PHOTOGRAPHER Ansel Adams was a prickly character. He could prick your conscience, he could prick your imagination, he could prick your heart. When he died at 82 in 1984, Adams left a legacy of some of the most moving and technically astonishing photographs ever made of the American landscape.

Adams was an environmental activist who became such an icon of the tree-huggers that his advocacy threatened to obscure his artistry. Some balance has been restored by an exhibition of Adams's work now on permanent display at the headquarters of the Wilderness Society.

The 75 photographs were selected by Adams during the last year of his life. Labeled simply by place and year, they are full of joy and fear: the joy of life and landforms, and the fear that such places may be destroyed by human folly. Quite properly, the photographs are allowed to speak for themselves, but the society ought ot offer visitors a fuller account of Adams himself.

To know that Adams was a touring concert pianist before devoting himself to nature photography tells something about how he orchestrated his sweeping yet intimately detailed panoramas.

To know that Adams became an expert mountain climber so he could haul his heavy view camera to just the right places from which to capture his scenes tells something of his dedication, as well as of the intensity of the images he brought back.

To know that Adams was injured in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 gives one some sense of his place in time as well as space.

Adams mastered his medium as few have ever done. Early in his career he was writing technical manuals, and he still was writing them when he died. He stayed with black-and-white film, which yields the truest colors because they come from the mind's eye.

The society's gallery is the only major and permanent Adams exhibition in the East. It creates a restorative oasis for outdoors lovers imprisoned in Washington offices.