native was still a teenager in 1921 when he snapped the oldest photograph in the exhibit, Lodgepole Pines: Lyell Fork of the Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California. About that time, he decided to turn from his talent as a pianist and challenged himself to a life as an artist working in the medium of photography. Soon, in the 1930s, he and other photographers, including Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston, formed Group f/64, dedicated to photography as an art form.

Adams had achieved far more by the late 1960s when he lugged his large format camera on yet another trek into his beloved Yosemite National Park. There he focused on a landscape that became Eagle Peak and Middle Brother, Winter, Yosemite National Park, California, the most recent image in the exhibit.

In the decades between those two images, the nation saw economic boom, depression, and four major conflicts, including the Cold War. Meanwhile, Adams, who was once a Sierra Club employee, kept his camera trained on the enduring natural beauty of the nation. Gaining both commercial and artistic success, Ansel Adams also became a household name like Norman Rockwell, Grandma Moses, and Frederic Remington. (The Norton preserves 155 pieces of Remington's works). He helped lift his medium up from its snapshot reputation, while his photographs were seen as synonymous to good stewardship of the land and the need for conservation efforts.

With his artist's eye, his camera as canvas, and light itself for paint, Adams tramped near and far in the nation to render on film scenes of natural grandeur, whether soaring or subtle in size and beauty. He also remained in charge of each step of his photographic process. In later years, he easily could have handed his exposed film to a darkroom assistant for the necessary developing and printing. Instead, he insisted on printing his own work. Under his hands he translated from film to paper each image, including his most famous, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California, also in this exhibit.

His photographs, by what they portrayed, proselytized for environmental preservation. In this manner, Adams was also following in the footsteps of earlier photographers, such as William Henry Jackson, and painters such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill and Thomas Moran, whose works documenting natural landmarks in places such as Yosemite and Yellowstone, helped persuade Congress to designate those regions as national parks. (Near the Adams display, visitors may stroll through the Norton's collection of thirty-one works by Bierstadt, Hill, Moran and other Hudson River School artists.)

By the last two decades of his life, Adams spent much of his time teaching photography and writing about environmental issues. Even then and certainly now, his name alone signified photography as art, photographs as visual essays, and a life as an artist.

(above: Ansel Adams, Frozen Lake and Cliffs, Sierra Nevada, Sequoia National Park, California, gelatin silver print. Collection of The Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California)

(above: Ansel Adams, Orchard, Portola Valley, California, gelatin silver print. Collection of The Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, California)


Resource Library.editor's note:

readers may also enjoy:

online video:

Explore the gallery of legendary nature photographer Ansel Adams at the Detroit Institute of Arts. visitdetroit.com 1:58
Roy Firestone interviews Ansel Adams 5:54

and these videos:

Ansel Adams is a 100 minute 2002 American Experience PBS Home Video directed by Ric Burns and Narrated by David Ogden Stiers. From Warner Home Video. Ansel Adams's photographs have made him one of the most recognized and admired names in art. A staunch environmentalist, the pictures that Adams took reflected a larger world view the photographer held to strongly.

Ansel Adams, Photographer 60 minutes "This film captures the spirit and artistry of the man as he talks about his life and demonstrates the techniques that have made his work legendary. As Adams talks of the country he loves, viewers glimpse his photographs juxtaposed with the landscapes he photographed. In a conversation with artist Georgia O'Keeffe, Adams discusses his association with her husband, pioneer photographer Alfred Steiglitz." "Outlines the long and prolific career of American photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) as an artist, conservationist, and teacher. Follows him to the locations of his most famous photographs, including Yosemite." [2] By John Huszar. 1986 (available through Las Positas College Library)

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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