One of Ansel Adams’s most familiar and famous images, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, is the photographic equivalent of Aaron Copeland’s orchestral suite Appalachian Spring, John Ford’s movie Stagecoach, or Edward Hopper’s painting of a corner diner, Nighthawks. We experience them not just as exciting formal achievements but as statements of American character: brash sentiment, haunted lonesomeness, and a kind of homespun grandiosity. Hang around them long enough, though, and they darken, get more fraught and dolefully textured, still recognizably American, maybe, but American in an emotionally ambiguous register.
A tight overview of Adams’s work currently on exhibition at the Museum of Photographic Arts offers three prints of Moonrise (from 1960, 1971, and 1978) made from the original 1941 exposure. The visual information doesn’t change: high desert scrub-land in the foreground, flecked with buildings, a church, and churchyard crosses; then a mountain range layered by a streaming scarf of clouds; and, above it all, the worn dime of a full moon. What mattered to Adams as an artist was what he could do with that information. He spent decades trying to pull from the very imperfect negative an image that realized what he’d seen in his mind’s eye when he took the photograph, the moment he called “previsualization.” A negative, he said, “is comparable to a composer’s score and the print is its performance.” He was famous for the heroic hours he clocked in the darkroom, sometimes 12-hour stretches for days on end, playing with values, contrasts, and spatial dimensions.
The three prints testify to that passion. Installed side by side, they chart Adams’s ambition as a photographer and as a moral intelligence, which for him were inseparable. The prints are hardly identical, because Adams’s mission as an artist was to find external expression of what he called the “inner truth of feeling,” which made the darkroom a laboratory of emotion. But he was also a man of public conscience. As an early member of the Sierra Club, he invested lifelong energies in contesting infringements on wilderness and environmental depredations. The expansive, darksome splendor of the natural order in Moonrise, from flatland to mountains to clouds to moon, puts those puny houses and church in their place, so to speak. Adams was that rare modern artist whose work can’t be separated from public issues. He wouldn’t have it any other way. He purposefully fastened his fame to conservationist causes, savvy enough about the art business to know that one would enhance the other. But to many of us, he was first and last a photographer who wanted to give feeling form. As he printed Moonrise over nearly 20 years, he made the foreground more crisply lighted, more carved into place; and the cloud-bunting over the mountaintops starts out racy and swift but gets increasingly compressed and retarded, more enveloped by a blacker-than-black sky that shrinks and occludes the moon, which seems farther than ever from life and death here on earth.
Moonrise’s broad-chested, summative, horizontal composition is characteristic of the later Adams most of us know. The MoPA exhibition fills in much of the back-story and unpacks his beginnings as a photographer and tireless explorer of Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada, and other wild places. Born in 1902, he was what we’d now call hyperactive and literally didn’t sit well at school, so at age 12 his father took him out and home-schooled him. Adams soon discovered that, while not quite a prodigy, he had an exceptional gift for playing piano. (He clung to his musical ambitions till he was nearly 30 years old.) At 14, he acquired a Kodak Brownie and made a trip to Yosemite that changed his life. Shortly thereafter he joined the Sierra Club, and its strenuous backcountry excursions developed his physical and mental stamina. By the late 1920s, he was devoting most of his energies to photography, and the Sierra Club had already begun exhibiting his pictures. So his work was fused to western landscapes from the start; he became the official photographer of the club’s summer “High Trip” into the Sierra Nevada, when large groups of tenderfeet roughed it in the wild, hiking, camping, and climbing, while Adams dragged pack mules loaded down with his camera and glass plates.
When he started making images, Adams relied on certain patterns to organize the available information in the frame. These early, vertically formatted pictures rise up the picture plane; they don’t spread out. His eye organizes masses into rough-cut, triangulated relations to each other. Using a flattened boulder as an image’s foundation, for instance, he would bank against it an overarching stand of redwoods to create a three-sided sky. He so craftily manipulated these three-part compositions that when you look at a bunch of them, each reminds you of another, while you’re also certain that no one looks like another. As he grew as an artist and darkroom sorcerer, he coaxed a dazzling variety of textures, geometries, and volume from what his eye picked to shoot. Rock surfaces look stippled, creased, freckled, or buffed. Snow seems stitched to tree branches, or it grips them, or coats them like soft and sexy lotion. His halftones are sooty-milky, frosty, cottony, or gunpowder-ish. His most ineffable definitions are of apparently formless mists and falling water. In Rainbow Falls, a shivering light-and-water phantasm stands in a warped cataract, as if nature’s force is taking sheer, momentary human form, and the twisty, fluffed-up falls look composed of a million knotted filaments.
Unlike most artists, Adams was happy to be associated with a public issue and nonartistic organization: by the 1940s, most of his pictures couldn’t be divorced from environmental advocacy. He was from the beginning suspicious of what human culture — politics, business, religion — does to the natural order. (“It is horrible,” he once said, “that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.”) The exhibition cleverly sets an image of Mission Xavier in Tucson next to a picture of titanic, loafy buttes in Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly, which looks like an uninhabitable limitless vacancy but is actually one of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes of North America, a power place that still sustains a Navajo population. In the other image we see the bright mission church only through the dark cloister arcade that encloses it — those heavy-shadowed archways articulate appropriation, containment, control.
I think we’re all at some time struck by correspondences between what we see and what we read. I happen to be rereading the Odyssey. When Odysseus returns home after years of warfare and other troubles, Athena throws a mist over Ithaca so that he won’t yet know he’s actually home. I doubt Adams had any of this in mind when in 1968 he made El Capitan, Sunrise, Winter, where glacial rock wears a skirt of nearly diaphanous mist, but the image arrested me because it recovers an ancient fact, that the old gods possessed powers to manipulate fate and create chaos or magically strange beauty. Adams, I expect, would speak not of gods but of the physical world, yet his most mysterious images suggest they’re virtually the same. In his way, Adams worshipped nature, and photography was his spiritual practice. His most astute critic, John Szarkowski, wrote, “Adams did not photograph the landscape as a matter of social service, but as a form of private worship. It was his own soul he was trying to save.”
Adams didn’t restrict his range to the natural world. He did regular commercial work to support himself and took on assignments that involved human subjects. By the mid-1920s, the Curry Company concessions in Yosemite launched an ad campaign to lure tourists. Adams signed on as promotional photographer, to show the fun in winter sports and frolics. He could certainly shoot figures in motion. A picture illustrating a wobbly skier trying not to wipe out is hogged, however, by a huge gleaming sweep of snow shaped like a whale’s tailfin, and Adams’s treatment of winter pleasure-seekers tobogganing or ice-skating is at best perfunctory. He wants to honor his commercial task but something else instinctively takes over: his desire to express his feeling not for people but for the scene. He also worked on assignment to document conditions at the Manzanar Relocation Center in California where over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. Adams declared he wanted to depict the decency and work ethic of the internees. But in his photo of a farmer showing off his squash harvest, we practically have to look for the farmer, so recessive and shrunken he is in a frame brimming with the delicately inflected light given off by vegetables stacked like cordwood. And harvesters chopping cabbage in another picture look like mere soil creases among the furrows; he turned human beings into landscape. These pictures have a documentary use but aren’t the ones he’s remembered by. His pictures treating human energy may be inert, but he, the most grounded of men, had a mystical feeling for the energies he saw in nature, whether it was the jetting force of Old Faithful in Yellowstone, the slow circuit of the moon rising, or the eternal stillness — as close as nature gets to what’s eternal — in the face of El Capitan.