Ansel Adams was an artist totally in thrall of the sublimity and divinity of the natural world. Following a trip to Yosemite National Park aged 14, he famously wrote that his ‘first impression of the valley—white water, azaleas, cool firm caverns, tall pines and stolid oaks, cliffs rising to undreamed of heights, the poignant sounds and smells of the Sierra … was a culmination of experience so intense as to be almost painful’.
This philosophical mode of thinking – sentiments found before him in the Transcendentalist writing of Thoreau and Emerson, and redolent of an inaugural, singular American experience that proves beguiling to this day – would inform his photographic work in a career that lasted over 60 years, beginning proper with the publication of his Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras portfolio in 1927. His work – consistently straddling artworld and populist appeal – has since become some of, if not the most recognisable in the pantheon of 20th century American photography.
‘Ansel Adams: Masterworks from Seven Decades, 1928–1982’, currently on show at the Quintenz Gallery in Aspen, Colorado, is a major retrospective comprising the entirety of one of the most significant private collections of the photographer’s work, the majority of which has not been publicly displayed in years. The unnamed Florida collector’s archive (compiled over 27 years) features some of Adam’s most significant images, largely focussing on those made under the Group f/64 banner – the sharp-focus photographic organisation founded by Adams and Willard Van Dyke in the early 1930s and which also factored Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham among its ranks.
Highlights of the exhibition include versions of many of Adam’s most feted works, from Yosemite images such as Clearing Water Storm, c. 1937 and Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite Nation Park, 1960, to unique photographs that are likely to be the only surviving evidence of their negatives, including a large-scale print of Mount Dana, Tioga Lake, Yosemite National Park from the 1960s and a 1930s print of El Capitan, Yosemite National Park. In addition, Rose and Driftwood, 1932, an iconic image of a rose in full bloom, is one of the show’s key pieces, due to the fact that it was also exhibited in Adam’s first New York exhibition, at Delphic Studios in 1933.
Widely acknowledged as a seminal photographer’s photographer, Adams’ influence on both the technical and aesthetic aspects of the medium is indisputable, and his oeuvre startling in its consistency. Crucially, the awe he held for his subject matter never diminished.
‘Wilderness, or wildness, is a mystique. A religion, an intense philosophy, a dream of ideal society—these are also mystiques,’ he explained when addressing the Wilderness Society four years before his death in 1984. ‘As the fisherman depends upon the river, lakes and seas, and the farmer upon the land for his existence, so does mankind… depend upon the beauty of the world about him for his spiritual and emotional existence.’
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