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Ansel Adams At 100

A Book Review

The Book 

This year, 2001, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ansel Adams. If asked to name a famous photographer Adams' name is likely the one that most non-photographers would recall, and in all likelihood it would be the only one.

To commemorate his centenary John Szarkowski, director emeritus of the Department of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, along with publisher Little, Brown and Company, in association with The San Francisco Museum of Art, have produced what has to rank as one of the finest photographic art books of the past decade. Ansel Adams At 100 attempts to summarize in words and photographs the output of the 20th Century's most celebrated if not finest landscape photographer.

Because the book is a retrospective of a lifetime's work it naturally has its limitations and biases. Adams produced literally tens of thousands of negatives during his productive life as a photographer. Many of his photographs are pedestrian, (especially his commercial work), while others are sublime. With Ansel Adams At 100 we see some of his greater as well as lesser-known works. 

The book itself is exquisitely produced. It features a natural linen cloth cover as well slip case. There are 114 tritone plates and 23 duotone text illustrations. The tritone process is expensive and difficult, yet produces offset reproductions that are almost of original print quality. The paper for the book was specially made in France. This book is a labour of love, and it shows.

As noted, the book's publication coincides with a major exhibition of Adams' work at the San Francisco Museum of Art. The show began August 4th, 2001 and runs through January 13, 2002. After that the show will go on tour and will be seen in Chicago, London, Berlin, Las Angeles and New York, ending there in late 2003.

Ansel Adams At 100 retails for US $150 and is available from most quality booksellers. The ISBN number is 0-8212-2515-4. The link provided here is to Amazon.com which is currently (August, 2001) selling the book at a substantial discount.

The Man and His Work

It's hard for any photographer to be critical of Ansel Adams. Since his death in 1984 his work has, for some, become almost mythical — icons to be worshiped rather than photographs to be enjoyed, appreciated, studied and critiqued.

I found the book to be fascinating because in addition to many of Adams' almost archetypically famous works there are a large number of early prints that I had not seen before. Seeing how Adams evolved as an artist is a major treat provided by this book and exhibition.

Of particular interest is the attention that Szarkowski has paid to Adams' changing attitude during his later years to his own prints. We know that Adam's (also a very talented pianist) regarded the negative as the "score" and the print the "performance", and that over time he revisited many of his great negatives and created quite different "print-performances". 

Szarkowski has provided us with some samples of this difference, and in fact is quite critical of Adams' later prints, feeling that Adams did his best printing in his earlier days. (Landscape photographer Alain Briot has commented on this, and I've included his rebuttal below). 

As for me, the overwhelming impression that I'm left with after spending the better part of a day reading Szarkowski's text and studying the prints, is that Adams was in the end a photographer who in essence was not much different than many who ply their craft today. He had his successes, his failures, his insecurities and his doubts. But, he was instrumental in creating a market for fine art landscape photography. During his lifetime he produced just a couple of dozen images that deserve our untiring admiration and for both of these contributions we are in his debt.

The Essay

John Szarkowski is a photographic curator, author and essayist. I found his introductory essay to this book to be an insightful look at Adams the man as well as at his work. This is not a "puff piece", designed to glorify either Adams as a person or his artistic efforts. It exposes a man struggling with personal finances throughout much of his life while also searching for fame, and on achieving it accepting it with grace. It exposes an artist full of self doubt (as almost all are) and who produced a vast quality of work, some of it sublime.

Though I've read several books about Adams I feel that this essay captures him in a way that cuts through the thousands of lines of verbiage produced by others, producing a clearer vision of this complex individual.

The Link

If you haven't yet bought the book, or will be unable to attend one of the museum shows, do try and visit the SFMOMO web site; especially if you have a high bandwidth web connection. 

Counterpoint

The following is a commentary on Ansel Adams At 100 by landscape photographer Alain Briot.

"I do not fully agree with Szarkowski's understanding and stance regarding Adams' work.  Certainly, Adams is now in the hands of History but to deny his last prints as overdone and to return to earlier versions of the same prints as his true legacy is a bold move whose purpose is unclear.  My position is the same regarding Szarkowski's position (if I understand him correctly) that Adams was more concerned with pleasing himself than with pleasing his audience.  There is considerable evidence that Adams was a socially oriented person and that he was deeply influenced by his audience's reaction to his work.  If Szarkowski sees Adams in such light then how does he sees Edward Weston who was far less concerned than Adams by what his audience thought of his work?  If I follow Szarkowski's approach Weston was a hermit and Adams' was a self-centered artist whose life-long efforts to reach a pinnacle of print quality was a waste of his time since only his earlier prints, done when his darkroom technique was minimal and based on a trial-and-error approach, are worthy of a place in history. 

Adams at 100 is a controversial approach to Adams's work.  Most likely Szarkowski wanted it that way and perhaps believed it was his role to re-evaluate Adams' place in photographic history.  However I believe that the ultimate judge of Adams' importance and legacy is his audience and that it is this audience who should decide what we should remember about Ansel Adams."

Alain Briot. August, 2001

Collecting Photographic Books

Recently I published an article by my colleague, landscape photographer Alain Briot, concerning his collection of books on landscape photography. I was pleased to be able to place it online and make it available to a larger audience because I had been meaning to write a similar essay myself, but had somehow never found the time.

It was gratifying yet curious that Alain's collection of books so closely paralleled mine. Probably a 90% overlap, though I'm sure he has many other books in his collection, as do I. It was also interesting to note that we had both pre-ordered Ansel Adams At 100 when it was first announced in the spring of 2001, and therefore had received our copies at the same time, upon first printing.

When we work at our art as landscape photographers (and by "we" I mean here anyone reading this essay who is also a landscape photographer), we are part of a continuum. As has been said before, "We stand on the shoulders of giants." Adams is one of those giants. To do our own work, and for it to find its rightful place, we need to understand where we fit into the ever-changing jigsaw puzzle that is the history of photography. Reading about and viewing the work of our progenitors must therefore be part of our growth as artists. 

If you already have a photographic book collection then I recommend Ansel Adams At 100 as a virtual necessity. If you are just starting such a collection then I can think of no finer cornerstone on which to build it.

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Concepts: Nature photography, Photography, Printing, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Landscape photography, Edward Steichen, Group f/64

Entities: New York, Chicago, Las Angeles, Berlin, London, Amazon.com, France, San Francisco Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, Department of Photography, Alain Briot, Ansel Adams

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