Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Ansel Adams for Extra Credit

I have had an on-again, off-again relationship with the photography of Ansel Adams.

The relationship started in 1970s, when I moved from New York to Oregon and began my career as a professional photographer and photojournalist. Once on the West Coast, I became passionately involved with the outdoors, in the form of backpacking, mountaineering, and cross-county skiing in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and Washington. My cameras came along for the ride and helped tell the stories of my wilderness adventures.

About the same time, I fell under the influence of several photographers — including David Falconer of the Oregonian newspaper, and Ray Smutek, publisher of Off Belay, a mountaineering magazine — who combined their love of the outdoors with a dedication to producing the perfect black-and-white photographic print.

It was natural, then, that I should seek inspiration from the photographs of Ansel Adams (1902–1984), master of both the mountains and the Zone System, Sierra Club activist (I had joined in 1973), and one of the definers of a particular aesthetic in photography that had its roots in the American West.

Something Missing: People

As I became more involved with photojournalism, I began to feel there was something missing in Adams’s photographs. Namely, where were the people?

A new generation of photographers, among them the late Galen Rowell, were capturing all the beauty and drama of the outdoors, while also including in many cases the human element. Adams himself may have been headed in that direction as well, as a January 10, 1943, letter to David McAlpin hints: “Nature, for me is alive — just as alive as people. But my next phase will be people in relation to Nature; I feel it coming.”

For whatever reason, that phase either never developed, or did not develop to the same extent as his continued interest in the play of light and shadow over rock, snow, water, and trees.

Only when Adams went to the Manzanar Relocation Center, also in 1943, did he seem to fulfill his self-set goal of photographing people in relation to nature — in this case Americans of Japanese ancestry housed during World War II in the harsh desert landscape of California’s Owens Valley. Adams made sure to draw a distinction, in a letter to Nancy Newhall that year, between what he called “the loyal Japanese-American citizens” at Manzanar, and “the dis-loyal Japanese citizens and aliens (I might say Japanese-loyal aliens) that are stationed mostly in internment camps.”

Adams’s photographs, which convey the dignity of people in a repressive situation, were published in 1944 by U.S. Camera as the book Born Free and Equal.

Advocate for a Cause

My swing back toward Adams came as I learned more about his involvement with the Sierra Club and his effort to use his photography to achieve a worthy objective — the protection of our wilderness heritage in national parks and other preserves.

The author, teacher, and environmentalist Wallace Stegner (no doubt Adams’s kindred spirit), wrote in 1987 that Adams “did not much like the documentarians, with the exception of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, and he liked them not because they were documenting social significance but because they were artists.” Stegner also said Adams was not fond of those who used photography for a social or political purpose.

Nevertheless, I think it does no disservice to Adams’s memory to think of him as an advocate for wilderness, who used his camera in much the same way that Stegner used his typewriter. Perhaps John Szarkowski, for many years the director of photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, said it best when he wrote in his introduction to The Portfolios of Ansel Adams:

It does not seem likely that a photographer of the future will be able to bring to the heroic wild landscape the passion, trust, and belief that Adams has brought to it. If this is the case, his pictures are all the more precious, for they then stand as the last records, for the young and the future, of what they missed. For the aging — for a little while — they will be a souvenir of what was lost.

Adams for Extra Credit

As an extra-credit assignment this fall, I offered my students at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications the opportunity to write a short essay about an Adams exhibition at the Columbia Museum of Art (through January 17, 2010).

The exhibition, titled “Ansel Adams: Masterworks From the Collection of the Turtle Bay Exploration Center, Redding, CA,” features 47 gelatin silver prints selected from “The Museum Set,” 75 images that “serve as a representation of his life’s work and what he felt were his best images,” in the words of the museum’s Web site.

Two courses got the extra-credit assignment: Introduction to Visual Communications, and Advanced Photovisual Communications. I asked students in the introductory course, required of all journalism and mass-communication students, to pick one photograph in the exhibition and critique it using the principles of photographic composition we had discussed in class — perspective, leading lines, framing, foreground-background relationships, familiar size, etc.

I asked students in the advanced course, which is for visual-communications majors, to write about Adams’s use of light, which is a major topic in our course. I was interested to see how my students would engage with Adams and his work, given that he died before most of them were born, and that many had neither heard of him nor seen his work.

One student, viewing “Oak Tree, Snowstorm,” remarked that she had never seen real snow, having grown up in the South. The photograph made her feel “an array of emotions,” and made her want one day to capture emotions in a photograph. Dominance, contrast, and angle of view were the compositional techniques this student noted in the photograph.

Another student, viewing “Half Dome, Merced River, Winter,” saw leading lines in “the winding river, trees, and river banks.” Familiar size, shown by the trees, gives the viewer “a sense of the mountain’s grandeur.” Several students mentioned Adams’s ability to capture a special moment that communicated to them the “awe” and “wonder of nature.”

Reminding one student of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” was the 1944 photograph “Trailer Camp Children,” showing “three children in a sad, desperate state.” The student was immediately attracted to this particular photograph, he wrote, precisely because it was not a landscape and involved people. The same student also noticed the lighting and how it helps move the viewer’s attention around the image.

Mount Williamson, The Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California,” made one of my students feel “humbled by the enormity of the mountains in the distance….This view is very reverential, like I am on my knees in awe.” Another student, viewing the same photograph, saw a message related to the photograph’s setting: “The sunlight trying to burst through the clouds represented to me the Japanese Americans who were trying to break through discrimination and show their loyalty to their county.”

Finally, a student looking at “Rose and Driftwood, San Francisco, California, c. 1932”” enjoyed its simplicity and the fact that it was Adams’s mother who had given him the rose.

I never know what to expect when I ask my students to write about photographs, but I am rarely disappointed. Perhaps some of them now will have their own relationship with Ansel Adams. This extra-credit assignment certainly inspired me to revisit Adams’s photographs and consider them in a different light.

2 Responses to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: Ansel Adams for Extra Credit”

  1. Very nice post, David. I always remember the name of Galen's chapter in his book, Mountain Light, called "Figures in a Landscape." I was also recently at Manzanar working on a new book project, and will be using one of Adams' photos as well. Standing and shooting sunrise at the boulder field looking at the Sierra, I couldn't help but envision Adams and his tripod set up nearby, save the 60 year time warp.

  2. Hi David,

    You may want to offer your students this link to works inspired by Adams

    Viewing an exhibition of the early works of Adams at the San Jose Museum Art is inspirational. The exhibit demonstrates the progression of knowledge in Adams as to how he saw the world, how to use his equipment to best match his vision and then how to find those markets that could best use those images.

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