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I don’t suppose I need to say much about the illustrious career of Ansel Adams. The iconic photographer would have celebrated  his 109th birthday yesterday were he still among the living. He isn’t, having died in 1984.

If 20th-Century American photography were the Vatican, Adams would be the Pope. His words were treated like the Holy Writ, his Zone System taught like Scripture to thousands of academically trained photographers. His images dominate the high-end photography auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s  and command impressive prices.  His place among the creative giants of the medium is well-deserved, but he was ultimately human like the rest of us.

If you look behind the images, you’ll find a man with flaws and scars and ugliness like you and me. Some would call him  sanctimonious. He believed that his approach to photography was the only approach, an opinion bolstered by other photographic luminaries of his time, Edward Weston among them, and by the art historical establishment. He was vindictive toward rivals both real and imagined.

I was a fan of Adams work from my earliest days with the camera. I marveled at the spectacular scenery he caught on film, a the richness and precision of his images even when reproduced in the form of cheap posters and the pages of books. I wanted to BE Ansel Adams, to travel the High Sierras with an enormous view camera and nothing but time on my hands. It sounded pretty romantic and still does, but I no longer believe that such a life would be as satisfying as I once thought.

My personal aesthetic has expanded beyond the monumentalism that Adams’ work embodied.  I like pretty mountains as much as the next guy, but I often  find his spectacular vistas aloof and unapproachable, preferring instead a more intimate view of the natural world. I find beauty in small things that don’t make it on to magazine covers, or cans of coffee for that matter. I think Adams progressed as an artist only to a certain point and then stopped. He was essentially making the same images in 1980 as he was in 1940, and making a damn good living at it.

I will say, however, that I will always admire Adams for his commitment to craft, something that image-makers of any era could learn a great deal from. I took in an exhibit of his work at the Art Institute of Chicago a few years back and was astounded by the quality of his prints. The images seemed to radiate with their own quiet light and possess an almost unbelievable depth, as if I were looking through a small window at the world outside, not at  a tw0-dimensional picture on a sheet of paper. A. D. Coleman may have been right when he called Adams an “empty virtuoso,” but his images were magical.

This is the time when everyone with a smartphone is a photographer and Facebook Photo Albums pass for bodies of work. Photographs are no longer precious objects but instead merely electrons and pixels and images on a screen. Those of us who find this troubling are tragically unhip at best. I guess I’m guilty as charged on that count, but I will remain unrepentant as I mourn a day when the pace of image-making was slower and quality mattered more.

RXM

Moonrise: Gallatin Range (©2003 by Richard X. Moore)

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