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Ansel Adams, in Sharper Focus

ART

A new survey of his landscape photographs concentrates on the work of the Modern artist, not the pop-culture icon.

August 12, 2001|JUDITH COBURN | Judith Coburn is a freelance writer who lives in Northern California

SAN FRANCISCO — On Aug. 4, "Ansel Adams at 100," the first major retrospective of the photographer's work since his death in 1984, opened at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. Curated by John Szarkowski, director of the department of photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art from 1962 to 1991, the show commemorates Adams' centennial (he was born Feb. 20, 1902) and offers a fresh interpretation. Now as famous for posters and postcards as for fine art, Adams is something of a pop figure. But Szarkowski sees him as an important Modernist and an artist of profound vision.

From San Francisco, where it will be on view until January, the show will travel to Chicago, London and Berlin before arriving in Los Angeles in the summer of 2003 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and then moving on to MOMA in New York.

Five days before the opening, while captions were still being stenciled on gallery walls, Szarkowski talked about Adams and the exhibition as he strolled among the 141 photographs and pointed out his discoveries and choices with a passion deepened by decades of looking at pictures.

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Question: Ansel Adams is arguably the most popular photographer in America. Many people assume they already know his work. Has his art been obscured by his popularity?

John Szarkowski: Virtually all of the work we've seen in the last 40 years has been selected from the checklist of the very large exhibition in 1963 shown at the DeYoung [Museum in San Francisco] by Ansel and [photo historian] Nancy Newhall. I don't mean to suggest that wasn't an intelligent and significant exhibition. But I think it did serve agendas that Ansel and Newhall had at the time which I don't have to worry about. I don't have to worry about the effect of the show on Ansel's subsequent professional career. He did. In 1963, he was a famous photographer who was by no means financially secure. So he had to worry about whether people would like it. And also he and Nancy had profound misgivings about the state of American photography, and so they wanted to put that right and demonstrate what the real values should be.

And then, as Ansel became more popular, he was, as most of us would be, pleased. [He laughs.] And he listened to the applause. How can I say it? He wasn't really polling the public; in his books and shows he was sincere. But sincerity can be influenced by whether people like your work or not, and so he became more of a public figure and he thought of himself that way. And he wasn't really creating new work while the old work got more and more attention. And I think he lost touch with the original impulse that had formed the work.

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Q: Is regaining that original spirit one of the purposes of the show?

Szarkowski: I'm not trying to revise Ansel Adams or invent an Ansel Adams that's more available to the modern sensibility. I'm trying to look at the total work of an artist for whom I have the highest regard and a deep sense of obligation, and to say, "What in this work is the achievement on which we will base our opinion of Adams as a 20th century artist?"

And it's as a highly original landscape photographer that that judgment will be based. Some people will say, "Oh, he just photographed what Carleton Watkins did." But he didn't. Watkins was a great photographer who photographed Yosemite as geology. Landscape for most of the great 19th century photographers was fundamentally immutable. But Adams invented a landscape that was defined by all the central issues that define Modern art--relativity, mutability, the provisional character of even a mountain. You turn your back on the mountain [Szarkowski peers over his shoulder] and turn back, and it's changed because a different light is falling on it. That plastic, constantly changing quality of the prehistoric world is what Adams' photographs are really about.

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Q: When did you first meet Adams?

Szarkowski: I met Ansel in 1962. But my relationship goes back much further than that. I read and tried to understand his [1935 book] "Making a Photograph" when I was a teenager. I was a photographer for many years before I became a curator.

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Q: In those early years, how many California photographers were well-known in the East?

Szarkowski: Oh, a lot. Ansel, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Bill Garnett, the great aerial photographer, I'm sure I'm leaving out some. California had been a photographic hotbed for a while. On the East Coast, people knew [Alfred] Stieglitz, [Paul] Strand, [Charles] Sheeler--there was work to look at, to base one's ideas on. In the West, the photographers grew up in relative isolation. Adams met Weston in about 1929. At first, he wasn't overwhelmed by his work. Imogen was up the coast, farther north. So they were much more autodidacts, and it's fascinating that so many of them made such a large contribution.

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Q: You've written that Adams was out of step with the social realism of most photographers during the Depression and World War II.

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