Was Ansel Adams A Landscape Photographer?

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If you google “greatest landscape photographer” and expect to hit a link for Ansel Adams you would be wrong. You get a page of click-bait links, all with numbers in the titles: 25 Best Landscape Photographers Of All Time, The Best landscape Photographers You Need to Follow in 2020, 15 Inspiring Landscape Photographers, Top 12 Landscape Photographers Working Today, and on and on.

Including a number in the title is a recommended way to make Google’s search engine happy, inducing the search algorithm to place your empty-headed list of nothing-cicles above everyone else who is doing equally content-free lists.

In 1996 I put up on the “World Wide Web” (as we called it then) what may have been the first online exhibition of photographs. It wasn’t a portfolio, it more akin to a gallery or museum show of my Polaroid instant film images. 52 Photographs—the film I used was called “Type 52” (there were only thirty-five images in the show)—was intended as a real exhibit, with a lovely brown background beautifully setting off the black and white images.

Normally you’d see white or off-white walls at museums but my local museum where I grew up, the Akron Art Museum—a stellar small museum which at the time specialized in photography—once had a show that included Ansel’s work on their second floor. I will never forget when the elevator doors opened I was immediately facing this chocolate brown wall with a print of Ansel’s Clearing Winter Storm, perfectly lit. That was special.

So I borrowed the idea for my web exhibit and it did look good, maybe it looked great.

In those days we had high hopes for the Internet. An innocence about it, really. People online were friendly. I sold prints—$450 each. For an unknown photographer! In 1996! Off the Web! This was a new world.

Today the Internet is filled with political memes and clickety-click-bait, all fine-tuned to uncover and feed upon some primal urge within us, something that civilization had chosen to cover and shape to its own needs. Instead of a utopia, the Internet may be, without the slightest exaggeration, ruining the world. Or, as I should write, The 12 Secret Steps On The Way To The Apocalypse. Click-baiting the headline will make Google, our life partner, oh so happy as it carefully considers our every need.

Who is the greatest landscape photographer? Don’t click, I did. The greatest landscape photographer is apparently someone named Charlie Waite. From his website: “Instantly recognisable, Charlie Waite’s landscapes are rare perfections of light, colour and composition, offering the viewer a glimpse of a moment of beauty carefully framed by a master craftsman.” I guess from the spelling that he is English.

Ansel is second on the list. “Related article: Best Online Photo Printing Services,” it says in blue above a version of Moonrise, Hernandez so scarred by compression artifacts that I can’t tell if that thing in the sky is the Moon or the Sun.

Ansel probably would have been horrified at the damage done to his most famous and most sold image but maybe not as horrified by his position in second place. Despite book after book filled with his landscape images, despite the exhibits, despite the postcards and the calendars and the replica prints and the posters, despite the gift cards and despite the DVDs, Ansel didn’t think of himself as a landscape photographer and sometimes chaffed at the label.

He had good reason not to think of himself as a landscape photographer.

Throughout his life Ansel made money by shooting commercial work, always worried about the bills. It was only in the last years of his life when his fame—and print prices—reached the point where he could rely solely on his artwork for an income. How and why that happened is largely a matter of a lifetime of photographing and publishing and teaching, but is also a matter of Bill Turnage.

Turnage was a graduate student at Yale in 1970 and invited Ansel to give a series of lectures at the school, which he did. Soon (very soon, he left school) Turnage was involved with the Friends of Photography (briefly its first, a San Francisco photography organization dedicated to the sort of f/64 photography Ansel favored), managing the newly re-named (at Turnage’s suggestion) Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite National Park and then the creation of the Ansel Adams Publishing Trust, Turnage at the helm. But what Turnage did, starting early on, was recognize what is so obvious to us but what was not at all obvious then—that Ansel should stop all commercial work and spend all of his energies on his “personal” work, especially his archive of images made in the 1930s and 1940s.

Soon Ansel would be rich and then richer yet. Turnage had lots of ideas on how to make money and lots of those ideas worked. To give you a hint of the wealth, consider that at the beginning of the 1970s Ansel was still doing work-for-hire, the “wolf” still at the door, a metaphor he favored. By the end of the 1970s he was donating $250,000 to endow a curatorial chair at MOMA—adjusted for inflation that amount today would be one million dollars.

That’s quite a change in fortune and in a short time.

Bill Turnage, photographed in 1977 by Judy Dater.

Ansel worked hard for that money. Turnage worked him hard. Writing to Mary Alinder (who later authored the best full biography of Ansel—her chapter, Price Rise, on these very issues is typically excellent, written from her first-hand experiences) Ansel, in 1981, three years before his death, complained about the press of business:

I find that I am much more bothered with extraneous pressures and conflicts;…the workshops, the stupidities of the National Park Service; the pressures of “business” which Bill [Turnage]—with all good intensions—keeps very much alive. The “poetic moment” is rare these days, I can assure you. Things become more and more complex—word processors, heart seminars, local oppositions, endless letters[…]requests for information[…]. I am not against word-processors, typewriters, Cadillacs and such—but I do not know of a truly creative person who works under the pressures that I do. Instead of reserving energy for the “magical moments” of imagination I am confronted with continuous involvement. I am amazed that I have done so well so far—but I must tell you that the breaking-point many not be far off. I feel it coming—I did not want it to come—I want to do everything. But I cannot continue as I am with the various pressures pressing the creative life out of me.

I have invited my own condition. I wanted to show that a creative person could live in the world, and not in a shrine. This worked fine to a point—but the point is very close when it won’t work.

Don’t get the wrong impression. Turnage wasn’t some puppet-master, greedy to milk Ansel. Turnage was a committed environmentalist and good at business. And Ansel wanted that business. Indeed, Turnage worked for Ansel, not the other way around. Ansel wanted the money but he was conflicted. He wanted the money and he wanted to make his photographs, print his old negatives, so many still unprinted. There’s a tension there, one that is no secret to artists without family wealth.

When I was young it was no secret to me. I would work forty, fifty hours at a minimum wage job—$3.25 an hour in the early 1990s when I was in my early twenties—come home exhausted and just not have the energy to make images, not the inclination to set the enlarger up on the kitchen table in my small apartment, put the blankets over the windows, pour the water into the trays. Or cut back on the time at work and have little of that ungodly expensive Ilford Galerie paper on which to print.

It’s all sort of abstract and maybe even a little romantic to imagine such scenes, but it wasn’t abstract for Ansel. He was never poor but he knew and admired Edward Weston, who took a different path in life, one focused upon the work itself (and occasionally upon receiving checks from his ex-wife to keep him going). He dreamed of Weston’s freedom but he had no illusions about Weston’s poverty.

Wallace Stegner, writing in the introduction to Ansel Adams, Letters and Images, 1916-1984, mentions Ansel using the word “shrine” in the same way as quoted above, written years before his 1981 letter to Alinder:

The artist Ansel Adams has been before the public for more than a half-century. But the man Ansel Adams, the one his family and friends and associates knew, never hid or withheld himself. Once, oppressed with obligations, commitments, and overwork, he exclaimed to Edwin Land [the famous inventor of instant film and of the Polaroid Corporation] that he wished he could live like Weston, holed up on Wildcat Hill, working only when he pleased and keeping aloof from the rat race. Land said to him, “Weston lives in a shrine. You live in the world.”

So what made Ansel rich, and not just famous but a little mythological? It wasn’t the Hillsboro coffee can with Clearing Winter Storm inked on it, from before Turnage’s time. It wasn’t even the Datsun commercial after Turnage arrived. It was the books, lots of books, and the gold mine of a concession in Yosemite Village, the Ansel Adams Gallery, selling the man, the myth, the legend.

I have two of the Special Edition Ansel Adams prints from the Gallery—basically 8x10s printed on silver-gelatin paper made with extraordinary faithfulness by Ansel’s former assistant Alan Ross. It is said that he prints them himself. Mary Alinder, again in her biography of Ansel, reports that by 1994, ten years after Ansel died, Ross had made more than fifty-thousand of these prints, and of those nearly five-hundred a year just of Moonrise.

And that’s just it. His pictures were famous, some of them. No one really paid much attention to his still life work, and his portraits sort of just broke up the sequence a bit while you waited for the landscapes, and the images of leaves and bits of bark from his landscapes were sort of just a frame for the Mona Lisa’s, the grand images of Yosemite Valley, of Zeus-like clouds and of primally pure water erupting off a cliffside.

You can see that his fame for landscape work didn’t match his own idea of his photographic achievements. Alinder’s book, so full of telling anecdotes, relates one where in the late seventies, Ansel wanted to put a picture of a detail of tree bark on the cover of Yosemite and the Range of Light—which would go on to sell a quarter-million copies in its first five years (which is to say, the last five years of Ansel’s life). The publisher thought maybe better to use a Mona Lisa? Maybe Clearing Winter Storm, yet again? “…to which Ansel replied with a sigh, ‘Everyone’s seen that.'” And that was the point of putting it there, of course.

Here’s another example. From Turnage on, it was landscapes and more landscapes. But what about before Turnage? We have an excellent resource in the book Ansel Adams published in 1972 by the New York Graphic Society. It was printed just as Turnage got going so it either predates him or comes in very early in the process, and Ansel is still very much in control of choosing the images for the book. Open the pages and what do we find? If we count the images, sort them by genre, what do we find?

Well, we find landscapes, of course. Of the one hundred and seventeen images in the book just under half are landscapes, including numerous landscape details—pictures of bark, up close, pictures of leaves, filling the frame, pictures of glacier patterns on stone.

What’s in the other half?

There’s a lot of architecture, not only of Santa Fe but of random bits of this and that. A suburban street out a screen window, a “message” image of a white statue of a downcast woman, a gravesite, with oil rigs in the background, a broken-glass abstract, a wood plank fence with a farm-implement hanging over its edge.

There’s Walker-Evans-ish billboards and country road signs and a dead-hawk-staked-to-a-cross-on-a-mountain shot that I should really classify as a landscape (pushing the total over 50%) but I chose to classify as a dead-hawk-staked-to-a-cross-on-a-mountain shot, instead. It’s its own genre.

What makes up the bulk of the non-landscapes, however, are portraits, lots of portraits. There are thirty-five of these, nearly one-third of the book. The first appears as plate 10 and the final one on plate 116, that last one part of an unbroken run of nine portraits that end the book, not including a final shadow self-portrait of Ansel that serves as a visual coda. The front dust cover of the book features a landscape, the back a portrait.

Ansel was proud of his portraits, though I’m sure they rank at the bottom of his images that sell. Well, his Still Life with Egg Slicer from 1932 would give his portraits competition for low sales, I acknowledge. But the general dissonance between Ansel’s public image and Ansel’s self-image couldn’t be clearer.

His portraits include austere studio images, clean, hard shadows from the light above, to moody, shadow-bound images of a man working a large printing press (an image I’ve long been fond of). His portraits include Paul Strand-like family gatherings and, believe it or not, several “street” images. One of the pictures you could make money with yourself, arraying a selection of Ansel and Dorothea Lange images on a table and betting another person that can’t identify the photographer of each. The money-maker is Ansel’s Trailer Camp Children, an image so utterly unAnsel-like that they should just give in and start including it in Lange’s books from this day forward.

Again we have a contrast. For his 1974 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art the advice Ansel was given, and the advice that Ansel took, was to include more portraits since (once again, quoting from Alinder’s book) “…the New York audience was different from that of the West Coast; few Easterners had actually visited a national park.” Just a few years later, to the consternation of Ansel, John Szarkowski is putting only landscapes into the MOMA show.

It’s a trap, in a way, the thing you want sitting right there after a lifetime, finally within reach. But then that strange rope circling it, leading off into the shadows.

Andrea Stillman, another of Ansel’s assistants, shares a letter to her from 1981, written between Ansel’s MOMA show in 1979 and his death in 1984, where, at the peak of success, he wrote:

I was NOT immersed in the Landscape [in 1936]; I was a photographer, and that covered a large field of effort. I did NOT make myself a landscape photographer—the public did. There were times when I could EXPLODE at this emphasis.”

That’s a lot of anger for a seventy-nine-year-old, a millionaire many times over and world-renowned for his work.

But that is the nature of the trap.

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