"Ansel Adams: Classic Images" at the National Gallery of Art is a bit of a surprise.
Its pictures aren't surprising. Most of them, in fact -- "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" (1941), "Winter Sunrise, The Sierra Nevada, From Lone Pine, California" (1944), "Monolith, The Face of Half Dome" (1927), "Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California" (1944) as well as many more -- are thoroughly familiar, at least to Washingtonians.
The artist is familiar, too. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he was interviewed by Playboy and his charming grizzled face -- with its twinkling eyes and broken nose and Old Man of the Mountains beard -- made the cover of Time magazine. California's Ansel Adams (1902-1984) was, when he was old, among the best known, best beloved artists in the land.
Equally familiar is the pious and old-fashioned spirit of his art. Like Bierstadt and Moran, those 19th-century painters who filled their giant landscapes with boiling clouds and tiny deer and operatic drama, Adams sensed in wilderness the presence of the sacred. "The clear realities of nature seen with the inner eye of the spirit reveal the ultimate echo of God," he wrote. His photographs are hymns. He believed, as did John Ruskin, in the inseparable blending of beauty and morality.
Nor is it surprising that we love his work. Adams understood the preference of his countrymen for art that is at once epically romantic and technically impeccable, high minded and precise. There are no beer cans in his Yellowstone. Though he fought for straight photography and hated doctored negatives, whenever he made prints of his famous "Winter Sunrise," he painstakingly removed high school boys' graffiti from his beloved hills.
Like John Ford and Howard Hawks, his counterparts in Hollywood, Adams all his life played upon our reverence for that imaginary paradise, the Eden of the West.
What is surprising about his exhibition in the gallery's West Building is that it's there at all.
It is not there just because Adams was a celebrity, a crowd pleaser, an artist unembarrassed by the sweet and sentimental yearnings of his countrymen. (The National Gallery, for instance, does not yet own a Norman Rockwell.)
Nor does the show present us, as do so many at the gallery, with the fruits of thoughtful scholarship. It contains no vintage prints, and though Nicolai Cikovsky Jr., the gallery's curator of American art, is listed as its "coordinator," it doesn't have a curator. It didn't need one. Adams picked all these images himself.
And clearly, it is not there because the gallery wholeheartedly accepts the contributions of photography to the history of art.
"It is most appropriate that Adams' work should be exhibited at the National Gallery, in our country's capital. Not only are his photographs spiritually at home here," writes J. Carter Brown, the gallery's director, "they are at home artistically as well." But Brown's warm words ring hollow. The gallery's attitude toward photography-as-art, a cause that Adams fought for, has been, at least till now, one of stiff disdain.
"Ansel Adams: Classic Images" is the first loan exhibit of photography that the gallery has ever shown. The gallery has never bought a photograph. Nor -- with one notable exception -- has it ever accepted photographs as gifts.
The exception came in 1949 when Georgia O'Keeffe presented the gallery with the "key set" of images she had inherited from her husband Alfred Stieglitz. A large and well-received Stieglitz retrospective, drawn entirely from that set, opened at the gallery in 1982.
One can understand why Stieglitz deserves representation in a gallery devoted primarily to painting, for Stieglitz helped America discover modern art. He introduced the country to Ce'zanne, Rodin and Matisse, and his little gallery at 291 Fifth Ave., New York, gave early solo shows to Picasso, Braque, Brancusi, Picabia and Severini. In 1936, he showed Ansel Adams, too.
But if the National Gallery now deems Ansel Adams worthy of a retrospective showing, what about his peers? Why not Edward Weston (whom Adams called a "genius"), and why not Paul Strand (whose negatives, wrote Adams, "challenged me to fully commit myself to photography"), and why not Walker Evans or a dozen more?
This show may lead to others of photography -- but one should not hold one's breath. The resources aren't yet there. And though Cikovsky appreciates the importance of the medium -- "I think an 'American Masters of Photography' would be a perfect show for the gallery to do," he says -- he does not have many allies on the gallery's curatorial staff.
Most obviously, it's not as though Adams' work needed more exposure in Washington.
Few photographs of any sort have been marketed as skillfully -- or exhibited as regularly -- in the capital as these. And the "museum set" on view, the new pictures from old negatives that Adams chose to print in the last five years of his life, hardly breaks new ground.
Prints from the same negatives were sold throughout the 1970s in the various local galleries (on Capitol Hill, in Georgetown and, later, on Seventh Street downtown) of dealer Harry Lunn -- who helped make Adams rich. "Harry Lunn?" said Adams in 1979. "Harry Lunn is a lion." As local dealers watched, amazed, Adams' prices jumped, and then jumped again, until single prints of "Moonrise, Hernandez" -- which Lunn had retailed at first for $150 each -- were selling for 100 times as much.
"Incredibly," notes the National Gallery's catalogue, "the prints of a single artist -- Ansel Adams -- accounted for half of the total dollar value of photography sales during 1979. Two years later, a mural-size print of "Moonrise" sold for $71,500, the highest price then paid for a single photograph."
And Lunn was not the artist's only major local ally. Washington's Bill Turnage was even more important. Turnage, who now heads the Wilderness Society, worked for seven years as Adams' business manager, and it was he who set the strategy for publicity and marketing and institutional display that resulted in Adams' National Gallery's show.
An ardent conservationist, Adams used his growing fame as a warrior might a mace. In letter after letter he rained blows on James Watt. He bludgeoned senators and congressmen. He even lectured President Reagan. Whenever he would come to town to lobby for the cause -- in his string tie and his Stetson, and with fire in his eyes -- his victims would discover Bill Turnage by his side.
One clear sign of their alliance are the 67 landscapes, all gifts from the artist, on display in the Wilderness Society's new headquarters at 1400 I St. NW -- just blocks from the National Gallery of Art.
In truth, the presence of "Ansel Adams: Classic Images" tells us more about corporate public relations, the provisions of the tax code, institutional convenience -- and one beloved artist's fame -- than it does about the National Gallery's interest in photography-as-art.
The photographs on view, one of six museum sets the artist printed, belongs to Pacific Telesis Group, which also gave a grant for the gallery's exhibit. The firm, which emerged from the breakup of AT&T, is the holding company for Pacific Bell. Though Pacific Telesis has ample funds and more than 70,000 employes -- it is, in fact, one of the nation's largest corporations -- few people know its name. By associating itself with Adams, by buying his museum set and sending it around, the corporation does a service for the public. And a service for itself.
"Long a supporter of the arts in California," writes Chairman Donald E. Guinn, "we are now -- through the Pacific Telesis Foundation -- committed to supporting the fine arts on the national level as well." That is good news for the gallery. The likelihood of additional grants to come is one of the reasons for its Adams show.
The tax laws are another. Adams understood them well.
In 1975, following discussions with Maggie Weston, his Carmel, Calif., dealer and with Turnage, his adviser, he decided he would stop printing for the market. "I found I was spending a good part of my time making five of this, two of that, seven of the other." Afraid of becoming "a printing factory," Adams announced that after New Year's Eve 1975, he would accept no further orders.
"He expected to receive about 1,000 orders," writes Cikovsky, but got 3,400, and it was not until the end of 1978 that he had at last printed all the orders on hand. In December 1979, he began making the Museum Set."
Though he planned to print 100 sets, he died before he finished. He made two sorts of museum sets, small ones of 25 prints (each of which included 10 of his best known images), and larger ones including 75 of those pictures he believed to be his most important works. Fewer than 50 of the smaller sets, and only six of the large ones, were completed at his death. Individuals who bought them had to make a promise: the sets would not be broken, nor would they be sold. They'd be given away.
Of course, he might have given them all away himself (in fact, he did give one to the Wilderness Society), but Adams was no fool. He could have his cake -- representation in museums -- and he could eat it too, if his high-tax-bracket champions did the buying and the giving. At first the small sets sold for $35,000 (since then, the price has more than doubled). Because each included "Moonrise, Hernandez," an object then on sale for perhaps $15,000, as well as other images also in demand, buyers got a bargain -- 25 signed Adams photographs for an average price of only $1,400 each. The payoff would come later. When the prints were handed over to educational institutions, the donor would write off their appreciated value as a charitable deduction.
Lingering questions about the monetary worth of these nonvintage prints are sure to be diminished by the present exhibition. The National Gallery's imprimatur gives the whole endeavor a large shot of prestige.
So everybody wins. The Pacific Telesis Group reaps public relations benefits, the National Gallery receives a grant, perhaps with more to come, and Adams' audience grows. The artist, says the catalogue, recognized "a clear distinction between art and commerce." But in the aura round the present show one detects the two conflated.
The Adams exhibition, which includes, in addition to the museum set, a few impressive "mural prints" on loan from his family and a pair of folding screens, closes here Jan. 12.