Book Review: How He Became Ansel Adams—A Review of Senf’s “Making a Photographer” (Part One)

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(This review of Rebecca Senf’s Making a Photographer: The Early Work of Ansel Adams appears in two parts. This is part one. Part two can be found here.)

Rebecca Senf’s book on Ansel Adams, Making a Photographer, is a treasure box, full of surprises.

The first surprise is that it contains the photographs of Ansel Adams at all. This might seem a strange thing to write–why wouldn’t a book about Ansel Adams, easily one of the most famous photographers in history, include Ansel’s photographs? But it is true–other biographies of Ansel (I always think of him using his first name, Ansel, never his surname) struggled to include his work.

The first biography of Ansel, Ansel Adams and the American Landscape from 1995 by Jonathan Spaulding, included few images of his that anyone would recognize–and those, a perceptive reader would note, are all sourced from the National Archives, publicly owned images made under contract to the Federal Government, or those owned by the University of California, again made under contract.

Spaulding’s book did include images, and famous ones. Just not by Ansel. There’s Paul Strand’s adobe church in Taos, there’s Ed Weston’s Pepper No. 30, and Dorothea Lange’s image of the downtrodden man in the crowd, facing toward us with the backs of the other men in the breadline behind him. Ansel’s “rephotograph” of Timothy O’Sullivan’s image of the cliff dwelling in Canyon de Chelly, that one is included and is well known, and the lovely rainy day image of the leaf from Glacier National Park, even lovelier in person than in this image, the print all but glowing.

It’s a little hard to sell a book on Ansel Adams without his photographs, as you might have guessed.

Mary Street Alinder, who worked with Ansel and who co-authored his autobiography, knew what she was up against with her 1996 biography. She evidently planned accordingly. Her book, a wonderful read, includes many of Ansel’s most famous images. However, the page of picture credits gives no provenance and her preface offers no hints as to where the images came from, though her mention of her lawyer there and a line about Spaulding’s troubles—”…nor would it allow him to reproduce even a handful of Ansel’s representative photographs”–later in the book point directly to the problem: the “it” which refused to cooperate with Spaulding (and presumably Alinder) being the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

The Trust was set up by Ansel to handle the money coming in from his work and to care for his legacy.

Alinder has few kinds words in her biography for the Trust, pointing out that it was the Trust that pushed through over her objections and even those of Ansel’s wife, Virginia, the publication after Ansel’s death of his color “work.” Ansel didn’t care much for it, the images made for paying gigs. There are many examples of where Ansel would make an image in black and white and then put a color sheet into the camera to sell to Kodak or other corporate clients. He dismissed them as serious art but the lure of sales seems to have prompted the Trust to move ahead, pretending that Ansel would have approved.

She also mentions the Trust’s bewildering decision to accept a contract from Rockwell, the defense contractor, to use three of his iconic images in two-page spreads that reproduced, for example, Clearing Winter Storm alongside text extolling the virtues of heavy bombers.

One can certainly get the sense that the Trust was all about making money, a sense magnified when you notice how many of the slew of Ansel books that were published since his death in 1984 that did include Ansel’s photos were authored or co-authored by members on the board of the Trust.

I’ve wondered ever since I noticed the problem, way back in the 1980s, what would it be like if the Trust wasn’t standing in the way of books by scholars, biographers, artists even, people who weren’t insiders with a significant and obvious conflict of interest. What are we missing?

Thus, Making a Photographer offers its first and perhaps biggest surprise: The Trust, either through a change of heart due to a change in leadership, cooperated with the making of the book, so much so that Senf praises them in the first paragraph of her acknowledgments and co-dedicates the book itself to William Turnage, the man responsible not only for leading the Trust until 2017 when he passed away but also for managing, from the 1970s onward, the business side of Ansel’s life with extraordinary success.

Or perhaps the Trust is a bit intertwined with the Center for Creative Photography, the repository of Ansel’s work, and Senf sits in some scholarly sweet spot, close enough for access, far enough away for scholarly independence? I do not know.

In any event, Senf, recognizing the opportunity, has, as I have said, produced a treasure box, a surprise full of other surprises.

One of my first Ansel books was a Christmas gift from my mother, the laser-scanned version of The Portfolios of Ansel Adams. There were, as I recall, two versions of the book, one printed in 1977 with a lower quality process, and one in the early 1980s with a much higher quality process—not two editions simultaneously but one replacing the other. The laser-scanned version was extraordinary. The images reproduced in its pages looked an awful lot like real silver-gelatin prints. The novelty of this might be hard to feel now with our abundance of high-quality photography books and the luscious colors on our computer monitors but back then it was very new.

The book reproduced seven of Ansel’s portfolios, from Portfolio One, in 1940, to Portfolio VII, printed in 1976.

The way most people—almost everyone—experiences a print by Ansel Adams in on the wall. It is framed with a black frame. If the frame is an older frame it will often be silver, the style for many years. There is essentially no opportunity to hold one in your hand, to see the silver-gelatin print the way Ansel did, without the intervention of the glass which, even with True-Vue Museum Glass which is nearly invisible, still imparts distance between the print’s surface and the viewer.

I had the good fortune to hold several of Ansel’s portfolios and to spend time with each. When I was a graduate student at Harvard, studying at the Kennedy School of Government, I was surprised to discover I had access not just to the resources of my own graduate school but access to the resources of the entire university. This included—I couldn’t believe it was true at the time—full access to the collection at Harvard’s renowned Fogg Art Museum.

The receptionist at the desk asked how could she help me and I told her. Was it possible to see the works by Ansel Adams in the collection? Of course, I was told. They sat me down and brought out the portfolio I had asked for. Then they left me alone. This was in the mid-1990s—the portfolio was quite valuable even then. I spent time with each print, writing a few notes in pencil—only pencil was allowed. I asked for another portfolio, and that brought that, too. I confess I went a little funny in the head and, greatly neglecting my studies over the next days, I saw everything that they had by Ansel Adams, everything by Edward Weston, everything by any photographer I had ever heard of.

But they didn’t have Ansel’s first portfolio. I don’t mean Portfolio One. They had Portfolio One, acquired about fifteen years before my visit, but they didn’t have a copy of Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, published in 1927, two decades before Portfolio One.

And that is the first surprise Senf offers. She reproduces all eighteen images of the images from that portfolio and more. She tells the story of how the Parmelian Prints came to be, tells the story in detail. The part about Albert Bender, Ansel’s early patron, encouraging the creation of the portfolio and ringing up all his wealthy friends to purchase copies I already knew. Senf supplies a more complete sense of the context in which the portfolio was created, noting, in those days when photography was not yet considered a serious art by most, how a portfolio of etchings depicting the Spanish missions the year before—another artist in Bender’s brood and published at the same press—served as a model. That earlier portfolio also served as a marketing model, the aim being to sell Parmelian Prints into the same Roaring Twenties awash-in-cash art supporters who were working to support the cultural life of San Francisco.

Senf’s thesis here and throughout the book centers on how this experience (and many others) offered Ansel an opportunity to not only reach an audience who would be appreciative of his work but to understand that audience’s reaction to his work, and then to craft work to which that audience would respond. No financially successful artist works as a hermit.

Though this book started once-upon-a-time as a PhD dissertation it is not filled with International Art English, the flatulent lingo of the art world. It’s filled instead with the photographs themselves, all of the images from Parmelian Prints printed small but several reproduced and discussed individually, in detail.

She tries to give you the sense of actually holding in your hand a print from the portfolio :

“[Ansel] printed the Parmelian Prints photographs on Kodak Vitava Athena parchment paper. This commercially produced gelatin silver paper lacks the opaque baryta layer typical of most black and white photographs. The resulting prints have a textured surface and warm-white highlights….When backed by paper or mat board, the photographs exhibit a narrow tonal range….At first glance, some of the prints look like woodblock or linocut prints, with dark, dense areas contrasting with sections of the textured paper that show no hint of tone. When the photographs are handled, however, the middle tones come to life; as light passes through the translucent parchment-like paper, subtle details that moments before were eclipsed in darkness become visible in dark passages or shadows.

There is a photograph in the book of Kearsarge Pinnacles, 1925, from the Parmelian Prints laying with a corner atop the portfolio’s folder. You can see the transparency of the printing paper, the part of the folder underneath it showing through quite unmistakably.

This is good stuff, not just telling us but showing us Ansel trying on different ideas as he developed as an artist. Textured paper, thin, transparent parchment, warm tones, all quite opposite of for what Ansel is today known. But he was excited about his new ideas at the time. This portfolio fed his ambition and he felt, with plenty of reason, that he was achieving new heights artistically and at the same time new horizons of possibility in his career as a photographer.

In a letter to his wife the dated same year as the publication of the Parmelian Prints portfolio (reproduced elsewhere, in Ansel Adams, Letters and Images, Edited by Mary Street Alinder and Andrea Gray Stillman) he wrote of his prints with great excitement and hope:

My photographs have now reached a stage when (sic) they are worthy of the world’s critical examination. I have suddenly come upon a new style which I believe will place my work equal to anything of its kind. I have always favored the effect of engravings—the neat, clean, clear-cut technique fascinates me. In this new effect I will try to combine the two processes of photography and the press into a result that will be exceptionally beautiful and unique. A print will be made on Parchment Paper, enclosed by a small, delicate black line, engraved directly upon its edge, leaving a spacious white margin. The title will also be engraved in very small and light letters near its lower edge, and the folder will also be engraved with the title and my name. The whole effect will be one of exquisite beauty.

Heady times, indeed!

In stark contrast to this youthful outpouring—Ansel was twenty-five years old at the time and would be married to Virginia a few months hence—he wrote again of his Parmelian Prints in the last months of his life in the exceptional Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. Senf quotes from the same passage but it is worth offering a more complete excerpt to give you the flavor of the atheistic distance he had traveled. The photograph in this example is the soft-focus Lodgepole Pines from 1921:

In the early days I experimented with many of the ways and means of photography on a rather haphazard basis….The Pictorialists of this period thought they represented the Art of Photography (and many still think so), and their knowledge of photographic techniques was transmitted to dilettante photographers through camera clubs and popular magazines. The Pictorialists seemed dedicated to the proposition that a photograph should not look like a photograph, but like some other form of graphic expression.

…The magazines of this time were, I recall, more informative than the popular publications of the present. They were addressed to the amateur (mostly the Pictorialist), and, of course, the style we now think of as “creative” hardly existed. During this period I made many prints on many papers and produced bromoils…I tried pinhole photography and explored the soft-focus lens possibilities…

His unexpected bitterness toward Pictiorialists and their work—a style of photograph that when he wrote this in the early 1980s had been out of fashion since the post-World War II years—suggests some deeper frustration. But he isn’t done yet.

While I have never been sympathetic to Pictorialist concepts, I have endeavored to discover what the photographers of this classification try to express. It is clear that the goal is to reflect closely the qualities of painting in photographs. These attempts are usually futile and inferior, for they betray the natural traits of our medium.

He goes on to say that photography has “since its inception been treated like a stepchild by the other arts”—note that he does not seem to be referring to the past here. He compares painters—or more accurately, the acclaim of painters—to the rigid views and opposing camps of communists and capitalists, this with the Cold War reaching new heights under Reagan’s presidency, a half dozen years or so shy of the Berlin Wall’s fall.

Did the frustration from all those years ago, and the debates about photography in which Ansel heartily and publicly participated, still root deeply within Ansel at his old age? He probably had good reason to be frustrated. Despite an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1979, then as now a pinnacle of any living photographer’s career, Ansel must have been discouraged that the photography that was otherwise shown had little to do with his aesthetic. And the prices for work by other photographers were ascending higher—much higher—than his own work, despite those artist’s youth, lack of historical knowledge of the medium, and their primitive technique. This generation of photographers, often entering art school as painters but finding photography more suited to their abilities, didn’t even want to be called photographers. They often chose instead the awkward phrase—and to a photographer insulting one—an artist who uses photography to describe themselves, which better suited this generation’s career and market ambitions, photography being something of a ghetto in terms of both.

Near the end of Ansel Adams: Photographer, a 1981 film, Ansel is shown working in Yosemite with a crowd of sweater-clad viewers, participating in a demonstration in which Ansel is explaining using instant film. The film is Polaroid Type 52, a black and white print sheet film for a 4×5 camera, which you expose in the camera and then develop by pulling the thin sandwich of light-tight papers and chemicals through a roller system in the special film back that can be inserted into the camera. The film develops inside the sandwich while you wait, and then you peel apart the layers in one quick motion, revealing a small photograph.

It’s a wonderful process—I made many Type 52 photographs in the 1990s in the final years of its manufacture.

In the film something goes wrong—the chemical pod with the developing agent doesn’t burst open properly Ansel says, leaving the print undeveloped and therefore entirely black. Ansel makes a few jokes to the assembled students, mock-ponders the “aesthetic possibilities” of the image, then hands the print to his assistant, John Sexton, instructing him to send it to the Museum of Modern Art.

Ansel was a long way from those Parmelian Prints, which couldn’t even be called photographs without lowering their market potential—but in some ways he really wasn’t that far at all.

In her book Senf shares the details how the sales of the portfolio progressed and relates that Ansel tried to market the portfolio to the members of the Sierra Club, then with a much more affluent membership (the copy in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art comes from one such sale which was then donated to the museum). He gifted a copy to the Sierra Club library where he hoped (probably correctly) that members would have a chance to peruse the images and would want their own. The portfolio—thanks to Bender’s phone calls and arts supporters in his network of friends, sold well. But none apparently, Senf finds, to Sierra Club Members.

(Part two of the review continues in the next post.)

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