Celebrating the life of Ansel Adams at Hayward

Story by Jack Foley

THE work of Ansel Adams, the photographer whose images of the peaks and canyons of Yosemite Valley and the stark desert of Arizona serve as a defining image of the American West, is now on view at London's Hayward Gallery until September 22.

Adams is generally considered to be one of the great 20th-century photographers and Ansel Adams at 100 is a timely celebration of the centenary of the artist's birth in 1902, bringing together 114 of his finest works, made over 50 years, some of them little known.

Although Adams has been exhibited widely around the world, this major exhibition is the first serious attempt since his death in 1984 to re-evaluate his work and his achievement as an artist. It has been specially selected by the renowned curator and writer on photography, John Szarkowski.

According to the Hayward Gallery's website, 'Ansel Adams’s reputation, considerable since the 1940s, has continued to grow since his death'.

"His iconic landscape photographs of mountains, lakes, geysers, moonrises and storm clouds are known across the world through a phenomenal output of books and reproductions as well as exhibitions.

"Ansel Adams at 100 presents many of the artist’s best-known works – grand vistas such as Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico and El Capitan – alongside less familiar works, many on an intimate scale: close-ups of dried stumps and knotholes, images of leaves and grasses floating on pools of water.

"They reveal Adams’s fascination with abstraction, the mysteries of light and the miraculous beauty of the natural, unspoilt landscape. On a trip in 1923 he recalled: ‘the silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendour.’

Adams is particularly revered for his perfectionist technique. Throughout his life he reprinted and reinterpreted his earlier negatives – his original, more subtle approach gradually giving way to a more melodramatic attitude.

Two prints from the same negative of Aspens, Northern New Mexico, developed nearly 20 years apart, are shown together in the exhibition to underline this change. In comparing the prints Szarkowski says, ‘ they go from being a dark and lyrical pastoral to a brass band of highlights so profuse that the light appears to be coming from two different directions.’

Born in San Francisco in 1902, Adams's early ambition was to be a concert pianist and he was a talented young musician.

His passion for photography also began at an early age; and he made his first photographs, using a Kodak Brownie Box camera, whilst on holiday in Yosemite Valley in 1916.

By his 20s he had taught himself photography with a scientific rigor. Noted for his technical mastery of the subject, Adams developed the famous and highly complex ‘zone system’ of controlling and relating exposure of the negative and development of the print.

In 1932 Adams and other Californian photographers, including Edward Weston, founded an influential group called f/64, devoted to promoting photography as an art form. He produced 10 volumes of technical manuals on photography; the first, his famous book, Making a Photograph, was published in 1935. In 1940 he helped found the first photography department in a museum at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In 1946, he was involved in establishing the first academic department to teach photography in San Francisco. From 1955 to 1981 he held annual photography workshops at Yosemite.

As an official photographer for the Sierra Club, a conservation organisation, he spent a large part of his life photographing the national parks. In 1984, the year of his death, the United States Congress established the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area in California.

Previous UK Ansel Adams exhibitions were held at the V&A in 1976, and again after his death in 1984, and at the Barbican Art Gallery in 1987. This exhibition has been originated by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art , made possible by Hewlett-Packard, and toured to the Art Institute of Chicago, and continues, after London, to the Kunstbibliothek, Berlin, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

A fully-illustrated paperback catalogue, Ansel Adams at 100 , including an essay by John Szarkowski, is published by Little, Brown and Company to accompany the exhibition.

Ansel Adams at 100 is also available as a specially designed limited edition book (Little, Brown, £100) presented in a natural linen cloth slipcase and featuring 114 tritone plates and 23 duotone text illustrations, as well as a copy of a reproduction print suitable for framing which is inserted in an envelope at the back of the book. Click here to buy...

Hayward Gallery on the South Bank, London SE1. Public enquiries: 020 7960 5226; Recorded information: 020 7261 0127; Advance bookings: 020 7960 4242
Admission (also includes entrance to WILLIAM EGGLESTON: £7 (concessions £5); Children aged 16 and under free. Members free. Opening hours: daily 10am-6pm, until 8pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays

Top left link, the Hayward Gallery website
Top right link, Ansel Adams official site.

GUIDE TO PHOTOGRAPHS: Main picture, In Joshua Tree National Monument, California, 1942. Gelatine silver print. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © 2001 by the Trustees of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trusts.
Above right: El Capitan, Merced River, Against Sun, Yosemite Valley, California, c. 1950. Gelatine silver print. The Museum of Modern Art New York © 2001 by the Trustees of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trusts.