Categorizing the Work of Ansel Adams – Not So Simple After All

The assignment is: Answer the question: What category would I place the work of Ansel Adams? A simple task, is it not? The obvious answer is ‘Aesthetically Evaluative’. This the category for beautiful landscapes,  and if the name ‘Ansel Adams’ doesn’t conjure up in your mind drop dead gorgeous landscapes then you haven’t been paying attention. Or you suffer from some variation of the Ronald Reagan syndrome and you think that because you’ve seen one landscape photograph, you’ve seen them all.

But, as they say in the NFL, “upon closer review” there is a more nuanced, if not more complicated, answer.  This more involved answer however does greater justice to an artistic career that spanned seven decades and multiple photographic art genres.

Ansel Adams was born in 1902, shot his first images of Yosemite with a Kodak No. 1 Box Camera at the tender age of 14, and published his first portfolio of images, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, just 15 years later. By the time of his death in 1984, Adams had created thousands of images, used virtually every type of camera and film technology available in his time, and had been published and exhibited and honored countless times for his photography.  Further, due to his efforts on behalf of wilderness conservancy, he was known almost as well outside of the photo art world as within. Within the photo art world, however, Adams is best known, and quite rightly, for two facets of his career: glorious images of nature and his championing of ‘straight’ photography.


Certainly the great bulk of his life’s work centers on breathtaking black and white images of Yosemite and other national parks. Anyone even mildly interested in photography has seen, and likely has been awed by, Adam’s brooding Monolith, The Face of Half Dome. However, his landscapes and other wilderness images are closely tied to his lifelong involvement with the Sierra Club. Indeed, as David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club once wrote: “It is hard to tell which has shaped the other more – Ansel Adams or the Sierra Club. What does matter is that the mutuality was important.”

In the late 1930’s Adams campaigned tirelessly on behalf of wilderness conservancy, using his portfolios as his tickets to meet with the heads of the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, key congressmen and ultimately Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes. Adams book of wilderness images, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, was credited by National Parks director Arno Cammerer as being the ‘silent but most effective voice’ in the campaign that finally established Kings Canyon as a national park in 1940.

All of this begs the question: Does this involvement with wilderness conservancy mean that Adams landscapes would be categorized more correctly as Ethically Evaluative? Was the overriding motive for his landscapes the ‘social cause’ of conservancy? I believe the answer is ‘No’, but not an absolute ‘No’.

In his writing and public speeches Adams made it clear that, while nature conservancy was never far from his thoughts, the overriding motive for his work was the expression of the finer emotions of art. In an address entitled “The Role of the Artist in Conservation”, Adams said “I believe the approach of the artist and the approach of the environmentalist are fairly close in that both are, to a rather impressive degree, concerned with the ‘affirmation of life’ …. Response to natural beauty is one of the foundations of the environmental movement.” The key to understanding his position was the phrase ‘response to natural beauty”. In a later interview with the Wilderness Society, he elaborated on this point: “The effect of the natural scene on the artist is an emotional one. He visualizes his work, bringing the quality of esthetics, to try to convey an emotion.”[i] As for the motivation for his art, Adams had this to say: “I cannot, and will not, attempt to describe, analyze, or define the creative-emotional motivations of my work, or the work of others. Description of the inspiration or the meanings of a work of photography, or any other medium of art, lies in the work itself. … Only the print contains the artist’s meaning and message.”[ii]

Adams’ lifelong involvement with the conservation movement cannot be ignored however, and the meaning and message of his nature images to those who view them – especially his fellow conservationists – are a call to arms to save the wilderness for future generations. Hence, it seems to me that categorizing Adams nature-related images as ‘Ethically Evaluative’ as well as ‘Aesthetically Evaluative’ is at least arguably true.

As for Adams being a champion of ‘straight’ photography, well, of that there is no doubt. Wasn’t advocacy of ‘straight’ photography the point of Group f/64, the movement Adams started in the early 30’s? Wasn’t the movement’s manifesto something like ‘Down with Pictorialism’? Group f/64 was repulsed by the Pictorialists use of, as one description of genre puts it, “pre- and post-exposure techniques such as soft focus, heavy darkroom manipulations, printing on rough textured ‘art papers’, and scratching the photograph or negative with fine needles.”[iii] Adams and his fellow f/64’ers believed that the Pictorialist’s attempt to mask the photographic basis of his image in the hope of it being accepted as a form of painting ‘art’ was self-defeating, and resulted in an image that was neither fish nor fowl, neither painting or photograph.

However, as Mark Feeney notes in his review of an exhibit[iv] that pits the images of f/64’ers against those of Pictorialists: “Inevitably, the f/64’ers started out as Pictorialists. That’s one reason for the steeliness of their opposition. The fiercest anti-Communists have always been former Communists; the harshest anti-clericals, lapsed Catholics.”[v]  So it was with Adams. Before the influence of Strand and Weston moved him toward f/64 and well before his invention of the Zone System, Adams early photography was influenced heavily by Pictorialism because it was the dominate genre of the times. In fact his first portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, is distinctly pictorial and suffers its own form of pretentiousness. When a rare set of Parmelian prints were auctioned by Christies a few years ago, the lot description included this note: “The portfolio was called – at the insistence of the publisher, Grabhorn Press, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras. The term ‘Parmelian’ was a synthetic and meaningless word, made up of bits and pieces of other, ‘grander’ words, such as ‘Parthenon’ ‘Parnassus’ ‘amelioration’ and ‘Pelias and Melisand’. The pretentious title was intended to emphasize the fact that these were not mere photographic prints – a mild embarrassment to Adams for the rest of his life, but perhaps not so embarrassing as the unwonted ‘s’ on the end of ‘Sierra’”.[vi]  However, once baptized in the saving hypo of straight photography, Adams “steadfastly objected to the use of the word ‘pictorial’ in reference to his work.” [vii]

Over time Adams would soften his stand and at the same time seemingly rewrite the history of his early photography. In discussing Lodgepole Pines, a work from his early, pre-conversion period that employs – horror of horrors – soft focus, Adams wrote: “While I have never been sympathetic to Pictorialist concepts, I have endeavored to discover what the photographers of this classification try to express. … As destructive as I believe the Pictorialist expression has been to our art, it is an attempt to see and say something, and this effort should not be ignored.” [viii]

Adams wasn’t above a little (or a lot of) darkroom manipulation either. He made no bones about the fact that his two iconic works, Monolith, and Moonrise, required serious darkroom gymnastics to achieve their final look. Unlike the Pictorialist, who added and subtracted elements from the original scene, Adams claimed he only manipulated tone and composition. He felt that such manipulation was justified by the creation of an image that matched his artist’s pre-visualization of the scene.

But then, again, there was Winter Sunrise – Sierra Nevada.

It turns out that the original negative of the Winter Sunrise scene recorded the letters ‘L’ and ‘P’ (for Lodge Pole) that had been carved by local students into the hillside that is in the nearer background of the image. Oh dear, that just wouldn’t do. Adams would admit to a little post-exposure and post-production manipulation to eliminate this element from the scene. With a bit of deft rationalization, he admitted that he: “ruthlessly removed what I could of the ‘LP’ from the negative … and have always spotted out any remaining trace from the print. I have been criticized by some for doing this, but I am not enough of a purist to perpetuate the scar and thereby destroy – for me at least – the extraordinary beauty and perfection of the scene.”[ix]

Does all of this ‘Straight vs. Pictorialist’ blather change the category or add to the categories I would place Adams work? Probably not. Pictorialist or not, the images discussed so far fit mostly in the Aesthetically Evaluative bin. However, there are other Adams images that arguably could be placed in another category.

It turns out that Adams, no doubt strongly influenced by his New York patron Alfred Stieglitz, and likely also by Minor White, tried his hand at ‘Equivalents’. Adams Surf Sequence images no doubt were an emotional response to Stieglitz’ ‘Clouds’ and thus were Equivalents, if by another name.

New York Times art critic Andy Grundberg saidEquivalents’ “remain photography’s most radical demonstration of faith in the existence of a reality behind and beyond that offered by the world of appearances. They are intended to function evocatively, like music, and they express a desire to leave behind the physical world, a desire symbolized by the virtual absence of horizon and scale clues within the frame. Emotion resides solely in form, they assert, not in the specifics of time and place.”[x] Almost by definition then, ‘Equivalents’ are self-expressive images and are, to use John Szarkowski’s terms, ‘mirrors’ rather than ‘windows’. On this basis, I would place Adams Surf Sequence images into the ‘Interpretive’ category, as well the ‘Aesthetically Evaluative’ category.

Finally, there are Adams’ Manzanar photographs. Manzanar was the notorious site in California where Japanese Americans were encamped during World War II. In 1943, Adams was invited by Manzanar camp director, and fellow Sierra Club member, Ralph Merritt, to record the plight of these people, including Japanese immigrants legally forbidden from becoming citizens (Issei), the American-born (Nisei), and children of the American-born (Sansei), who had been denied their rights and forcibly removed from their homes, businesses, and possessions. Adams jumped at this opportunity, as he had been outraged by the injustice, especially after witnessing a loyal employee of his father, an Issei who was in poor health, hauled away to Manzanar.

What resulted was a somewhat puzzling set of images – 209 prints and 242 negatives – that captured pleasing portraits of individuals, family life, people at work, and people at recreation. These images are puzzling because rather than depicting hardship, suffering, loss of freedom they seemed to depict an almost idyllic commune of happy workers and families. This was hardly the stuff to engender sympathy and outrage. Even while acknowledging that Adams was restricted from imaging the harsher elements of the camp, guard towers, fences, etc., the images seem too beautiful and too tame for the job. The contrast between the seemingly emotion-free content of the images and Adams ostensive purpose for them is even more startling when compared to Dorthea Lange’s much bleaker images of Manzanar.   Only when Adams published the images in a book did he elicit a response from the American people, and it was not the response he hoped for. On the one hand, he was criticized on some fronts for sanitizing the suffering. On the other, the book, with its title Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans, was not well received by most wartime Americans.

The Manzanar images are just too beautiful for their own good. I have to wonder whether the shortcomings of the images relative to Adams stated goal for them was really a matter of Adams inability to create an image that he didn’t consider beautiful. I wonder if his aesthetic impulses overrode his desire to capture the true depth of the injustice that was Manzanar. Nonetheless, given his stated objective for them, and given the title of the book he published them in, I have to conclude that the Manzanar images should be placed in the Ethically Evaluative as well as the Aesthetically Evaluative categories.

So what do I conclude from all of this? Since most of his work consists of exquisitely crafted photographic prints of breathtaking beauty there is no question in my mind that Ansel Adams’ work belongs primarily in the Aesthetically Evaluative category. However, he created his art over a period of seven decades – a very long time. This timeframe spanned multiple photographic art genres. During these decades he was heavily involved with social issues, primarily nature conservancy but also social justice. It was only natural that Adams reflected all of these influences in his life to some degree, and that he would mix in a little bit of this and a little bit of that with the main ingredients of his art. So I conclude that at least some of his work justifiably can be placed in the ‘Interpretive’ as well as the ‘Ethically Evaluative’ categories.

[i]     Ansel Adams: The Role of the Artist in the Environmental Movement, Robert Turnage, The Living Wilderness (Wilderness Society), March 1980

[ii]    Examples – The Making of 40 Photographs, Ansel Adams, published by Little, Brown and Company, Boston

[iii]   Pictorialism, an essay by Larry G. Blackwood, posted at

[iv]   Debating Modern Photography: The Triumph of Group f64, Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, through 5 December 2010

[v]    Their goal: Looking Sharp. Exhibit pits f/64’ers against the Pictorialist, Mark Feeney, staff writer, The Boston Globe, November 5, 2010

[vii]  Turange, ibid

[viii] Examples, page 50,51

[ix]   Examples, page 164, 165

[x]    Photography View: Stieglitz felt the pull of two cultures, Andy Grundberg, February 13, 1983, New York Times.

This entry was posted in Essays.

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