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In Pursuit of Stillness : Ansel Adams didn't just photograph nature, he also created and championed it : ANSEL ADAMS AND THE AMERICAN LANDSCAPE: A Biography, By Jonathan Spaulding (University of California Press ($34.95; 516 pp.)

February 11, 1996|Chris Goodrich | Chris Goodrich is a regular contributor to Book Review

To the American Westerner, at least, the remark is laughably wrong-headed--French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson saying in the 1950s: "The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!"

Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, both longtime Californians, certainly did photograph rocks, and trees and ice and shadows and cliffs and pebbled beaches. But what rocks, what trees! They also photographed people and were sympathetic to political art--each befriended radical muralist Diego Rivera--yet found something special, incomparable in the natural world: the transcendence captured in Thoreau's credo that "in wildness is the preservation of the world."

Jonathan Spaulding, in this first major biography of Adams, aims to put the photographer in context: as a craftsman in a new field, a master of a maturing art, a pioneer in environmental activism. And in general he succeeds, portraying Adams as a man who couldn't stand still in his pursuit of perfect stillness. Spaulding, an independent scholar based in Pasadena, spares us amateur psychology, but on concluding this book it's tempting to Hsee Adams (1902-1984) as a man searching for his Other, on a vision quest to serve and subdue Mother Nature at the same time.

Although Adams loved the great outdoors, living for years in Yosemite Valley while working for the Curry Co. or in his wife's photo studio, he never aspired to be a realistic chronicler of natural wonder. Adams was after something much more dramatic, and his favored method was an orderly photographic technique he called "visualization"--in Spaulding's words, "the conscious control of the medium to produce a preconceived result." Adams didn't seek to capture timeless natural moments. He actively created them, with filters and lenses and films and sometimes double exposures, seeking to express on photographic paper the possibilities he saw in his head.

Adams was born in San Francisco and for much of his early adulthood expected to make his living as a musician. His 1926 encounter with Bay Area arts patron Albert Bender changed that, though; his photographs of Yosemite and the high Sierra, with which he had fallen in love (Kodak Brownie in hand) a decade before, struck Bender as the work of genius. The result was a bound portfolio that proved both critically and commercially successful and, in 1936, a one-man show at Alfred Stieglitz's New York gallery--the first such Stieglitz-sponsored show in nearly 20 years.

Adams, at last, could consider himself a legitimate artist and his landscapes, legitimate art. But it would be many years before he could afford to turn down lucrative commercial assignments, or before many viewers realized he did anything more than show up at the right place at the right time.

Spaulding, intent on exploring the development of the landscape photography field as well as the aesthetic of its best-known practitioner, at times passes too quickly over the purely biographical material. It's clear, though, that the contradictions manifested in Adams' art--the need to both serve and master nature--also appeared in his personal life.

Adams was deeply and passionately involved with the Sierra Club yet occasionally helped celebrate environmental degradation, as when his beautiful photograph of a strip mine (taken on assignment for Fortune) adorned the 1951 annual report of Kennecott Copper. He loved roughing it--his recommended camping diet was said to be "salt, sugar, bacon, flour, jelly beans and whiskey"--but unlike his friend Weston, he wanted to maintain the upper-middle-class lifestyle established by his affluent grandparents. His choices of medium and subject imply an affinity for solitude and isolation, but Adams was in fact gregarious, and some of his most famous photographs--such as "Aspens, Northern New Mexico"-- were taken just a few feet off the road and with the help of assistants.

You won't find "Aspens" in this volume, which is undoubtedly its biggest drawback. Spaulding was refused permission to reproduce photographs controlled by Adams' trust, meaning that most of the works included here are either not by Adams or are not particularly representative. And of the Adams' images included here, some suffer from too-small reproduction; massive thunderheads over the Anza-Borrego desert aren't very impressive when no bigger than your thumb.

The illustration caveat aside, though, "Ansel Adams and the American Landscape" is an impressive and thoughtful biography.

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