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Robert Jones Photography


The Ansel Adams Mystique

By Robert L. Jones

A couple years ago, I was perambulating through the local Barnes and Noble bookstore.  Annie Leibovitz' book Women, which had just been released, was on display.  A pair of college-aged girls (i.e., part of the target audience for the book) passed by and one commented to the other: “Oh, this looks interesting,” and reached for the book.  The other said, “I don't know, like, the only photographer I like is Ansel Adams.”  As the first girl thumbed through the book, the second reached for a volume of Adams’ photos, as though to protest having to see another photographer's work.

I do not relate this anecdote in order to make a direct comparison between Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz. Their work really cannot be compared, as they are representative of two widely divergent genres.  What I am getting at is this: The Ansel Adams mystique is overpowering enough to bypass not only reason, but also a cursory glance at other photographers. 

Now, among photographers and art enthusiasts “in the know,” this would not be an issue.  However, for the general public, an almost impenetrable barrier — rather much akin to the Berlin Wall — has been erected.  Take a poll of the American public.  Ask them to name a well-known photographer. When about 90 per-cent of respondents instantly reply “Ansel Adams,” wait just a moment. Then ask: “Can you name another?

That “deer-in —the-headlights” expression that will suddenly come over their faces arises out of fear and embarrassment at being unable to recall the name of any other photographer out there.

It is as though Ansel Adams has sotto voce been billed as “the only photographer who ever lived.”  My mind returns to the bookstore incident and the pathetic attempt at debate the closed-minded girl tried to initiate. But, how can one debate, when one is totally unaware that there is another side out there? Or, if when made aware, ignores the evidence of her senses and acts as though there is no other side?

This essay is painful for me to write because when I first seriously pursued photography almost 20 years ago, I was deeply inspired by Adams’ photographs.  Moonrise, Hernandez to me is nothing if not sublime.  It is true that — to those touched by Adams’ muse — his photographs have the power to inspire, to move, to affect deeply.

It is because his images are so powerful that, for the novice or the dilettante, they can preclude the desire to look behind the horizons of Monument Valley or Yosemite. In fact, it is not a stretch to say that Adams’ most ardent devotees comprise a cult following. Their monomania for the guy is akin to that of 1960s objectivists, followers of the philosopher Ayn Rand. Both Adams and Rand share a highly charged, stylised and absolutist way of viewing reality.

The Adams mystique is no accident: Since early on in his career, Adams hired a high-rolling public relations firm to market him as the greatest master of photography.  Further, he held a deep and abiding personal resentment for photographers whose work he disliked or those he felt were nudging onto his territory.

Consider the strange case of pictorialist William Mortensen:  For the f/64 Group, spearheaded by Adams and Museum of Modern Art curators Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, it was not enough merely to disagree philosophically with Mortensen. Granted, the pictorialist school had pretty much run its course, and purists in the mold of Adams and Edward Weston did indeed usher in an exciting new era in photography.

Had they respectfully disagreed, it would have been unlikely that Mortensen would have been forgotten and ignored so during his own lifetime and after his death, for he was something more than just another painterly salon photographer: Mortensen’s compositions were steeped in Gothic and Romantic traditions, his subject matter often whimsical, often bizarre, his style a strange combination of Lorenzo de Bernini, Edgar Allan Poe, Man Ray, Salvador Dali and Maxfield Parrish.

In his essay, “Beyond Recall,” photographer A.D. Coleman -- who is quite sympathetic to the Adams aesthetic -- presents a scathing indictment of Adams and the Newhalls, and their active campaign to completely shut out Mortensen from the elite artistic inner circles.  Adams in particular launched a smear campaign to destroy Mortensen’s reputation.  He couldn’t even bring himself to call him by his rightful name; in conversation, Adams called Mortensen “the Anti-Christ.” Mortensen died a broken man.

Even after Mortensen's death, Adams tried to prevent Mortensen's work from being archived at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. Fortunately for posterity, curator James Enyeart (who, though a friend of Adams) remained objective, and was instrumental in finding a permanent home for Mortensen's artistic legacy.

Because of Adams’ spiteful behaviour, little remains of Mortensen’s artistic output: Most of his negatives are missing, whereabouts unknown.  He also left few notes or letters.  No conclusions can be drawn, but it can be strongly inferred that by the time he died, Mortensen felt so irrelevant to the history of photography that he never bothered to leave much behind.

This almost total annihilation of the career and reputation of another photographic artist was carried out ruthlessly and consciously by a man revered by his followers as “Saint Ansel.”

Let me go out on a limb here: Ansel Adams is dead. His work stands among the greats. But, he has become a caricature of himself in death as hangers-on exaggerate his importance by turning him into a sort of a demigod. Yet, this was done with his consent and wholehearted approval.

Strangely, Adams once penned the following:

In the past photography has been largely plagued by imitation, apology, and pompous defensiveness.  The “salonist” continues the sham of the turn of the century.  The photo-journalists (some, not all!) are “non-art” people, turning to the factual experiences of life as their anchor to reality.  The advanced subjectivists reject the world and develop inner awareness — of their inner beings….But there are, fortunately, a growing number of men and women who practice photography at a fully adult level.

Having winnowed down what defines “photography at a fully adult level” to a select few photographers who avoid such implied juvenile genres as pictorialism (“Salonists” need not apply) and photojournalism (most, not some successful enough to need Adams’ cherished imprimatur!), Adams yet has enough gall to write:

The art of photography is the art of “seeing.”….People are afraid to admit they “see” something all on their own.  They are constantly making comparisons.  This is a phenomenon of the Virtuoso Age; the few extraordinary craftsmen — and sometimes creative artists — stand clear and aloof, terrorizing the lesser gifted but nevertheless highly expressive individual.  We need a return to the spirit of the madrigals, of the communal participation and joy of creating beauty in every form.  True, “the perfect is the enemy of the good”; complete perfection can lead to total extinction.  But the good has to be good.

That is on paper.  In practice, we’ve already witnessed how Adams terrorized “the lesser gifted but highly expressive individual.”  But, let us do some “reading between the lines” here, for Adams is hardly making the case for artistic individualism; Far from it, he is making a pitch for artistic leveling. 

Despite making the claim that “Most great photographers violate ‘pictorial rules,’” Adams prescribed a wholly regimented process of “pre-visualization,” which — when coupled with the pretzel-logic of “zone system” exposure — actually makes for technically stunning, but aesthetically anemic, prints.  (Can you imagine Robert Frank having shot The Americans employing the zone system?)

Both Adams and Weston the Elder created this rigid and stifling atmosphere for “keeping the tradition alive” with their Yosemite workshops.  The workshop circuit is the Amway multi-level-marketing-pyramid of the art world.  Unimaginative sycophants can learn how to photograph nature and employ the secrets of the Zone system in the kind of “communal participation” only the well-heeled can afford.  These “madrigals” create carbon copies of Adams’ masterpieces under the tutelage of Adams’ aesthetic heirs. 

The singular quality that strikes the viewer about Adams’ work is simplicity; take a long look at Clearing Winter Storm.  Adams’ work at least had soul.  “A return to the spirit of the madrigals, of the communal participation” instead becomes conformity, fawning and outright imitation, when people submerge all individuality in order to become the “next” Ansel Adams.

But, even that cannot be done: Of all the work I've seen of John Sexton, Jeff Nixon, Patrick Jablonski, Jeffrey Conley or Alan Ross at, all of it is technically marvelous.  But, their work doesn't have that intangible genuineness (and in what Adams did, I don't question his sincerity to his subject matter).  To me, they are just going through the motions.  It is as though they “are afraid to admit they ‘see’ something all on their own,” to borrow a phrase.

The difference between Adams and his progeny is the same difference between spring water fresh from the well and distilled water; the former may have some minerals, and even the taste of rust and sulfur, but you know you’re drinking something whole, despite its impurities.  The latter is so pure that it’s flavourless, without any character whatever.  The perfect may be the enemy of the good, but at least the money’s good.

By deifying Adams, his followers are actually making mockery of him in death, promoting the corpse of his work like Lenin's Tomb as envisioned by Charles Addams.  By turning him into an icon, they have proscribed future iconoclasms.

The Ansel Adams centenary came and went recently with all the attendant hoopla and fanfare one would expect from his acolytes and disciples: PBS aired a hagiography, museums and galleries recycled his prints in commemorative exhibitions and Bulfinch released Ansel Adams at 100, a ridiculously oversized book, ceremoniously ensconced in its own protective linen slipcase.  Strangely, the Sierra Club — his old ecological haunt — was silent about this excessive slaughter of precious trees.

Curiously, this very next year we now find ourselves at the tail end of the Walker Evans centennial. As he lived his life, so is Evans being celebrated in his death: Rather quietly. No media blitz. But there is a retrospective exhibit at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, curated by Alex Harris, who photographed the seminal work on Northern New Mexico life, Red, White and Blue, God Bless You.

Then again, take a look at those photographers (Harris included) who were influenced by Evans. From Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander, to Louis Faurer, Garry Winogrand and Wim Wenders, you will find a rather diverse lot who took Evans as a starting point and branched off in their own, unique, directions.

Because Evans was sui generis, and an individualist to boot, his “followers” were only such in the loosest sense of the term. Evans encouraged not proficient mimicry of his work, but kept an eye out for refined taste and an independent streak.

Consider even the work of William Christianberry, the one photographer who went out and mounted his tripod in the same rough hewn Alabama soil visited by Evans almost 40 years before: Christianberry’s work is strictly homage; an almost purely social document, Christianberry made no pretence of overwhelming profundity, whether under the spell of Zone or Zen.

I wish that aspiring photographers’ introduction to Ansel Adams be similar to that of a Japanese photography assistant I once employed. She had seen little of Adams' work prior my lending her Ansel Adams in Color.  Her words regarding it were “he takes pleasant photographs of pretty subjects in nature.”  I later introduced her to Adams’ black-and-white “greatest hits” that Little, Brown, also published.  Her assessment: “His compositions are generally conventional, but not novel.  But, with a red filter while shooting and many darkroom methods and formulas, he uses technique to bring drama to his prints.”

Ditto. It was refreshing to hear this opinion of Adams, because my friend did not have the yoke of artistic correctness hanging about her neck to remind her to speak of Adams in reverent, hushed, tones. To her, he was simply a very good artist and great technician. He ranks somewhat higher in my own estimation as a great artist and a peerless technician.

If understanding art in general, and photography in particular, is about seeing, then my friend saw — unaided — something in Ansel Adams’ photography that eludes the eyes of so many here in the New World.  What she saw was context.

She saw Ansel Adams’ work for what it was, no more, no less.  And, unaware of the bulk of legend built up around him during his own lifetime — and especially since his passing — my friend was more able than most to assess him objectively.  Further, she was able to place Adams’ work within its own genre, just as valid as and just as distinct from other genres.  She considered his photographs at no more or less a“fully adult level” of photography than Weegee, William Mortensen, Shoji Ueda, or Walker Evans.  That is, she was “fully adult” enough not to buy into the alluring trap of buying wholesale into one school of thought at the expense of all others.  Hers was a more sophisticated, eclectic, view that eschewed the easy dogmatism of the likes of Ansel Adams and his more rabid successors.  I’m sure that if she met him today, she’d see him not as “Saint Ansel,” but just plain “Mr. Adams.”

This, I think, is the proper perspective necessary for an honest appraisal of Ansel Adams’ oeuvre.


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