The Viewfinder

Ansel Adams spotted the scene in
Ansel Adams spotted the scene in "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" (1941) in his rearview mirror. The photograph is among the 125 at the Corcoran Gallery. (Images From The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ansel Adams produced some of the most iconic and breathtaking images of the great American outdoors: His famous photo of the church and tombstones in Hernandez, N.M., beneath the rising moon; images of New Mexico pueblos under the hot sun; quivering aspens at dawn in Colorado; and the peaks of the Sierra Nevada in California by every light you can imagine.

Today, the Corcoran Gallery of Art is opening a touring show that includes more than 125 of those fine-art photographs of nature.

They may show nature, but the first thing I see in them is the Great American Automobile. When I look at "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," I see the Pontiac station wagon Adams was driving along Highway 84, at 4:49 p.m. on Nov. 1, 1941, when he caught sight of an old-time Spanish settlement in his rear-view mirror, then screeched to a halt to capture it on film. In the pueblo pictures, I see the fancy Buick that Adams drove 2,400 miles in 1927, speeding him and its wealthy owner from their homes in San Francisco to the Southwest and back. Those magical pictures of Yosemite put before me all the vehicles it took to haul the 200 hikers of the Sierra Club -- the young photographer was an assistant manager for its outings -- to the trailhead.

Of course, none of those cars are visible in Adams's photos. (Or not in most of them, at any rate. More on that below.) But they are a hidden presence that helps give his photos force and builds their meaning. Adams and his images are a product of the glory days of Machine Age America, and they speak about it.

Adams's photos aren't just about landscape. They're about the particular confrontation between technology and landscape that made those photos possible. The images of the Sierra Nevada are as much about getting easy access to those mountains -- even with dozens of pounds of large-format camera equipment -- as about the mountains themselves. America's love affair with its landscape has never been only about the natural wonders it contains. It's been about pride in America's ownership of those wonders and the ability to go out from settled centers to take them in. Technology made it ever easier to make the trek; photographic technology made it possible to seize the instant of encounter and commemorate that ownership.

Let's not forget that Adams was the most technological of artists. In the 1930s, he helped found a group called f/64, named after the second smallest aperture on a view camera's lens -- the one that gave the sharpness that is such an Adams trademark, running from the nearest pebble to the farthest peak in every photograph. The movement's name, like its photographs, does homage to the power of photography's machinery as much as to the subjects it captures.

I owe Adams a debt of gratitude: He was the first artist I discovered on my own, as a 13-year-old wandering into a local gallery. His stunning pictures got me started in my love of art, and even led me, briefly, to a career in photography. What they didn't do -- and I bet I'm not alone in this -- is send me out to nature. They got me exploring, all right, but in the local camera stores and darkroom-supply houses, and into the depths of all the complex how-to books that Adams wrote.

Adams's own oft-told "eureka" moment came in 1930, when he paid a visit to Paul Strand, a pioneering modernist photographer from New York, when both were staying in New Mexico. (In a letter, Adams later reminded Strand of their encounter -- by recalling a drive they took together.) During that visit, Adams got a look at some of Strand's preternaturally crisp negatives -- there were no prints on hand -- and said it changed the way that he took photographs. What isn't even mentioned in that telling is the subject of those photographs, which would have been the hardest thing to read in negative. The moment's all about the legible technique that went into their making. Think about it for a moment, and you realize that Adams's greatest landscape images have more in common, as images, with Strand's famous photos of the gleaming insides of an Akeley movie camera than with any Frenchman's brushy "impression" of nature. At first, Adams's photos had tried to echo impressionist effects. The breakthrough moment came when Strand set him on another, more modern path.

At the Corcoran, think of how much the staccato repetition of pickets in an Adams fence, or the swirls of leaves in a view down on a forest floor, recall the almost abstract photos of machinery and gears that were pioneered in Europe in the 1920s. A slender white cross leaning drunkenly against a California sky looks like a motif from a radical Russian abstraction -- a few raking lines and angles balanced in a void -- pasted into the Western landscape. Adams's talent lies, maybe, in how he transfers a machine aesthetic out of the big city and into nature -- a classically American move.

In fact, the closest thing I know to the particular Sublime of Adams's high-contrast landscapes is the black-and-white photography Apollo astronauts brought back with them from space. In his most famous and successful photos, Adams's gaze is less immersed in the nature he shows than directed to some remote other, out there at an airless remove from us. It's the gaze of someone coming into nature from a world of machines and dependent on machinery to take that nature back with him, frozen and laid out for study, crystal-clear in all its parts. (Compare Adams to his younger colleague Lee Friedlander, whose great subject is everyday industrial America and whose photos show him swimming in it.)

At the Corcoran, there's an Adams self-portrait that depicts him only as a shadow, complete with tripod and huge camera, cast onto the landscape from afar. That same split reality, with light the only bridge between the photographic technician and the natural subject, is there in everything he shot.

Even well after color film had been perfected, Adams preferred the extra level of artifice that comes with black and white -- its dramatic ability to squeeze all of reality into a single continuum between gloom and effulgence. With a color photo, you can just about imagine yourself in the flesh in front of its subject. With black and white, there's no way you could be there: You know at once you're seeing through technology. Adams's art is built around that knowledge.

An Adams black-and-white is photography at its most technical: It depends on knowing everything there is to know about a film stock's "characteristic curve" and "spectral sensitivity graph" and other photographic esoterica. Ask anyone who's mastered Adams's famous Zone System -- a kind of 10-step program for perfect photographic exposure -- and they'll speak of long nights in the darkroom and eyes blurred from formulas.

None of which is meant to imply, for a second, that Adams is some kind of fake, or that he wasn't, to his very core, a true lover of nature or that his images are any less impressive than they seem. But what makes them powerful is the special tension inherent in them between the technology they depend on and the untechnological scenes they show. It's a tension we all respond to, because we're living it each time we glimpse a view from the car window.

Adams did take photos -- photos that are barely known -- that make their Machine Age context clear. But somehow they never speak as clearly of America's industrial reality as the ones that turn that context into subtext. In all the decades before he became an icon of photography -- great fame hit only in the 10 or 15 years before his death in 1984, at 82 -- Adams practiced as a commercial photographer, shooting whatever products or people he was paid to shoot. Such an image, of the U.S. Potash works in Carlsbad, N.M., is in the Corcoran show: It has all the hallmarks of Adams's technique, but falls flat compared with those photos where his technology comes head-to-head with nature.

Just by chance, The Washington Post also owns a bunch of Adams advertising shots, discovered in a drawer more than 10 years ago. There's not much of a clue to where they came from, but they feature trademark Adams subjects: the giant trees of northern California, the cliffs and peaks of Yosemite. Yet, in each shot, cars and roads bring people into the scene, so they can have fun and look sexy and, generally speaking, sell the tourist landscape all around them. One of them is a classically Adamsian shot of a famously huge tree -- with a shiny eight-door custom Cadillac parked at its base, disgorging happy city folk. In his commercial work, Adams depicted America's mechanized reality. His art displays its alter ego.

Ansel Adams, on tour from the Lane Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through Jan. 27. Call 202-639-1700 or visit

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