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Art

The master develops

The 'Ansel Adams at 100' exhibition probes the photographer's changing artistic and darkroom processes.

February 02, 2003|Barbara Isenberg | Special to The Times

Ansel Adams rarely acknowledged Sundays or holidays. Until just a few months before he died -- at 82 on Easter Sunday, 1984 -- the photographer was in his darkroom nearly every day. The only difference was that on Sundays, his assistant didn't come by, and he'd complain that he couldn't get as much done.

Photographer John Sexton, a onetime Adams assistant, recalls a particularly frustrating morning for Adams in 1980. Struggling for hours to make a print, experimenting again and again with papers and developers, Adams emerged from his darkroom triumphant. "He said he'd finally got the print he wanted when he made the negative in the '30s," says Sexton. "Fifty years later, he still experienced the rush and magic of the process."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday February 08, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 14 inches; 520 words Type of Material: Correction
Ansel Adams exhibition -- The text of an article in Sunday's Calendar incorrectly stated that the "Ansel Adams at 100" show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will end April 27. As was indicated in an accompanying box, the correct end date is May 11.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 16, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 3 inches; 140 words Type of Material: Correction
Ansel Adams exhibition -- The text of a Feb. 2 article incorrectly stated that the "Ansel Adams at 100" show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will end April 27. As was indicated in an accompanying box, the correct end date is May 11.

Adams' process is at the core of "Ansel Adams at 100," opening today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (through April 27). More than 100 of his black-and-white images of mountains and sky, lakes and waterfalls in Yosemite, Canada, Alaska and other points west are included in the first major show to reevaluate his work since Adams' death.

Curated by John Szarkowski, director emeritus of the department of photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the traveling exhibition includes prints of the same negatives made at different times in Adams' life. "You could show two or perhaps even six versions of every picture in the show," says Szarkowski, who spent more than a year seeking the best prints he could find in public and private collections. "A photographic negative is a very plastic thing."

This was particularly true for Adams. According to William Turnage, managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, Adams made more than 40,000 negatives and probably printed 4,000 to 4,500 of those as fine prints -- many of them again and again.

Adams made every print himself. Trained as a pianist, Adams once told me he considered the negative the composer's score. "The print," he said, "becomes the performance."

Adams and photographic technology evolved over time, and so did the prints. Although not all of Adams' photos changed dramatically when printed at different times in his life, most of the prints he made after the '50s were larger, bolder and more likely to highlight the contrasts between light and dark.

Adams' prints of "Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake, Alaska" are an extreme example of that change, says Szarkowski. There are two such prints in the LACMA exhibition, both made from a 1948 negative -- one in 1949, the other in 1978. "It's a radical change," says Szarkowski, "and it really turns the picture into something with quite a different meaning."

In the later one, "the mountain looks as though it's already been victimized by some heavy industry pollution, like all of Ansel's conservation efforts failed. It's darker and heavier. Wonder Lake has a big dark spot Ansel burned in for some reason. I don't know why he did that."

The two versions of "Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake, Alaska" are next to each other in the LACMA show. "You can't walk away without realizing how many options are available to the photographer," says the museum's curator of photography, Robert Sobieszek. "There are an infinite number of choices that constitute the art of photography. The public will see that in a very clear way."

EVOLVING VIEWS

San Francisco-born Adams first put his West on film at 14, taking his Kodak Brownie box camera on a family trip to Yosemite. His early photographs represented just a "visual diary" of his outdoor experiences, he said once, but in time "the images began to mean something as images as well."

Adams spent much of his life working in a makeshift darkroom in the basement of his San Francisco home. But when he relocated south of Carmel in the early '60s, he designed a long, narrow darkroom that resembled a wide hallway packed full of big sinks, enlargers and other equipment. He used the metronome from his pianist days to time things by sound rather than be distracted by looking up at a clock.

After the '50s -- both his and the century's -- Adams was more likely to be in the darkroom than in the Sierras taking new pictures. "By the mid-'60s, he was making very few new photographs," observes Turnage. "The fire had gone out, which happens to artists, and I think he had said what he had to say visually."

As Adams grew older -- and looked more like Santa Claus in a Stetson hat -- he also fueled, accommodated and eventually profited from an accelerating interest in photography as art and investment. So instead of making just three or four prints of an image, he printed more to meet the increased demand of dealers, private collectors and museums.

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