1936 was a turning point in the life and career of Ansel Adams. It was also a time of emotional crisis.
That summer, Adams worked past the point of exhaustion preparing for a one-person photography exhibit at the request of Alfred Stieglitz, curator of “An American Place” gallery in New York. Stieglitz was the most highly respected photographer of his day and Adams was still largely unknown. Partly due to the importance of the show, and partly because Patsy English, his darkroom assistant, pushed him to higher levels of excellence in his prints than he had ever achieved before, Adams produced what many consider to be the best set of prints of his life. Immersed in the project, they would sometimes work for days without sleep. To complicate things he fell deeply in love with Patsy English. Physically worn out at the conclusion of the project and emotionally torn between Patsy and his wife Virginia, Adams had a nervous breakdown. For months he struggled with feelings of inner emptiness and depression. In the end, he stayed with Virginia. In late December, he wrote Alfred Stieglitz, quoting lines from the poet Robinson Jeffers. “Does it matter whether you hate yourself? At least love your eyes that can see, your mind that can hear the music, the thunder of the wings.”
Slowly he began to heal. In the spring he and Virginia returned to Yosemite with their children. Time spent in his beloved Yosemite brought emotional and physical healing. As he was emerging from the breakdown, he wrote the letter below to his closest friend, Cedric Wright. It is now considered a classic and the final paragraph is quoted in a host of photo books and on dozens of web sites. The exhibit at the Stieglitz gallery was a huge success and Adams went on to become one of the most famous landscape photographers of the 20th Century.
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Letter from Ansel Adams to Cedric Wright, June 10, 1937:
A strange thing happened to me today. I saw a big thundercloud move down over Half Dome, and it was so big and clear and brilliant that it made me see many things that were drifting around inside of me; things that relate to those who are loved and those who are real friends.
For the first time I know what love is; what friends are; and what art should be.
Love is a seeking for a way of life; the way that cannot be followed alone; the resonance of all spiritual and physical things. Children are not only of flesh and blood — children may be ideas, thoughts, emotions. The person of the one who is loved is a form composed of a myriad mirrors reflecting and illuminating the powers and thoughts and the emotions that are within you, and flashing another kind of light from within. No words or deeds may encompass it.
Friendship is another form of love — more passive perhaps, but full of the transmitting and acceptances of things like thunderclouds and grass and the clean granite of reality.
Art is both love and friendship and understanding: the desire to give. It is not charity, which is the giving of things. It is more than kindness, which is the giving of self. It is both the taking and giving of beauty, the turning out to the light of the inner folds of the awareness of the spirit. It is a recreation on another plane of the realities of the world; the tragic and wonderful realities of earth and men, and of all the interrelations of these.
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PBS: Ansel Adams. A synopsis of Adams’ life with an edited version of the letter to Cedric Wright.
Transcript of Ric Burns’ Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film (Narrated By David Ogden Stiers).
Buy Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film, the classic film for PBS American Experience by Ric Burns.
A brief biography of Adams’ life at the Yosemite National Park web site.
Ansel Adams Gallery. Buy posters and reproductions of Adams’ work ($20-30), archival replicas (starting at $129), and vintage, rare originals that were printed by Adams (these cost thousands of dollars). You can also get “Yosemite Special Edition Photographs” that are individually hand printed by Alan Ross from Adams’ original negatives (currently $325). The gallery also sells works by other photographers.