The transcript of the PBS documentary Ansel Adams: American Experience.
This transcript disappeared from the internet for a while so I am posting it here. You can order the PBS documentary from Amazon.com in the links section below.
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John Szarkowski, Photographer & Curator: The reason that he is as important to us as I think he is is because he was a good artist, and on his best days he was a terrific artist, and he found some way to put together those little fragments of the world in a way that transformed them into a picture. In the same way that, you know, a poet uses the same dictionaries that the rest of us do. All the words are in there…all the words in the poem are there, they’re in alphabetical order so you can find them … and it’s just a matter of taking a few of them and putting them in the right order, and that’s all there is to it. And so why is it that some lines of poetry, some sentences grasp us, you know, grip us, and we think, “That’s, that’s right, that’s true, whatever, I don’t know quite what that means, but whatever it means it’s true.” And a good picture does something like that. … the best of Ansel’s ….are part of our memory, part of our sense of what a picture might be made out of, what it might look like and what it might ultimately be about, which is the part we can’t explain.
ANSEL ADAMS: A Documentary Film
Narrator: His whole life would be a journey, and an exploration; a search for meaning and order, for beauty and redemption; for contact with something larger and more lasting: for community, connection, and home.
Born on the far western edge of the continent in the years following the close of the American frontier, he first encountered the awesome beauty of Yosemite Valley in the summer of 1916.
“From that day,” he later wrote, “my life has been colored and modulated by the great earth gesture of the Sierra.”
He would spend the rest of his life trying to capture on film the wild majesty of the American continent, and the sublime and humbling exaltation of wilderness.
Carl Pope, Sierra Club: It’s a place that you step into, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a place that can surprise you. It’s a place where you’re small. But where being small is not a bad thing, where being small is actually a wonderful thing. If you look at Ansel’s photographs, the photographer wherever he stands, is clearly tiny compared to the detail and the light. You have a sense of the entire solar system, the sun is shining in on a church in New Mexico or a peak in the Sierra, and the eye, the camera, is this small part but it’s not an insignificant part. It’s the part which gives the whole thing meaning.
Jonathan Spaulding, Biographer: Well, I think Ansel had a message in his art that was consistent throughout his career. And this is that the world is beautiful, that humanity is part of this larger world. That the concerns of the moment are part but not separate from a larger system of forces that connect us to all of creation.
Ansel Adams: I can’t verbalize the internal meaning of pictures whatsoever. Some of my friends can at very mystical levels, but I prefer to say that, if I feel something strongly, I would make a photograph, that would be the equivalent of what I saw and felt… When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my mind’s eye something that is not literally there, in the true meaning of the word. I’m interested in expressing something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.
John Szarkowski: When he photographed the wild landscape — especially in his own special home wild landscape in the High Sierra, and Yosemite — he felt some consonance with that material that was very profound, very deep, very mystical, perhaps almost religious — although he would certainly object to that very strongly, because he was not in any conventional sense a religious person — and then you try to find a way to make a picture that is consonant with your sense of your relationship to that experience. It’s not just a place, it’s an experience — especially in Ansel’s case that has to do with that time, that moment, that evanescent disappearing thing. I don’t think Ansel was ever self–consciously concerned with personal expression…It’s wanting to join something else… Ansel, I think, the issue was to understand and become part of something that was larger. And to make a picture that demonstrated that there was some, actually some communion…going on.
Narrator: For nearly seventy years, he would wander the great unoccupied spaces of the American west — photographing the landscape as the landscape itself changed all around him, and as the wild places of the continent dwindled and shrank and came under attack as never before.
More than any other artist of the century, he would help transform the meaning of wilderness in America, and change what people thought and felt about their own land.
In the course of time, he himself would change — as the rapturous visions that sustained him in his youth lost their power, and began to fade — and as he came increasingly to resemble the avuncular, trusted elder statesman of his old age.
But as a young man, he had seen something in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada — something that resonated far out into the landscape and down into the deepest recesses of his soul — that would haunt him for the rest of his days, and that he would spend his entire life trying to convey.
William Turnage, Ansel Adams Trust: I can’t think of any artist in our history who was more American than Ansel Adams…He grew up in a city that was only fifty years old….his subject matter was as quintessentially American as it possibly could be. The thing that separates us from the Old World, more than anything I think, is that we have all of …these extraordinary great pieces of wild land which Ansel of course devoted much of his life’s energy to saving. So his cause was American. His work was about America…
Andrea Gray Stillman, Editor & Assistant to Ansel Adams: He was odd. Yes, he was odd. The pictures of him as a child, he looks really odd. And he was actually kind of odd–looking when he was a young man, too, in his early twenties. These ears stuck out and his — because he was balding. And then he did have false teeth and I mean by the time I knew him he had a pretty good set, but I think it took a while to get a good set of false teeth. And he — even he was gangly and — and extremely, extremely thin. And then he had this black beard. The pictures of him from the early Sierra Club hikes, he almost looks kind of scary in some of them, but he also had this joie de vivre, and this sense of enthusiasm and humor that just swept people off their feet — well, either you loved it or you hated it.
Narrator: He was born Ansel Easton Adams in the city of San Francisco in the winter of 1902 — the only child of a once prosperous family on its way down in the world.
His earliest memory was of lying in a pram watching silent fingers of fog flowing east above his family’s house — a lonely structure perched high above the dunes beyond the western edge of town, overlooking the waters of the Golden Gate.
Andrea Gray Stillman: …He always said he was formed by those early landscape experiences and where he was living… I mean, once you’ve lived a while in San Francisco, you can feel …that fog kind of tiptoeing in, where it changes the sounds and kind of gets in to your bones. Or when there’s a glorious clear day…it’s just breathtakingly beautiful. And that was just part and parcel of Ansel.
Narrator: On the morning of April 18th, 1906, when he was a little more than four, an immense aftershock of the great San Francisco earthquake sent him flying head–first into a low garden wall, severely breaking his nose — which forever after veered violently to the left.
One year later, the fortune in timber his grandfather had assembled in the years following the Gold Rush finished collapsing completely in the Panic of 1907 — plunging his father into a sea of financial difficulties, and his mother into a depression from which she never fully recovered.
William Turnage: At the end of the day, by the time his grandfather died in 1907, the family was pretty flat busted, and that deeply affected the relationship between Ansel’s parents and created a lot of stress in the home while Ansel was growing up….
Narrator: He was a lonely child, in the gloomy, troubled house by the sea — often ill, prone to fits of uncontrollable weeping, and filled with a restless surging energy he could not contain.
Enrolled without success in one school after another, he often found it difficult even to remain seated at his desk.
John Szarkowski: In Ansel’s autobiography he makes it very clear that he was not an altogether ordinary child. Certainly my impression is that he was a very nervous child. And that relationships with other people were not easy for him.
Jonathan Spaulding: He was probably a very difficult kid to live with, and I think he drove his parents crazy. He was very full of energy and full of vitality and tremendous drive — but it was scattered, it was all over the place…
William Turnage: I think, almost certainly, if it were today, he’d be considered to have been dyslexic…He said himself, you know, “Today, I’d be considered a hyperactive child.” There was this incredible chaos or fire or energy or something roaring around inside and, all the time trying to get out…
Narrator: Abandoning the idea of conventional schooling when the boy was only twelve, his gentle, courtly father, Charles, poured all the love and energy he had into his difficult only son: arranging private tuition in algebra and Greek, and letting him roam for hours along the dunes and cliffs beyond the house — anywhere his boundless energy took him.
Andrea Gray Stillman: His father just adored him, just adored him. But Ansel was so odd, but at the same time he was so intelligent, with this zest for life. I mean, who wouldn’t have been enchanted by this child…
William Turnage: He just indulged him to an extraordinary degree. He realized he had a very unusual son — both unusual in the positive sense and unusual in the somewhat negative sense… When Ansel was thirteen, he …got him a year’s pass to the World’s Fair, the Panama Pacific Exposition. And that was a fabulous idea, Ansel went every single day and he learned more there than he ever could have in a year at school… I don’t think a lot of fathers then or now would have tolerated Ansel’s unique character, and here was a father who not only tolerated it, but nurtured it….
Narrator: One afternoon in the fall of 1914, when he was still only twelve, he began to find a focus for the chaotic feelings that welled up inside him.
William Turnage: He was one of those geniuses, and sat down at the piano when he was just a kid and within a couple months without a teacher could read music at sight… The piano was something that he instinctually fell absolutely in love with and yet it was very demanding. The height of discipline and rigor, practicing scales for hours at a time, hard for any kid to do, but really hard for a kid who’s kind of scattered and a little bit hyperactive…But he somehow focused all this chaotic energy and by God he did, I mean he really focused it…
Narrator: In the years to come, despite the family’s continuing financial troubles — Ansel’s father would do everything he could to nurture the boy’s unusual musical gift — hiring the best instructors he could find, and purchasing on installment a $6000 Mason and Hamlin piano.
William Turnage: Even when Ansel was eighty years old, he lowered his voice and spoke with reverence when he spoke about his father. And he really understood what his father had done for him….
Ansel Adams: I often wonder at the strength and courage my father had in taking me out of the traditional school situation and providing me with these extraordinary learning experiences. I am certain he established the positive direction of my life that otherwise, could have been confused and chaotic. I trace who I am and the direction of my development to those years of growing up in our house on the dunes — propelled especially by an internal spark tenderly kept alive and glowing by my father.
Narrator: The world’s fair had broadened his horizons; music had opened up a new world of beauty and order. But nothing could have prepared him for the stunning impact of another kind of music — which he first encountered in the summer of 1916, high in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada.
William Turnage: [when he was] [fourteen] His aunt gave him a book to read about Yosemite when he was ill ….by… the earliest major promoter of Yosemite, J. M. Hutchings — and it was a wonderful, romantic book about the Indians and this great Valhalla, this American place, a “throne room of the gods,” as it were…And Ansel was swept away by it….
Narrator: On June 1st, 1916 — propelled by a ceaseless barrage of youthful pleadings and entreaties — the family set off for the first time on the two–day journey from San Francisco to Yosemite — rumbling by train across the shimmering heat of the Central Valley, up through the parched brown foothills of the Sierra until they reached El Portal — then on by open bus still higher, following the pristine waters of the Merced River ever deeper into the mountains — until at length the river angled sharply to the east, and “the splendor of Yosemite,” Adams later wrote, “burst upon us.”
“There was,” he said, “light everywhere.” “A new era began for me.”
William Turnage: It was love at first sight… I don’t think there’s any place that hits you in the solar plexis the way the first time you come into Yosemite valley. It’s simply overwhelming. You’re much closer to it, you’re much more surrounded by it, than you are in the Tetons or in the North Cascades… It’s awesome. And you put all those things together, and Ansel, it changed his life, it completely changed his life. And that was it — bang! Yosemite became his home place….
Narrator: Shortly after arriving in the valley, his father presented him with a simple, fateful gift: a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie camera, in its own leather case with a strap.
After being shown how the simple apparatus worked, he was off — racing from one end of the valley to the other, shooting everything he saw — domes, spires, streams, meadows, waterfalls and cliffs — endlessly trying, his friend Nancy Newhall later said, “to pour into the magic little box his wonder and his ecstasy. Somehow he must capture this beauty, somehow convey this opening before him of a new heaven and a new earth.”
Jonathan Spaulding: I think that what he found was a chance to break out of the bonds, both psychologically and physically, of his childhood…a kind of liberation from his own internal demons, as it were, the family tensions, the kind of cold and foggy environment of San Francisco, and out here was this giant playground. And so I think … here was a chance to create another identity, away from his family, away from these illnesses.
Narrator: For the next fifty years he would divide his time between San Francisco and Yosemite, the twin poles of exuberantly outgoing yet intensely private personality.
Jonathan Spaulding: I mean Ansel and San Francisco are inextricably intertwined . And he lived in San Francisco for sixty years and participated very, very deeply in the life of the city. But San Francisco was his bride, Yosemite certainly was his mistress. It was a duality all of his life. Its hard to imagine an Ansel Adams without Yosemite and I think for most Americans it is hard to imagine a Yosemite without Ansel Adams. John Szarkowski: I think what artists are after is an object that seems to confirm that their understanding, their experience of the world, is not just a personal opinion. I mean, that they really do have some objective relationship to their intuitions…. and that their intuitions are not made up — that there really is a world out there that we really can, on some level, understand — in spite of the fact that on the surface it seems so constantly chaotic, and full of meaninglessness, and unpredictability. So we try to make of our experience something that’s outside of ourselves, and that exists outside of ourselves, that has an objective life….
Narrator: In the years to come, music and the mountains would become his twin obsessions.
Each fall, back in San Francisco, he threw himself into the study of the piano — often practicing more than six hours a day.
Each summer, he made his way back up to Yosemite — eager to explore the wondrous landscape, and to work on his new hobby.
John Szarkowski: Higher the better. Higher up in the mountains, the better the work got, it seems to me.
Narrator: His first photographs were little more than snapshots — aids to memory.
Disappointed that they conveyed so little of what he had seen and felt at the moment of exposure, he set out to learn everything he could about the photographic process — teaching himself how to develop and print his own negatives, and experimenting with different approaches — including pictorialism ≠ the painterly, soft–focus style then in vogue, that in the name of art sought to soften and blur the photographic image.
Ansel Adams: June 8th, 1920. Dear Father: I am more than ever convinced that the only possible way to interpret the scenes hereabout is through an impressionistic vision. A cold material representation gives one no conception whatever of the great size and distances of these mountains. Ansel.
Narrator: In the summer of 1920 — determined now to pursue a career as a concert pianist — he began searching the valley for a summer piano to practice on — and soon found one, in the studio of a local painter named Harry Best — whose fair–haired seventeen–year old daughter quickly became another reason for the tall, gangling nineteen–year–old to visit.
Mary Street Alinder, Biographer: On paper, Virginia was the perfect mate…She loved poetry, she was studying to be a classical singer, so she was involved in music and literature, all the things that Ansel cared most deeply about…And she could hike; she could out–hike Ansel, I bet, at that time. Ann Adams Helms: It was a very long courtship, off again on again. Several times Ansel gave up, gave his life to music again, which didn’t include getting married, and then they’d get back together again…
Ansel Adams: March 29th, 1923. Dear Virginia. The desire to get into the mountains has grown very strong in me lately…– how often I wish that the Valley could be now like it was forty years ago — a pure wilderness, with only a wagon road through it, and no automobiles nor mobs. I long for the high places — they are so clean and pure and untouched.
Narrator: Each summer, he ventured farther and farther up into the rugged high country beyond Yosemite Valley — sometimes on his own, and sometimes with members of the Sierra Club, the wilderness group John Muir had founded thirty years before — long days of climbing and hiking that began before dawn and often ended well after dark — making pictures when he could, and wandering, he wrote, in “translucent unity with the world and sky.”
Late one morning in the summer of 1923, wandering amidst the harsh and bleakly beautiful high country east of the valley, he came as close as he ever would to capturing in words the soaring emotions that sometimes came over him in the high mountains.
Ansel Adams: I was climbing the long ridge west of Mount Clark. It was one of those mornings where the sunlight is burnished with a keen wind and long feathers of cloud move in a lofty sky. The silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendor; there was nothing, however small, that did not clash in the bright wind, that did not send arrows of light through the glassy air. I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light. The moment I paused, the full impact of the mood was upon me; I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses …the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks… I dreamed that for a moment time stood quietly, and the vision became but the shadow of an infinitely greater world — and I had within the grasp of consciousness a transcendental experience.
Narrator: He would spend the rest of his life trying to capture on film the quicksilver light he saw that morning — and the sense it conveyed of a deeper truth and meaning.
John Szarkowski: I think one could risk saying that, in a broad way, it’s a quasi–religious sense of identification with the landscape. The quality of the experience, I think, one might call “ecstatic.” You know, Bernini’s Saint Theresa — the same kind of nervous, insubstantiality… this flickering, flame–like … ecstatic quality. Ecstasy. I mean …it’s outside yourself. It’s an experience of, I mean, I think one might actually for a change really use the word “epiphany,” without forcing it too much…
Narrator: For seven more years, he would continue to struggle to define himself as an artist — still convinced that music was the higher art form, but increasingly torn between music and photography, San Francisco and Yosemite.
In the fall of 1925, in a painful, soul–searching letter to Virginia, he broke off their engagement, certain that marriage and music were incompatible.
She bore up as well as she could for eighteen months, until in the late winter of 1927 another letter arrived — signaling a radical change in mood.
Ansel Adams: Dear Virginia. If you only knew the yearning to get into the mountains that fills me these days! Music is wonderful — but the musical world is bunk! So much petty doings — so much pose and insincerity and distorted values…I find myself looking back on the Golden Days in Yosemite with supreme envy. I think I came closer to really living then than at any other time of my life, because I was closer to elemental things. I love you immensely at this moment — and will be so glad to see you again. I am coming to Yosemite sometime in the Spring — or bust! Ansel
Narrator: They were married nine months later, in the parlor of Virginia’s father’s house in Yosemite — the bride in black, the groom in a tie, plus fours and tennis shoes.
He was twenty–six years old.
John Szarkowski: It would have been difficult for Ansel to spend his whole life as a professional musician with the constant pressure to deal with an audience, to deal with other people, to deal with other musicians, to deal with that complex social life that a professional social life, that is forced on a musician really. He had a very gregarious side to him. He loved parties, he loved to be entertaining, he was entertaining. He was totally at home with a room full of people. I think he might have been more at home with a room full of people than with one person. There was also a very, very private part to Ansel… he would be a party animal for two weeks, a month, and then he would have to get away….
Narrator: In the end, it was Yosemite perhaps, more than anything else, that had brought Adams back to Virginia, and photography — along with a remarkable transformation that, by the spring of 1927, had begun to take place in his photographic work itself.
Within four weeks of his ecstatic letter to Virginia, he had returned to the Valley — where on a brilliant Sunday afternoon in early April — high up on the western flank of the great granite face of Half Dome — he made a series of pivotal photographs; among them one, his friend Nancy Newhall later said, “that even then spoke to beholders like a trumpet” — as haunting and as crystal clear as his vision on the slopes of Mount Clark four years earlier.
Andrea Gray Stillman: In a day in April he set out to hike up to what’s called the Diving Board, a little tiny, tiny … point of granite from which you can look up, right up at the sheer face of Half Dome above you… and on the way up, he takes some pictures. He stops and takes a picture out towards Glacier Point and he takes a picture of Virginia and he takes a picture of Mount Clark…and so by the time he gets up to the Diving Board, which is the purpose of this exercise, he only has two glass plates left. And he sets up the camera and he puts the first glass plate — he removes the slide and he’s carefully composed this on the ground glass and he clicks the shutter … and he suddenly thinks, “Oh, the picture I just took, when I print it, is not going to translate — communicate to people what I’m feeling as I stand here.”
John Szarkowski: He was there, it was the last plate of the day, he’d had a difficult climb, and suddenly it came to him that maybe the idea the sense of what the experience was like would be more faithfully rendered if he put on the heavy red Wratten A filter, which would radically darken the sky and make in fact the sky darker than the face of the cliff…and, by George, it worked…..
Andrea Gray Stillman: And it gives you more power and drama and majesty. It’s all the things he’s feeling about this incredible granite monolith in front of him… And it’s kind of almost scary… the picture, there’s a sense of terror in the enormity of this slab of granite that the front has come off ….
John Szarkowski: It came to represent a moment when he had made a great leap forward in terms of the notion of previsualizing what the print should look like, and thinking about how to produce his negative in a way that would achieve that previsualized idea….
Narrator: It was a turning point. For the first time, he later said, he had found a way to make a mountain “look how it feels — a huge monumental thing.” Two weeks later, he wrote Virginia. “My photographs have now reached the stage when they are worthy of the world’s attention.” That fall, his first portfolio of photographs was published in San Francisco — thanks to the generosity of a dapper, bay area insurance magnate and art patron named Albert Bender.
Not long after his wedding that winter a notice appeared for the first time in a local paper — advertising his services as a commercial photographer. By 1930, he and Virginia had settled into a new house and studio — right next door to Ansel’s parents in San Francisco — where he threw himself headlong into his career as a photographer.
Jonathan Spaulding: Well, I think Ansel and Virginia were as good a match as Ansel could have hoped to find — and the fact that the relationship was not perfect was more Ansel’s fault than hers. He was, like many artists, very absorbed in his work and in his own quest for greatness. And she had to deal with that. And I think she dealt with it very well…
Mary Street Alinder: In fact, when she [gave birth to] their first child, Ansel was not there. Ansel was out hiking in the Sierra when Michael was born. And when she gave birth two years later to their second child, Anne, in 1935, Ansel was not there. Virginia was in San Francisco, Ansel was in Yosemite, on a commercial job.
Michael Adams: She was sort of the unsung hero. My mom had the business in Yosemite, she inherited it from her father after he passed away in the thirties. [And that]. enabled them to live and Ansel to have more time to do the [creative work]. Commercial jobs were very important but her support financially allowed him to do a lot of things that he might not otherwise have been doing.
Narrator: The next five years would prove to be the most crucial and formative period of his entire career.
William Turnage: In 1930, he was barely a real photographer, or a full–time photographer, or a recognized photographer, and five years, six years later he was one of the better known serious photographers in the United States. Now it was a small community in those days, but there was this sort of meteoric recognition.
Narrator: Adams’ breakthrough on the face of Half Dome was only the first in a series of stunning revelations — that in the years to come would transform his sense of the poetic power of photography. In the summer of 1930, on a trip to New Mexico, the photographer Paul Strand showed him a set of his own recently exposed images. Even in negative form, it was clear they possessed a tonal range of breathtaking beauty and scale — “full luminous shadows,” Adams recalled, “and strong high values, in which subtle passages of tone were preserved.”
Six months later, in the spring of 1931, he awoke one morning with another dazzling vision. “Photography,” he declared, “is really perception — the analytic interpretation of things as they are.” The medium’s true power, he now saw, came not by evading reality but by embracing it. “It was like the Annunciation!” he later said. “Suddenly I saw what photography could be”; “a tremendously potent pure art form”; an austere and blazing poetry of the real. Abandoning pictorialism once and for all — along with anything else that diminished the brilliance and clarity of his subject matter — he dedicated himself to the principles of pure photography — striving for the greatest clarity of vision, and the greatest tonal range, and rejecting textured papers for what he called “the simple dignity of the glossy print.”
Nancy Newhall: He set himself problems of extreme depth of focus and of extreme rendition of textures — and almost fell into the ground glass with excitement… An old board fence behind a patch of thistles could in sunlight become a brilliant clash of dissonant textures, a rose on driftwood, indoors on a dark day, could glow softly. The moods of light could be voiced; textures used like different instruments… Now clouds could float, waterfalls flash, snow hold its hidden light, grasses bend in infinite delicacy under dew.
Narrator: “Gradually,” he said, “my photographs began to mean something in themselves; they became records of experiences as well as of places.”
“It seems to me,” his best friend Cedric Wright wrote in the summer of 1932, “that …your prints have improved like hell [in the last year].” This is the first time they have seemed on a par with your best writing.”
Six months later, in the winter of 1933, he traveled east to New York for the first time in his life, to meet the great photographer, Alfred Stieglitz. In the stillness of his gallery on Madison Avenue, the uncompromising old master silently perused the portfolio of prints Adams had brought with him — not once but twice, without uttering a word — then carefully closed and retied it with a bow.
“These,” he said simply, “are some of the finest photographs I have ever seen.”
Andrea Gray Stillman: Alfred Stieglitz meant the greatest in art. To be accepted by Alfred Stieglitz was to be accepted as a great artist. And that’s what Ansel aspired to be…..
Narrator: In the end, Adams encounter with Alfred Stieglitz would prove life-changing — and the final step in his long, painstaking apprenticeship as a photographer.
“I will always remember, ” he wrote the older man in the fall of 1933, “what you said about the quality of tenderness …. in things of art — a sort of elastic appropriation of the essence of things into the essence of yourself — [a] … giving of yourself without asking too many intellectual questions, to the resultant combination of essences.”
Ansel Adams: As with all art, the photographer’s objective is not the duplication of visual reality…. Photography is an investigation of both the outer and the inner worlds…. The first experiences with the camera involve looking at the world beyond the lens, trusting the instrument will ‘capture’ something ‘seen.’ The terms shoot and take are not accidental; they represent an attitude of conquest and appropriation. Only when the photographer grows into perception and creative impulse does the term make define a condition of empathy between the external and the internal events. [Alfred] Stieglitz told me: ‘When I make a photograph, I make love.’
Narrator: The landscape photographs he now began to create were unlike any that had ever been made before.
John Szarkowski: Those pictures looked unlike other pictures…If you wanted to try to define the content of it, I think you’d have to say it has to do with his appreciation of the landscape as something that’s not permanent but evanescent — always, always in the process of becoming something else… Ansel’s landscapes — more surely more than any of the great 19th century photographers who worked over much of the same territory, are much less about sculpture, they’re less about geology, they’re less about permanence, they’re less about the solidity of the rocks, than about the ephemeral nature of the rocks. That they’re always something defined by the transient quality of the light, by the weather… Ansel’s technique was designed to solve the very difficult problem that his sensibility required. If you’re going to photograph the mountain as weather, as opposed to geology, you’ve got to have a better technique. In Ansel’s best photographs, you have the sense you could identify the temperature, the relative humidity, the hour of the day, the day of the month, because that’s what they’re about. He’s not doing this for nothing, he’s not doing this to show off, that’s the nature of his subject matter,….[which] requires that he be able to describe the quality of the air. There’s something in Ansel’s work that is almost gothic. It’s this tracery, it’s this shimmering tracery…It’s not really substantial. It’s like a movie screen, mm, flickers like that… It’s all this surface ornament, very vital and animistic and never still. Shimmering, shaking.
NARRATOR: Though he had abandoned music for photography, for the rest of his life, the love of making beauty through precisely ordered chords of sound and precisely ordered chords of gray would perform an intricate ballet in his sensibility.
John Szarkowski: I’ve tried to explain to myself why it is that there are so many distinguished photographers who are interested in music…. You can make certain parallels between the photographic gray scale and the musical scale, the diatonic chromatic scales, and chord structures. Certainly, it was important to Ansel’s way of thinking, or perhaps even way of feeling — he would talk about chords of tone, he insisted that the photograph be, seem to be, tonally complete, tonally fulfilled, resolved, and that it could have no holes in it. Of course, that’s fundamentally the classical idea of fundamental technique — you’re not supposed to look at the piece of paper, you look through it. It’s like a window, and anytime there’s a hole in that photograph, that makes it turn to paper, it ruins the illusion.
Andrea Gray Stillman: …. He used to say, “The piano has eighty-eight keys, and you have to be able to play all of them. And the range of white to black is analogous to the eighty-eight keys and you have to be able to play all eighty-eight keys in that palette from white to black.” And that’s why I believe his photographs are so rich. He was a master at bringing out all those incredible nuances of tone. Helen LeConte — who was someone who went travelling with Ansel in the Sierra in the early days, when he was still in his teens… so she heard him play at the height of his powers — and she said, “It had a bell-like quality that lingered afterwards in your ear.” And to me, his photographs have the same bell-like quality that he could make on the piano. After you look at an Ansel Adams photograph, you remember it, and it kind of reverberates. And Ansel always said, “You can tell if it’s a good work of art if you remember it afterwards, if there’s like, burned into your brain and you can close your eyes after you see it, is it still with you.” And I feel that Ansel’s photographs, for me at least, work particularly this way. And to me, they have the same bell-like quality that his playing had. And, to me, his best photographs are like his playing on the piano. They linger in your mind’s eye and your ear and they stay with you.
William Turnage: …I never met anyone…who worked as hard as he did. Never took a day off. Never took a vacation, ever. He simply worked seven days a week, every day of the year, every year, even when he was eighty, he was still doing that. The only time he would take a day off is if he was recovering from a hangover and then that was not infrequent…[But] his own career was really precarious economically. One of the reasons he worked so hard was to make a living and it was difficult to make a living as a photographer in those days. There was the Depression, it wasn’t a profession that was particularly well established… He really struggled to pay the rent and to make ends meet, literally, I mean, you know, he couldn’t go on a trip to take photographs somewhere cause he didn’t have $100 to pay the costs, all his life…
Jonathan Spaulding: Well, Ansel had just begun to mature as an artist when the Great Depression struck. He was achieving recognition, some degree of success, at a time when a lot of the foundations of the style he had developed were being questioned …[as] the impact of the Depression …caused…artists …around the world ….to reassess the motivations for their work. What am I doing, why am I doing it? Why, what’s the point of making beautiful pictures at a time of national — international — catastrophe?
William Turnage: Well, he and Edward Weston …were both criticized because they weren’t photographing the social crisis of the 1930s, and Cartier-Bresson said that, “The world is going to pieces and Adams and Weston are photographing rocks and trees….” And Ansel was very stung by this criticism…he believed that photography should be, his photography was about art….he felt that documentary photography, unless it was practiced at an extremely high level was propaganda and he wasn’t interested in that. He wasn’t trying to send a message… Now, first of all, at that point, people didn’t think the environment was a terribly important issue. They thought unemployment and dust bowl and hunger and social injustice were the issues. Now, ironically, it turns out that one of the great social human issues of the twentieth century has certainly been the environment. And Ansel was way ahead of the curve on understanding that.
Jonathan Spaulding: …It’s not that the thirties …and that criticism … didn’t affect him; it’s that it didn’t affect him in the standard way. He wanted to be politically active as well, he wanted his art to have a commitment and a sense of purpose beyond creating beautiful objects… But his sense of what was important was not the breadlines or the war time issues; he wanted people to understand the deeper time of creation, the great forces of nature and of creation that go on despite the permutations of today. And he thought that this was the fundamental message that people needed to understand, that the world exists within this larger world.
Ansel Adams: There is a deeper thing to express — the return of humanity to some sort of balanced awareness of the natural things — some rocks and sky. We need a little earth to stand on and feel run through our fingers. Perhaps Photography can do this — I am going to try anyhow.
Jonathan Spaulding: …That was really the motivation that made him turn towards this activism …that …came out right in the thirties when he started to lobby in Washington. He …became a member of the board of directors of the Sierra Club in 1936, in the depths of the Depression. And he sensed that here’s a chance for me to be an activist with my art, to say something …with my photography.
Andrea Gray Stillman: …But I think in Ansel’s case you can’t disconnect them. They are linked. The feeling for the land, and, therefore, environmentalism, is an integral part of the photographs. And he never set out to take a picture for an environmental purpose….[But he] could go out and take a picture and show you how he felt about this incredible landscape and then it could be used in many different ways. But he said it had to come from his soul and his heart and his spirit and it couldn’t be imposed from the outside. But I truly believe that. He was an environmentalist down to his toenails. Just every little bit of him was all about the beauty of nature and the need to keep it inviolate for generations to come.
Ansel Adams: March 1936. As I look back on it now I realise a certain ‘unworldly’ quality about the point of view that was drilled and dynamited into me. I [have] existed only for the quality of art in relation to itself; the production of beauty without other motivation…. For quite a few years, [however] I have been fully aware that something was missing — something of supreme importance. The ‘contact with life’ you may call it.
John Szarkowski: If you read Ansel’s autobiography you would think that he never had a dark day in his life, but in fact, I don’t think that’s true. And I think he had genuinely difficult times in his life, when he wasn’t sure about the work, he wasn’t sure about personal relationships, he wasn’t sure about his relationship to the larger artistic community….
William Turnage: Well, Ansel had a sort of manic side, where he would just push himself workwise — twenty hours a day, or even all night, all day all night for several days to finish an assignment, and in the dark room and out photographing, and back in the dark room, and he would just go until he was shot. And then he would shut down. Narrator: The most turbulent, intense and harrowing year of Ansel Adams’ life began with a stunning triumph. By the third week of January 1936, he was on his way east again — bound for Washington — where he hoped to convince Congress to have the vast Kings Canyon Wilderness, southeast Yosemite, set aside as a national park.
Along the way, he stopped off in New York, to show Alfred Stieglitz his latest photographic work. He was stunned when the old man offered him a one–man show at his gallery that fall — the first photographer to be so honored in more than four years.
It was one of the highest points of his entire career. “Everything seems to come to him who waits,” he wrote Virginia.
Jonathan Spaulding: Here he was in his mid-thirties with now two children, a developing but hardly flourishing career as a photographer, and along comes an opportunity from Alfred Stieglitz to have a one-man show at An American Place, the ultimate venue for any photographer of the day…And he threw himself into this project.
Narrator: Back in California — with not one but three exhibits to prepare for in the fall — he plunged into a maelstrom of work — with the assistance of a darkhaired, twenty–two year old one–time model, named Patsy English, whom he had hired to help out with the avalanche of printing.
Andrea Gray Stillman: …the show at the Stieglitz Gallery is in the fall of ’36, and all that summer in the High Sierra he’s hiking and taking pictures, And when he got back from the summer then he started printing in earnest and …I think it was white hot in the darkroom. And his assistant, Patsy English… said she remembers that he would say, “I’ve got to make this, it’s just got to be fantastic because this is going to be at Stieglitz’s gallery.” And sometimes he’d show her a print, in the tray, still wet, and he’d say, “What do you think?” And she’d say, “Oh, I think maybe you need to do a little more. Is there more?” So he’d keep going. And so those prints for the show, it’s a body of work that’s absolutely incredible.
Mary Street Alinder: …he wasn’t sure how much was Stieglitz inspiring him, and how much Patsy was inspiring him, because at the end of the day, he did know whatever it was that these were in his mind the best prints he’d ever made.
William Turnage: And at the same time he had the one great love experience of his whole life…He fell deeply in love and had a very intense affair — although I don’t think it was sexual — … with Patsy English …But it was the absolutely great love of his life….
Narrator: The prints he made that summer were some of the most inspired and luminous of his career. But week after week the physical and emotional strain of the work, and of his increasingly conflicted feelings for Patsy and Virginia, began to take a toll, until the stress had become all but unbearable.
Jonathan Spaulding: So he pushed on through the summer, working frenetically, and got the show ready, brought it to New York, and it was a great success. And in the wake of that success Ansel fell apart… The fundamental reason was just pure physical exhaustion. He’d been working himself just beyond the breaking point. But …there was a psychological component as well you know. He was just not able to deal anymore with the complexity of his life….And I think that [he had this] feeling trapped within a whole set of expectations, of responsibilities, of just a set of things that he couldn’t deal with, and this was the only way he could escape.
William Turnage: …when he couldn’t pull it off, when he couldn’t go through with, you know, getting a divorce and leaving his family and going off, he had a nervous breakdown, and wound up in the hospital. And it was sort of like, whop!!!, this period of his life, his thirties, his early thirties and the early thirties of the century, kind of came slamming down to an end.
Narrator: For eighteen months, he wrestled with depression and a devastating inner emptiness — struggling to come to terms with what had happened.
Andrea Gray Stillman: And he finally realizes he can’t overturn things, even though he’d like to romantically… And I think it was hard for him, but he could really see that that was __ he had made the right decision… And he couldn’t make the decision to leave, because it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do. And so he stayed and you could argue what would have happened if he had left? I can’t say. He stayed and he was proud to have been married for 50 years to Virginia. He was really proud and that his children and his grandchildren and great–grandchildren, it made — gave him great happiness…
Mary Street Alinder: She was his ballast, his rock, his anchor… He always felt whenever he got east of the Rockies that his life–force was slowly being sapped and taken away…so he would come home depleted, but he would always come home to Virginia, and come home to Yosemite, and he would heal again.
Narrator: Little by little, he began to find his way. 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.”
When spring came he and Virginia decided to return with the children to Yosemite — the one place in the world that had always brought him solace, and peace of mind. On June 10th, 1937, in a letter to his best friend, Cedric Wright, he struggled to put into words what he had come to understand, about the things that mattered most.
Ansel Adams: Dear Cedric. 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…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. Ansel.
Jonathan Spaulding: And from that Yosemite foundation which had been the foundation throughout his life, that sort of psychological sense of home in Yosemite…he came back to life. Back in Yosemite, with new, interesting prospects coming in from New York, from the Sierra Club, from just the sense that, “Well, I can start again.”
Narrator: In the end, work and the mountains saved him.
He was still struggling to find his way in the spring of 1937, when a wealthy businessman named Walter Starr, asked him to take on a special project — a book of photographs, that he hoped would serve as a memorial to his young son, Peter, who had died in a fall while climbing alone in the Amidst the craggy spires of the Minarets.
William Turnage: He got very involved in this book project, that was one of the most beautiful books he ever did, Sierra Nevada: the John Muir Trail, and it was a limited edition, only five hundred copies but absolutely magnificent book. It took several years, there was a lot of difficulty getting the printing right…it was very definitely the most important work he had done as a artist until then as far as a books….
Narrator: Sierra Nevada: the John Muir Trail was a photographic masterpiece.
“Here, in bright light and in rare clarity is to be found the very essence of the Sierra,” one man said.
Alfred Stieglitz, to whom Adams had sent one of the first copies, was even more emphatic. “You have literally taken my breath away,” he wrote. “What perfect photography. And how perfectly preserved in the ‘reproductions.’ I’m glad to have lived to see this happen. And here in America. All American. And I’m not a nationalist. I am an idolater of perfect workmanship of any kind. And this is truly perfect workmanship. I am elated.”
William Turnage: And it also was influential in the effort to create King’s Canyon National Park. He actually took many of the photographs to Washington to lobby the Senate for the Sierra Club, and he sent a copy to Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, who was a great fan of his. And Ickes’s took it over to President Roosevelt and used it to persuade Roosevelt to support King’s Canyon as a national park. And Roosevelt liked it so much he insisted on keeping it so, Ansel had to send another copy to Ickes…
Narrator: On March 4th, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law a bill officially incorporating King’s Canyon into the national park system.
“I realize,” the head of the National Park Service later wrote Adams, “that a silent but most effective voice in the campaign was your own book…So long as that book is in existence, it will go on justifying the Park.”
In the pages of Adams ‘ exquisite volume, art and politics had come together — and both had triumphed.
Narrator: For fifteen more years, he would continue to work at the very height of his powers as a photographer and an artist — as the depression waned, and world war came, and the war itself served to accelerate a crucial shift in his photography — away from the lyrical intimacy of his early work, towards grander, more dramatic themes. Too old at forty for military service, he began work in the fall of 1941 on an ambitious series of murals for the Department of the Interior — epic images, of immense size and technical difficulty, portraying an American landscape as if “touched by the hand of God,” one man later said.
Jonathan Spaulding: Well, it’s clear that the style of his work changed throughout the course of his life. And the more quiet formalist fine art modernism of his early years did change towards a grander, more heroic and populist style in his later years… Part of his change in the forties when this transformation really happens was driven by the necessities of his job… for example, the mural project for the Department of the Interior, he needed to create giant murals for the hallways. He needed images that were going to work at that scale… But at the same time there was, in a sense, the historical moment behind the transformation as well. The coming of the Second World War created the sense that we’re at a dramatic transition point in history, that was a time of intense conflict and intense sense of anything could happen. So I think the drama of those years infused itself into the tone of his work. It wasn’t a quiet time.
Andrea Gray Stillman: The first thing he does is he drops the horizon. If you look at landscapes from the ’20s and the very early ’30s, it’s always a high horizon and you’re kind of locked out… when he gets into … the early ’40s … he drops that horizon and suddenly you’ve got these limitless spaces and this incredible feeling of space and __ and that’s when I think he’s at his best, when you just can kind of lose yourself in an Ansel Adams sky….
Narrator: Driving through northern New Mexico late one afternoon in early November 1941, he came across a sleepy village in the last light of day — and made one of the most powerfully haunting photographs of his career.
Alan Ross: Well, Moonrise, Hernandez, I think, is probably one of the most famous photographs in the twentieth century and continuing on into this new century. And it’s one of those examples of what Ansel liked to call chance favoring a prepared mind…That he was ready and even though he didn’t have a light meter, or couldn’t dig it out of his case in time, he was able to successfully get this on film with one shot.
Michael Adams: All I remember is that we came to a very sudden stop and it was one of these hurry, hurry, hurry, get out, get the tripod, get the camera, this sort of thing, I see a wonderful picture and then, he took this picture Moonrise — the one and only picture that he got is the one that we know today. Within minutes or seconds of that picture, the sun set and lost the light on the gravestones that were in the foreground.
John Sexton, Photographer: That’s in the midst of a long photographic assignment, he’s photographing everyday, that eight by ten camera is second nature to him, even though as the story goes, he can’t find his light meter and he guesstimates the exposure based upon this cryptic knowledge of the moon reflecting two hundred and fifty candles per square foot… He tries to make a second back up exposure, but in whatever the length of time is that trained hand takes the few seconds to turn over that eight by ten holder, highly tuned, highly practiced, at the prime of his physical life, he doesn’t even make the second exposure because the light goes off the crosses. I mean, he’s a tuned photographic instrument and he’s regularly exercising that part of his activity and I think that’s when he makes his best photographs.
William Turnage: He manipulated the work tremendously in the darkroom. He always said that the negative is the equivalent of the composer’s score and the print is the equivalent of the conductor’s performance, and the same piece of Mozart is conducted differently, performed differently, by different orchestras, different conductors, and Ansel performed his own negatives differently.
Alan Ross: It was very important to Ansel to convey his inner feelings about the subject, and …you know, he put the negative in the enlarger, and every printing experience was a new essentially rebirth of the image… Sometimes he printed things, you know, very somber, sometimes he would print things light and airy… But every time he tried to be faithful to how he felt about that scene… The image is Winter Sunrise, the Sierra Nevada winter… …If Ansel were to …just print it straight…it would be pretty boring…So what Ansel typically would do would be to darken the sky considerably and give it a lot of mood, and in this particular case with Winter Sunrise, darkening that sky …accentuates …the drama of the sunlight on the snowy cliffs, and also enhances that spot of sunlight coming down on the foreground here, which helps enhance that feeling of distance….
William Turnage: It was like a ballet, watching him in the darkroom jumping around and dodging and burning and saying, “I want the sky to be richer,” and he really worked them over, and often it would take him a whole day before he got one print from a negative right. Once he did that he could make more prints but it was real, real labor. I don’t know, half or forty percent of the creative process occurred in the darkroom….
Andrea Gray Stillman: For me, Ansel’s photographs exist on many different levels and that’s why I find them so rich… there’s the beauty, there’s the technique, there’s the message to me that Ansel’s … photographs always give me, which is … his patriotism… And I believe that he was supremely patriotic, in a very open, Californian way. And, to me, his photographs just scream “America,” it’s as if there’s a flag up there. There’s a flag on top of Moonrise, on top of Mount Williamson, and on top of Yosemite Valley View. And that’s one reason I think people in America find — all over the world, but particularly in America — find them enthralling…
Narrator: In many ways the war was the defining moment in Adams’s careerä end of watershed in the history of the environmental movement. As the forces unleashed in the post war years threatened the wilderness as never before.
Carl Pope, The Sierra Club: My best guess is it was in fact the interstate highways system and the car. That as long as part of the country was really hard to get to people took wildness for grantedäand it was at the moment when everything was going to be out there and you could touch it that people began to say wait a minute, if you touch a butterfly’s wings you ruin it. And maybe some of these places are more like a butterfly maybe if we touch them then the scales will come off and the glimmer will be gone and the sheen will fade. And people began to question, I think, in the ’50s whether ease of getting there was always a good thing.
Narrator: In the years to come Adams would redouble his efforts to make Americans understand why wilderness mattered, lobbying congress for stricter laws, formulating policies for The Sierra Club, and writing countless articles and letters.
William Turnage: I bet he wrote more letters to the editor than any sane person in American history, at least 5,000, and he really thought this was a tremendous way to influence things…. And he would just sit there, he’d type every one of them himself, you know, sitting there at his little typewriter… but that’s how he worked. He was passionately involved. He was one of the great activists, he came to be known as “Mr. Sierra Club.” But his real impact on the twentieth century American environmental movement was the inspirational value of his work. Not made for environmental purposes, but they became symbols of the American wilderness. And I think that to me, that that’s how he really made a difference.
Narrator: Every now and then he wondered whether the creative fires that had inspired him in his youth had begin to fade or whether he had said all he had to say in the field of photography.
But there was little time for such thoughts now and in 1952 he embarked upon a series of magazine and book projects in collaboration with his good friend Nancy Newhall, hoping to reach an even broader audience with his message.
Nancy Newhall: Confined by our own artifice, borne up upon vast abundance and colossal waste restless and disconsolate we course across this dwindling globe that once seemed infinite seeking somewhere, in some last far place our birthright. The wild majesty, beauty and freedom, here which for a million years man knew.
William Turnage: Of course, the most important thing they ever did to together was This Is the American Earth, which was…. published in the same year as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and that was in many ways the single most important book that kicked off the kind of modern mass environmental movement But Ansel’s book was very, very influential in that process in the same year, and I think next to Silent Spring, maybe the most seminal book….
Narrator: Three years later in 1963 Adams and Newhall would collaborate again on a vast retrospective of his work, called The Eloquent Light that would consolidate and extend his reputation and fame — and, in many ways, mark the beginning of the end of the most fruitful part of his career.
William Turnage: At some point in the late fifties …the great creative urge began to dissipate…but certainly … after the mid–to–late fifties… he made very few photographs of real consequence….whether he felt he had said it or done it. He continued to make photographs. But the drive was gone. And he was sixty–one years old at the time of the exhibition, and many artists have much much shorter periods of great productivity.
John Szarkowski: I think it probably has a lot to do with just plain stamina… I don’t mean just physical stamina…the ability to kind of stay with it and continue to worry it and to do it from the other side, to try and to keep confronting this suspicion that you haven’t really understood it yet, that you haven’t found the right place to stand, you haven’t found where the edges of the pictures are, or you haven’t found, haven’t found really what the components of the picture are yet — it gets easier to abandon it half done when you get older.
William Turnage: And he felt very guilty about it. I first came to know him in the seventies — or early seventies — he was 69 I think, and he was always saying, “Aw, I’ve really got to get out and photograph,” you could tell that he felt that they were going to take his union card away or something. He really, it was guilt, and he was a big man for guilt, but it didn’t make any difference. He didn’t, he just didn’t do it, and when he went out nothing happened.
Andrea Gray Stillman: …if you look at the few late pictures he made late in his life, Moon and Half Dome, El Capitan Winter Sunrise — Oh, my gosh … those are two of his …twelve best pictures. And he made them on the spur of the moment when he happened to be in Yosemite with a camera, which shows he could still do it. And so I am convinced that the reason he didn’t was he was always worried about the wolf at the door and money…
Narrator: He was nearing seventy, when the financial security that had eluded him all his life materialized at last– in the form of an enterprising one–time graduate student in forestry, named Bill Turnage ≠ whom Adams had met in the spring of 1970 while lecturing at Yale.
Taking over the management of Adams affairs, Turnage swiftly turned the Ansel Adams archive into a multi–million dollar business — and Adams himself into a popular icon, and the first mass marketed fine arts photographer in the world.
John Szarkowski: Ansel in his last years became a cross between ones favorite uncle and Smokey the Bear…But that wasn’t the real artist. I think that was somebody who had come to recognize that his best work as a photographer was behind him, and was proceeding to be a [sic] extraordinarily valuable member of society — as an educator, as a conservationist, a spokesman for a lot of things that many of us regard as highly important. But that wasn’t the greatest Ansel. In my view, the greatest Ansel was Ansel the artist, and that … Ansel was operating at full steam for …more than twenty years, which is very good, very good for an artist…..
William Turnage: You know, he spent the last two decades of his life in a very, very productive way. First of all, making prints of many photographs he’d been unable to print when he was racing around doing jobs and so on, he created a whole series of books which was tremendously important to him because …he wanted people to see his work. He was also at his most influential from the standpoint of the environmental movement, he was the one American environmentalist who could meet with the president, just by picking up the telephone. He was very very active lecturing, going around the country, both on, particularly on photography, more than on the environment, so he was flat out. Even when he was eighty, he was working twelve, fourteen hours a day, seven days a week, traveling constantly and very, very productive.
Narrator: Year after year, the honors and accolades poured in.
In the fall of 1979, he was honored with a retrospective exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — and featured on the cover of Time magazine.
One year later, at a gala ceremony at the White House, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Interview: Interviewer: Have you ever considered what would be a proper epitaph for Ansel Adams?
Adams: I think Alfred Stieglitz’s epitaph — he told me what he wanted, and that would be ideal — It says: “Here lies Alfred Stieglitz. He lived for better or for worse, but he’s dead for good.”
William Turnage: Here was a person who had this incredible creative desire to express himself, and wanted to live, and live and live. And I used to kind of kid him about it, and he’d say, “Well, you know, you don’t think living forever’s important now, but you will when you’re my age.” …He really, really feared death and he really, I’m sure, he wanted to live to be a hundred and twenty and keep on working.
Narrator: In the end, even Adams’ phenomenal reserves of energy began to fail.
In 1983, he visited Yosemite for the last time.
One winter afternoon, not long after his eightieth birthday, he ventured out to the headlands of the Golden Gate in San Francisco, to wander the cliffs and shoreline of his childhood one last time. High up on the rugged ramparts overlooking the Pacific, he came upon an ancient concrete bunker, a crumbling and abandoned relic of the Second World War. “It seems,” he wrote, “that almost anything manmade that endures in time, acquires some qualities of the natural. Bleak shapes grow into a kind of magic that, once seen, cannot easily be ignored.”
It was one of the last photographs he ever took.
Two years later, on the evening of April 22nd, 1984 — his heart gave out in a hospital near his home in Carmel Highlands. He was eighty–two years old.
Six months after Adams’ death, in an extraordinary tribute to the great photographer and environmentalist, Congress set aside an immense tract of wild land southeast of Yosemite — and named it the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
One year later, in August 1985, a remote, windswept peak in the very heart of the High Sierra was officially named Mount Ansel Adams.
William Turnage: That would’ve thrilled him more than anything. The fact that Congress created the wilderness, named it after him and that it was his absolutely favorite part of the world. And so I think he would’ve, I think he would’ve really loved that.
Michael Adams: We made a pilgrimage the next year. We put Ansel’s ashes up on the mountain, sort of between the mountain and the national forest. It’s now named the Ansel Adams Wilderness, but it’s right on the south border of Yosemite between Yosemite and Sequoia National Forest.
Ann Adams Helms: Oh, I think it’s so appropriate…I can’t think of a better tribute to him…this particular site with that mountain … in an area that he especially loved. That means a lot.
John Szarkowski: Adams pictures are perhaps anachronisms. They are perhaps the last confident and deeply felt pictures of their tradition… It does not seem likely that a photographer of the future will be able to bring to the heroic wild landscape the passion, trust and belief that Adams has brought to it. If this is the case, his pictures are all the more precious, for they then stand as the last records for the young and for the future of what they missed. For the aging, for a little while, they will be a souvenir of what was lost.
Carl Pope: Well, Ansel’s life encompasses the long national debate — the debate that I think began ten years before he was born, with the release of the Census of 1890, the declaration that the frontier had closed, and Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous challenge to the American people: Who were we going to be, now that we didn’t have a frontier anymore? And Ansel’s life occupied almost exactly a century in which Americans debated that question, and, at the end of the century, came to Ansel’s answer — which was that, while the frontier as a statistically measured artifact of the Census Bureau, might have ended, wildness did not end with the frontier. And that what it was to be an American was to respect and cherish wildness. And Ansel, in his own wild way, I think, was one of the crucial voices or, I suppose, images in Ansel’s case, in saying to the American people, “We had this opportunity.” If you look at Ansel’s pictures from the 1920s and the 1930s, you wouldn’t know that the frontier had closed. You would think that America was still the wild place that Bernard DeVoto wrote about in his books about the 1850s. And I think Ansel captured in film that opportunity, that possibility, which Americans spent all of his lifetime debating, whether to value. And then really, almost at the end of his life, I think Americans decided, we wanted to be Americans, we did not want a second Europe. We wanted a place that was still wild.
Posted April 9, 2017. Links updated February 21, 2018.
A brief biography of Adams’ life at the Yosemite National Park web site.
The transcript of the PBS documentary is also here.
You can order the PBS documentary, Ansel Adams, American Experience, here.