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

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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 two. Part one can be found here.)

If a deep dive into the Parmelian Prints wasn’t treat enough (or new enough) for you, Making a Photographer explores in-depth Ansel’s photo album of the Sierra Club’s 1928 trip to the Canadian Rockies. It was a month-long adventure.

Ansel took about 250 photographs during the course of the trip with a range of cameras, producing 6 1/2-by-8 1/2 inch film negatives, 4-by-5-inch film negatives, 3 1/4-by-4 1/4-inch film negatives, and a handful of 4-by-5-inch glass plate negatives. He eventually assembled 178 prints into the album, all roughly 6 1/4 by 8 1/4 inches. He printed each photograph with a narrow white border and numbered them by hand. He then glued the prints onto large white pages, positioning them as singles or more often in groups of two, three, or four. He inscribed titles in pencil, sometimes labeling each print individually and in other instances titling the page. At times, he provided more extensive captions to identify people or mountain peaks, adding the corresponding text directly under the print.

I offer this quote from Making a Photographer to make a point: Ansel wasn’t just taking snapshots, he was working. He was trying to produce something very special.

A note of caution, of course, is in order. It is tempting to mythologize Ansel, as has often been done, marveling at the number of cameras he used, the obscure films and formats. But those big cameras weren’t what they are now, the tools of rarified artisans, toiling away in their chemical darkrooms, laboring like monks preserving the light in a darkening world. Those big cameras and now-obscure films were simply the tools of a professional and Ansel’s methods were those of a professional. His way of making photographs was just the way photographs were made in those days, if you wanted a quality image.

Turning once again to Examples: The Making of Forty Photographs, and drawing from the same entry on Lodgepole Pines as before, Ansel shares an anecdote where “…my companions would watch me struggle with some fragment of nature and shake their heads: “What in the world are you photographing that for?”

The perplexity Ansel’s fellow hikers felt wasn’t over Ansel wresting with some 4-by-5 view camera, tripod-mounted with its bellows extended, probably shooting some innocuous still life in the forest, a large case of accessories and film holders at his side, and just the general complexity and slowness of the process. They were perplexed by the subject matter—the gear and the process were normal to the day.

But Ansel was a professional, or was becoming one, and the range of cameras he took does hint at his ambition. And he was professional not just in technique but in his approach to subject matter. The photographs he chose for the Sierra Club album includes many landscapes—what we would immediately see, given our perspective, as prototypes for his more famous style that was to come. But it also includes many images of the trip itself, the personalities within the group, images of a line of people trekking through the snow, images of camp life.

Making a Photographer steps the reader through the Sierra Club Album, guiding you page by album page. It is essentially a guided museum show of Ansel’s work, which is a treat indeed. I’ve only seen the pages of this album once before, in an exhibit at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, and the presentation there had nowhere near the depth of detail on the album’s creation, the close observation of the photographs within the album, and certainly did not include the chronicling of the tangible results of its making.

Ansel kept a log of prints made from these images and a page is reproduced in the book. The log itself benefits scholarship immensely, offering clues as to the number of images and where they were sent. Senf says that about half of the prints made, mostly mountain views, went to participants in the outings, the others were sold (or given?) to art admirers who knew of Ansel from his Parmelian Prints.

The pictures of particular people probably served to stoke interest in the album amongst the Sierra Club members, I would guess. Created “buzz,” as they say now. But the sales were of pictures that you might hang on the wall.

With his album Ansel achieved a successful balance between photographs that might appeal to someone who was on that trip—shots specific to the people and to that event—and images of more general landscapes that might appeal to a wide range of people, even if they had not been on the trip or were even aware of it having occurred. He was learning.

But artistic evolution, like biological evolution, only seems linear from the outside, from afar. The reality is far messier, with many false starts and dead ends. The results of natural selection are often thought of as a fruitful, densely vegetated tree when in truth it is better thought of as a misshapen shrub, with many branches, mostly dead, and here and there a little green leaf sticking out.

You might expect that Ansel’s photographs in the Sierra Club album would be better the those of the Parmelian Prints. But looking over the images reproduced in the book, nothing looks particularly familiar. Many could have been made by any amateur photographer on that trip and it’s only Ansel’s name that makes me take notice.

By contrast, the images in the earlier Parmelian Prints seem overall to be much more considered in their composition and three of them are well-known.

The first is, once again, Lodgepole Pines which, despite being an example of a style that Ansel vilified he still included it in his publications and the last time I was in Yosemite the Ansel Adams Gallery there had one on the wall. Ansel seemed fond of the image and saw something luminous in it, something undefinable and beautiful.

The second image is a view of El Capitan. It’s not the first time the view had been photographed. I first saw this view as a child helping my grandmother organize her extensive stamp collection. Somewhere out in my garage there is still a sheet of one cent, green postage stamps from 1934 showing almost the same image as Ansel’s. Indeed, without the two side-by-side even a fan of Ansel’s work could be forgiven for thinking it was by Ansel and not by George Grant, the chief photographer of the National Park Service. (All of the images on the stamps from that series, in fact, look more Ansel-like than Ansel’s own photographs at the time.) Carleton Watkins’s image from 1866 is much the same. The view was, in fact, a well known one, popular with visitors, and much photographed.

The identity of the third image from the Parmelian Prints that remains known today might come as a shock, given how it is surrounded by weaker work, is the great Monolith, The Face of Half Dome. There is nothing quite like it before in Ansel’s work, nothing quite like it in the history of photography. Ansel made nothing quite like it again for many years. I’ve seen a print of the image from this earlier time and it is different than what you encounter in the better-known printings from later in Ansel’s life. The older print is small, brown-sh, and somehow fragile-looking. Senf has the images from Parmelian Prints helpfully reproduced all on a single page and there it sits, third in sequence in the top right corner of the page, aesthetically alone, as if Ansel didn’t at the time recognize what he had achieved.

But then that was it. The Sierra Club album has little of the Ansel magic. Whereas Parmelian Prints holds one astonishing photograph, one workman-like repeat of a famous view, and one glowing curiosity propelling themselves forward in the decades to come, the Sierra Club album is fascinating from a historical point of view but with little artistic value for us today. It was one of the dead branches in Ansel’s evolutionary tree.

Ansel, in recounting his own life, often mentioned Monolith as his epiphany that he could marry technique to subject matter in a way that captured not the scene before him but the feelings inside of him, but it was, he said, his visits to Sante Fe New Mexico, and his viewing of Paul Strand’s negatives that showed him the higher realms of image-making within his reach.

This is the version of the story best known but the fuller story is much richer in detail and in substance. Making a Photographer goes into detail on several of Ansel’s productive efforts that failed—most notably a book on Spanish Colonial arts with writer Mary Austin and arts specialist Frank Applegate, who also brought the financial connections to make the project happen. Austin and Applegate would write the texts and Ansel would make the images. Applegate, however, died unexpectedly at fifty years of age, dealing the project an equally mortal blow.

Taos Pueblo did not die. Austin and Ansel reconceived their project to focus not on Spanish Colonial art but on the pueblo itself, resulting in a dozen photographs which Senf shares and, once again, examines carefully, our expert guide in this less familiar territory.

Nine of the twelve images are of the pueblo structures, looking like most of the inhabitants are off on holiday elsewhere. One of these images, that of the rear of the church, I used to mistake for a Paul Strand image when I was a teenager, thinking Ansel copied Strand, until one day I checked the dates.

The other three images are portraits and here I made another mistake, rectified only by reading this book. For some reason—I’m embarrassed to say this—I did not realize the person wrapped in a blanket in Man of Taos—I guess I don’t read titles—with only their face showing, was a man. And if I had realized it was a man I did not know that this was Tony Lujan, a somewhat eccentric individual with a colorful life who became Ansel’s friend. The photograph included in Taos Pueblo was, in fact, made in San Francisco, in Ansel’s studio.

Ansel was a good student of finances and he modeled this production upon his Parmelian Prints project, though this time he took greater control as the publisher, contracting with Grabhorn Press, the high-end press that printed the pages for Parmelian Prints, paying Austin for her text, and shouldering the financial risk. His gamble paid off, the folio selling half of its copies before the publication date and the rest selling within a few years.

He was on his way, his confidence in his photography and, just as importantly, his confidence in his ability to make a living at photography, determining his life’s focus. He understood his audience.

In Making a Photographer the early portfolios glide by with Senf whispering in your ear, fleshing out the back story, pointing out telling details of the images, uncovering the nuts and bolts of the creation of the portfolios and their reception. The Center for Creative Photography, where she is the chief curator, has an extensive archive of material on Ansel and she seems to know it all.

After the portfolios before the Portfolios we are taken back to Yosemite and Ansel’s employment there as official photographer. The Curry Company wasn’t interested in art for art’s sake—they wanted to attract visitors and Ansel could serve that need while at the same time making his “personal” photos. There was friction, as you might imagine, and more and more friction as Ansel became known as a serious artist outside of his circle of connections. Ansel traveled to New York City to meet Alfred Stieglitz in 1933 and that successful encounter confirmed Ansel’s serious art ambitions.

But meanwhile, back at Camp Curry, we have pictures of happy campers golfing—in the Valley!—with sand pits!—pictures of tent cabins, back when tent cabins were sort of spread out in the trees versus packed in like shipping containers on a dock, as they are today. Guitar strumming campfire scenes? Got ’em. A Valley-view from Wawona tunnel, with the arch of the tunnel at the top framing Half Dome and the granite cliffs and mountains like some proto-Hallmark Card? Right there.

But Ansel is also hard at work on other images. A full-page display of his work in the San Francisco Chronicle—I’d never seen it before—shows nine waterfall images, and all good ones. This is Ansel, becoming Ansel Adams, getting on film something of the feel of the place rather than just the place itself.

Senf’s thoroughness can raise unexpected feelings—and unexpected desires—in the reader, you should be warned. I’m not a collector, not even of photography books, though a visitor to my home could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. I suspect the impulse to create art, at least the kind of art that I create, somehow overlaps and overwhelms any impulse to collect. But yet here I am reading about the postcards. Oh my, the postcards.

You may have seen them before. Old-fashioned, black and white postcards with scenes of Yosemite, with a description like “THE THREE BROTHERS – YOSEMITE” written in a large, stately font at the bottom. Yes, I should tell you this, those images really are by Ansel Adams. And, yes, I should not tell you this, Senf says those postcards aren’t just images by Ansel Adams, they are printed by Ansel Adams. I beat you to E-bay, just so you know.

Then we get to the Ahwahnee hotel menu. Millions of people know the Ahwahnee from the scarily accurate copy Stanley Kubrick made of it for The Shining. The main room that Jack types in, that’s it, with a few changes to accommodate the stairwell up. The elevators are red (but no blood has poured out on any of my visits) and the large vertical windows pour in the most beautiful light. I’ve only eaten in the main dining room a few times (I rarely bring the right clothes to the park with me and the bar serves good food and good drinks) but it is the fanciest place to eat in Yosemite.

In 1934 Ansel was using his images in the menu and writing the text, too. He’s drifting away from his serious art focus but he’s trying to make a living, too. The final separation came in 1937, probably long overdue, when the Curry Company published an advertising brochure using his images, but cropping them, overlaying a map upon them and—gleefully goofy from eighty-three year later—an Ansel image in tight vertical crop with a graphics-department-added smiling woman, skis in hand, overlaying it, the words “YOSEMITE Winter Sports” printed at the top in fun fonts.

Ansel supported himself with commercial work his entire life but it appears this was the point where he made a cleaner separation of the two, has personal, artistic work here, his commercial work over there.

And then, suddenly, we get our bearings. Senf has brought us to the National Parks Project, and turn the page and there is White House Ruin, Ansel’s remake of Timothy O’Sullivan’s image of the abandoned Indian cliff dwellings in Canyon de Chelly. There is another view of the whole of Canyon de Chelly from the overlook, there is the Manzanar shot with the boulders upfront, you can almost see Ansel standing high on the platform he built atop his woody wagon to get the shot with his 8-by-10, there is Lone Pine, the “LP” on the hill at the left Spot-toned out. Turn the page and there is Mount McKinley, a highlight of a wet, dreary trip, which wouldn’t surprise any visitor to that part of Alaska, though it is only dreary if you are expecting sunshine. There’s the lesser-known Maroon Bells and then, on the facing page, the grand Grand Tetons photo, the poster of which—so good it would fool most people into thinking it was a museum quality gelatin silver print—adorns many homes.

The arrival of Ansel Adams and his Mona Lisas, as he called them late in his life, comes a bit abruptly. Ansel is meandering, a bullseye now and then but otherwise much mucking about. But go back through the book and you see, in hindsight, his mature vision forming. There is Monolith, of course, but then there is Santa Fe, which had much of the deep aesthetic of his later national park work but with very different subject matter. But what really seems to have changed wasn’t Ansel freeing himself from working toward pleasing an audience but Ansel deciding to aim his work at the audience for arts rather than attempting some Venn diagram where advertising is one circle, his personal work the other, and the overlap where his energies would be invested.

It was a risky move but a sensible one—his growing reputation as a serious artist and his growing ability to support himself again key to his thinking. Ansel did not survive on the distributions from a trust fund, as surprisingly many artists today do, but worked for his money, the pressure to pay his bills (which he commonly referred to as “the wolf at the door”) a worry until the very last decade of his life. Then his fame, with the rapid increase in environmental awareness escalated to super-star proportions, with a Time magazine cover and commissions to photograph Jimmy Carter in the White House, brought extraordinary sales of prints and books, at last.

That very fame, and all that myth-building that goes with it, obscures the rise of a great artist. Some deify him, seeking out his tripod holes for their own images, cloaking straight-forward technical guides such as the Zone System into incompressible gobbledegook and making that the center of his achievement. I was at a show a year ago, an Ansel print on the wall, and I overheard a man telling his companion, in an awe-struck whisper, that Ansel was able to achieve what no other photographer could, capturing ten different tones in his images. His guest was impressed and so was I.

Others, being sophisticated, see little in his work other than crowd-pleasing postcards. Beautifully printed, well, yes, but nothing that would sell in New York City, nothing that would crowd the top ten photographs sold at auction. Andreas Gursky and Cindy Sherman reign there.

I’ve followed the same story arc in my thinking about Ansel, from being a devotee in my teenage years to considering his work hardly worth a look, except in affected-irony sort of way (this being in my 20s, also called my “October magazine years”). But time does funny things. The arrogance of youth gives way, the achievements of our predecessors changes from something to be mocked as worthless to something one looks at with a sense of your own failings by comparison.

Making a Photographer offers, again and again, new stories and new background to the formative years of Ansel’s development. It brings the treasures and the surprises from the Center for Creative Photography’s archive, and that of others, to the surface and shares them, in scholarly detail.

Senf’s book contains so much, it is so full, that it seems almost rude to complain about what seems missing. But I’ll make two quick notes, neither of which should diminish her achievement.

First, Ansel did not exist alone and other photographers may have helped shape his creative direction.

Timothy O’Sullivan is mentioned only once, in a footnote. The influence of O’Sullivan’s work may be important since in the mid-1930s Ansel had been gifted a set of prints by O’Sullivan and Ansel was to become an important promoter of O’Sullivan’s work, especially as a precursor to the kind of photography Ansel favored. It seems likely to me that O’Sullivan’s work may have played a role in Ansel’s thinking about the aesthetic direction of his own work. Likewise, the influence of Weston’s photography, and perhaps Weston’s bohemian lifestyle, must have been a factor, with Weston offering an example of another way, perhaps a purer way to pursue photography.

Second, our view of Ansel as a photographer—as he saw himself as a photographer—can be too shaped by how we see him today. And how we see him today has been largely shaped by how his work was marketed starting in the 1970s when Bill Turnage came on board as his manager. It needs to be stated boldly—Ansel did not see himself as only a landscape photographer. One only has to look at his first book for the New York Graphic Society, titled simply Ansel Adams. There are many landscape images but, counting them, they are in the minority. Ansel thought of himself as a photographer, not as a landscape photographer, even to the point of frustration that his 1979 MOMA show curated by John Szarkowski would exhibit only his landscapes. Making a Photographer looks perhaps too narrowly at times at Ansel’s work and doesn’t explore Ansel’s non-landscape images more fully.

But these are quibbles, perhaps fodder for some other work since no book can be all things.

Making a Photographer is a long-needed addition to the sparse scholarly research on Ansel Adams. It shares not only the fruits of Senf’s studies but, critically, shares the images that are so important to understanding Ansel’s work.

This book isn’t just a book, it isn’t just a resource, it is the foundation upon which all future books on Ansel’s early life and work will rest upon.

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