Yesterday we uncovered Ansel Adams’ life from his childhood to approx. 1930. In part 2 of our interview, we’ll discuss his success in the decades that followed.
Photography Zen: Welcome back Ansel, are you ready to continue?
Ansel Adams: (smiles) Sure, Fire away!
PZ: So, it’s 1930, you’ve decided to pursue a career in photography as opposed to the piano, your first portfolio was a success, what happens next?
AA: Between 1929 and 1942, I’d say my work matured and I became more established. In the course of my 60-year career, the 1930s were a particularly productive and experimental time. I expanded my works, focusing on detailed close-ups as well as large forms from mountains to factories. My first book Taos Pueblo was published in 1930 with text by writer Mary Hunter Austin. In New Mexico, I was introduced to notables such as painter Georgia O’Keeffe, artist John Marin, and photographer Paul Strand. It was my talkative, high-spirited nature combined with my excellent piano playing made me a hit within this circle of artist friends. Strand especially proved influential, sharing secrets of his technique with me, and finally convincing me to pursue photography with all my talent and energy. One of Strand’s suggestions which I adopted was to use glossy paper to intensify tonal values.
PZ: So it appears your career really started taking off at this point.
AA: Very much so. I was able to put on my first solo museum exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in 1931 through a friend who had connections in Washington, featuring 60 prints taken in the High Sierra. I received an excellent review from the Washington Post that wrote my “photographs are like portraits of the giant peaks, which seem to be inhabited by mythical gods.” Despite my success,I felt that I was not yet up to the standards of Strand. I decided to broaden my subject matter to include still life and close-up photos, and to achieve higher quality by “visualizing” each image before taking it. I emphasized the use of small apertures and long exposures in natural light, which created sharp details with a wide range of focus, as demonstrated in Rose and Driftwood, I think, one of my finest still-life photographs.
PZ: I agree, visually stunning.
AA: I opened my own art and photography gallery in San Francisco in 1933 and I also began to publish essays in photography magazines and wrote my first instructional book Making a Photograph in 1935. During the summers, I often participated in Sierra Club High Trips outings, as a paid photographer for the group, and the rest of the year a core group of the Club members socialized regularly in San Francisco and Berkeley.
PZ: Please, tell us more about your involvement with the Sierra Club.
AA: I began to deploy my photographs in the cause of wilderness preservation. In part, I was inspired by the increasing desecration of Yosemite Valley by commercial development, including a pool hall, bowling alley, golf course, shops, and auto-mobile traffic. I created a limited-edition book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail in 1938, as part of the Sierra Club’s efforts to secure the designation of Sequoia and Kings Canyon as national parks. This book and my testimony before Congress played a vital role in the success of the effort, and Congress designated the area as a National Park in 1940.
PZ: Generations of people Thank You and will be able to love Yosemite just as you did.
AA: Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space. I know of no sculpture, painting or music that exceeds the compelling spiritual command of the soaring shape of granite cliff and dome, of patina of light on rock and forest, and of the thunder and whispering of the falling, flowing waters. At first the colossal aspect may dominate; then we perceive and respond to the delicate and persuasive complex of nature.
PZ: We’re almost finished with the 1930’s, take us up to 1940.
AA: During the balance of the 1930s, I took on many commercial assignments to supplement the income from the struggling Best’s Studio. Really, until the 1970’s, I was financially dependent on commercial projects. Some of my clients included Kodak, Fortune magazine, Pacific Gas and Electric, AT&T, and the American Trust Company. I photographed Timothy L. Pflueger’s new Patent Leather Bar for the St. Francis hotel in 1939. The same year, I was named an editor of U.S. Camera & Travel, the most popular photography magazine at that time.
PZ: Now that we’re in the 1940’s, please tell us what happened in 1941, more specifically, the story about Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.
AA: On a trip in New Mexico in 1941, I shot a scene of the Moon rising above a modest village with snow-covered mountains in the background, under a dominating black sky. The photograph is one of my most famous and is named Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. My description in my later books of how it was made probably enhanced the photograph’s fame. The light on the crosses in the foreground was rapidly fading, and I could not find my exposure meter; however, I remembered the luminance of the Moon, and used it to calculate the proper exposure. My earlier account was less dramatic, stating simply that the photograph was made after sunset, with exposure determined using my Weston Master meter. In reality, the foreground was underexposed, the highlights in the clouds were quite dense, and the negative proved difficult to print. The initial publication of Moonrise was in U.S. Camera 1943 annual, after being selected by the “photo judge” for U.S. Camera, Edward Steichen. This gave Moonrise an audience before its first formal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1944.
(Sidenote: Over nearly 40 years, Adams re-interpreted the image, his most popular by far, using the latest darkroom equipment at his disposal, making over 1,300 unique prints, most in 16″ by 20″ format.Many of the prints were made in the 1970s, finally giving Adams financial independence from commercial projects. The total value of these original prints exceeds $25,000,000 the highest price paid for a single print of Moonrise reached $609,600 at Sotheby’s New York auction in 2006.)
PZ: There’s more to the Moonrise story.
AA: Yes. In September 1941, I contracted with the Department of the Interior to make photographs of National Parks, Indian reservations, and other locations for use as mural-sized prints for decoration of the Department’s new building. Part of my understanding with the Department was that I might also make photographs for my own use, using my own film and processing. Although I kept meticulous records of my travel and expenses, I was less disciplined about recording the dates of my images, and neglected to note the date of Moonrise, so it was not clear whether it belonged to me or to the U.S. Government. But the position of the moon allowed the image to eventually be dated from astronomical calculations, and it was determined that Moonrise was made on November 1, 1941, a day for which I had not billed the Department, so the image belonged to me. The same was not true for many of my other negatives, including The Tetons and the Snake River, which, having been made for the Mural Project, became the property of the U.S. Government.
PZ: Incredible. We could probably spend an hour just discussing that. Anything else in the 1940’s you’d like to mention?
AA: Yes. In 1945, I was asked to form the first fine art photography department at the San Francisco Art Institute. I invited Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston to be guest lecturers and Minor White to be lead instructor. The photography department produced numerous notable photographers, including Philip Hyde, Benjamen Chinn, Bill Heick, and C. Cameron Macauley.
PZ: So take us through the 1950’s. Your success shows no signs of slowing down.
AA: In 1952 I was one of the founders of the magazine Aperture, which was intended as a serious journal of photography showcasing its best practitioners and newest innovations. I was also a contributor to Arizona Highways, a photo-rich travel magazine. My article on Mission San Xavier del Bac, with text by my longtime friend Nancy Newhall, was enlarged into a book published in 1954. This was the first of many collaborations with her. In June 1955, I also began my annual workshops, teaching thousands of students until 1981. I continued with commercial assignments for another twenty years, and became a consultant on a monthly retainer for Polaroid Corporation, which was founded by good friend Edwin Land. I made thousands of photographs with Polaroid products, El Capitan, Winter, Sunrise being the one he considered my most memorable.
PZ: What was in store for you during the 60’s and 70’s?
AA: In the 1960s, a few mainstream art galleries which originally would have considered photos unworthy of exhibit alongside fine paintings decided to show my images, particularly the former Kenmore Gallery in Philadelphia. In March 1963, Nancy Newhall and I accepted a commission from Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California, to produce a series of photographs of the University’s campuses to commemorate its centennial celebration. The collection, titled Fiat Lux after the University’s motto, was published in 1967 and now resides in the Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside. In 1974, I had a major retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Much of my time during the 1970s was spent curating and reprinting negatives from my vault, in part to satisfy the great demand of art museums which had finally created departments of photography and desired my works. I also devoted my considerable writing skills and prestige to the cause of environmentalism, focusing particularly on the Big Sur coastline of California and the protection of Yosemite from overuse. President Jimmy Carter commissioned me to make the first official portrait of a president made by a photograph. That year I also cofounded the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
(I begin to see Mr Adams getting tired, I decide to finish the interview)
PZ: Ansel, you’ve live quite a remarkable life. Your influence in photography and your contributions to environmentalism will be appreciated for generations to come. I want to Thank You for your time and sharing your story with us.
AA: It was my pleasure. I am always happy to chat.
PZ: Please visit us anytime.
AA: I shall.