Ansel Adams is probably best known as the great living American landscape photographer whose lofty subjects are exceeded only by the prices of his prints -- often more than $10,000 a pop, when they crop up at auctions or private sales.
Unfortunately, this is a legacy that Adams neither created nor desired. He prefers to be known as an impish, charming man who made a few good photos in his day. And this is the image that emerges in "Ansel Adams: Photographer," an enlightening, enjoyable, sumptuously photographed one hour biography that airs at 8 tonight on Channel 26.
Adams, who at 79 years of age still works in his Carmel, Calif, darkroom five days a week making prints for museums, is a biographer's dream subject. The closets of his house are stuffed with old prints and memorabilia, and his brain is packed with enough information and anecdotes to fill volumes. It all comes tumbling out in director John Huszar's film: the snapshots Adams made when he first visited Yosemite at age 14; the electronic beeper he uses to time exposures in his darkroom; conversations with Georgia O'Keeffe at her New Mexico home about the first time he visited New York to meet her late husband, Alfred Stieglitz. "There wasn't anything exotic about Ansel," O'Keefee says. "He didn't have any hair on his face. He didn't look like an artist. He was so thin then he hardly cast a shadow."
There are wonderful scenes here. Goaded by a friend, Adams sits down at his piano and spins out a haunting, subtle version of the "Moonlight Sonata." As a boy, he had studied to be a concert pianist, and he talks about a dream of playing Carnegie Hall and not being able to remember the first note of the piece. Giving an exposure demonstration to students in Yosemite, he produces an absolutely black print and says, "We'll send this to the Museum of Modern Art." Explaining that it's tough to tell the white values of a wet print, he rips one in half, carries it to the kitchen and pops it into a microwave oven to see how it will look dry.
The program gives a surprisingly complete overview of Adams' life, undoubtedly due in no small way to the research done by producer Andrea Gray, who worked as Adams' assistant for several years. A large part of the film is set in Yosemite, where Adams has spent at least some time every year for the past 60. He visits with photographic historian Beaumont Newhall, the Taos Pueblo that he photographed a half-century ago. In a scene that recalls Lyndon Johnson speeding across the LBJ Ranch in his Cadillac, Adams drives his Cadillac past Hernandez, as in "Moonrise, Hernandez," where he snapped in fading light the most famous and sought after of the thousands of images he has captured.
There are plenty of images in the show, too, nicely reproduced on film in the black and white Adams has always preferred. And fortunately the camera simply lingers on the photos, without the intrusion of dialogue that many filmmakers would have imposed on the dread silence of a motion picture. The pictures just sit there are tell their own story. Of their ever spiraling prices, Adams expresses wonder and says, "It's like the stock market."
What emerges here is the kind of character that those who have met Ansel Adams know him to be: not a creator of valuable art, but rather an awe-filled, almost childlike man who can say of his life, "Something worked out."
And then, talking of a mountain in Yosemite that some rock climbers named after him, he adds: "In theory you can't have anything named after you until you're thoroughly dead."
Which is indeed a far cry from the way he still approaches life each day.