Stacy Platt teaches, among other classes, Introduction to Photography at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The class draws a wide variety of people — artists, naturally, but also engineering, nursing and business students.
But semester after semester, they all know Ansel Adams.
"All of my Intro to Photography students, that's the only photographer they know," Platt says. "They may not know the names of any other photographer past or present, but they all know Ansel Adams, and that's interesting to me."
Adams is most famous for his striking black-and-white landscape photography, a trademark style he staked out in the late 1920s and early 1930s, eventually helping form Group f/64 in 1932. At the time, Platt says pictorialist photography — that is, photography that imitates painted works — was the standard. Group f/64's members, all talented artists in their own right, rejected this approach, instead focusing on precise, controlled photos that portrayed the natural world rather than fantasy.
In 1979, Adams developed a survey of his most significant and favorite works, to encourage more museums to start building serious photography collections. These image groups, his Museum Sets, were assembled for educational institutions, museums and philanthropists — never for the open market. Jim Richerson, CEO of the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo, says that 16 sets were created, all different. He gave two of the largest sets, each consisting of 75 images, to his children, son Michael, now 82, and daughter Anne Adams-Helms, 81. Michael's set doesn't tour. But Adams-Helms' set is still touring the world.
On Friday, June 3, Adams-Helms' collection of her father's work comes to the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center, under the name Ansel Adams: Classic Images. It will be on display through Sept. 25. After that, the collection will transfer to its new owner, an anonymous party, who Adams-Helms expects will continue to put the collection on exhibition.
"I feel like it's in good hands, with someone who's going to share it with the world," she says. "That was Ansel's intention when he made [the museum sets] to try to make them more accessible." Adams-Helms declined to disclose the value of the collection, but she acknowledges that she does have plans to distribute the proceeds to charity.
"I don't know how much and to which organizations yet, but certainly there will be some donations made," she says.
In 1927, the year Adams took his iconic "Monolith, the Face of Half-Dome" photo, the art of photography was still new, a mere 90 years out from its invention.
Adams was part of a growing movement to break away from the soft-focus style of the pictorialist tradition, according to Platt. At the time, Adams was working in the San Francisco area, where he linked up with several other like-minded photographers to form Group f/64, named for an aperture setting on a camera. At their first collective show in 1932, Group f/64 consisted of seven members: Adams, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, Willard Van Dyke and Edward Weston. All seven are lauded as great photographers of their era, taking the art in many directions — dramatic, sweeping landscapes were Adams' favorite subject.
For Group f/64, photography as a fine art was about more than just sharp focus and realism. At the time, Platt says, Brownie cameras were on the rise. Brownies were a line of cheap Kodak cameras, first made in 1900. They were designed to make photography accessible to the average person, automating the process as most point-and-shoot cameras do today. So while populist photography drifted toward the amateurish snapshot, Group f/64 pushed photography toward the precision and tradition of any other fine art.
While Adams' work lionizes America's natural environments, for instance, Platt notes that Adams' subjects are not the whole story.
"What you see in an Ansel Adams print is not what happened behind the camera," she says. "When you look at the contact sheet, it looks unremarkable." Rather, it was in the darkroom where Adams transformed what he saw into the crisp, iconic images we know.
Adams started from a concept Weston coined, which Adams would later propagate — previsualization. It's the idea of having a final picture in mind before making an exposure, such as how filmmakers use storyboards to plan shots in advance. Previsualizing gives the photographer more control over the final piece's composition.
Adams exercised most of his influence in the darkroom. He developed the Zone System around 1940 along with pictorialist photographer Fred Archer. The Zone System, according to Colorado College Assistant Professor Emma Powell, is a means of dividing up a photo to better control the gray tones.
"The Zone System divides the image into 10 tonal zones," Powell said in an email exchange. "Each value from black to white is assigned a zone. Each zone step alters by one stop, which is an established method for controlling light in a camera and in printing. Zones are identified by Roman numerals with the middle gray being zone V. Adams used this method to highly control his printing process by selectively manipulating the amount of light in various areas of the print. The legacy of the Zone System is that it made photographers more aware [of] and able to control a wide range of gray tones in their photographs."
"The Zone System makes things very complicated," notes Platt, "but complicated is the way you get the kind of photographs that Ansel Adams got."
Part of Adams' legacy is his subject matter — America's natural landscapes. His most famous portfolios, according to Powell, were assembled for the Sierra Club, the 124-year-old conservation group founded by legendary naturalist John Muir. Adams was elected to the Sierra Club's board of directors in 1934 and was re-elected until voluntarily retiring in 1971.
"What people love about [his work], they love that he's monumentalizing nature, and that he's able to be master showman of the natural world, in a way," says Platt. "To his credit, he brought greater awareness to the American West and to all of these national parks. I think American culture has the appreciation and sense of national parks that we do in no small part because of what Ansel Adams did."
Adams' legacy is such that the National Park Service is hiring someone to take his old job. Back in December, the NPS put out a job description seeking someone experienced in large-format photography to, among other duties, take photographs for the Historic American Buildings Survey, (HABS), Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) and the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS).
In an interview between NPR's Audie Cornish and Rich O'Connor, the NPS's chief of heritage documentation programs, Cornish noted that while Adams is not the only person to have held the position, the ubiquity of his work makes his legacy hard to ignore.
"These programs greatly value composition and quality — two characteristics of Adams' photographs," NPS Public Affairs Officer Jeremy K. Barnum said in an email. "Moreover, as programs in the National Park Service, they work closely with all national parks and programs, affording the photographer the opportunity over his or her career, to shoot some of our iconic architectural, engineering and landscape sites."
There's another reason Adams' work still sets expectations for the job: format. O'Connor says that such large photographs contain massive amounts of data — enough "to be blown up to huge proportions and retain all of their visual clarity." Further, Adams shot onto large-format photographic plates — sheets of glass with light-sensitive chemicals similar to those used in photographic film.
"The negative, when properly stored, as ours are at the Library of Congress, has the longest lifespan that we can imagine," O'Connor said.
"They estimate 500 years."
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