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Ansel Adams PBS DocumentaryAmerican Experience: Ansel Adams Print E-mail
Friday, 24 September 2004
For many Americans, Ansel Adams was the first photographer they regarded as an artist, even if they weren't sure why they felt that way. His magnificent scenic photography was obviously more than pretty pictures of pleasant scenery, like the snapshots the public themselves took. Adams went beyond that approach, and virtually behind it as well. An Adams photograph of the incredible Yosemite Valley -- his primary subject was the Park -- tells you more about what it is like to be there than to actually be there. People are drawn to scenery, not just because it looks nice, but to understand why it looks nice, to try to grasp the effect it has. In photographing these rock formations, mountains, trees, valleys and lakes, Adams actually provided an answer. But the answer is the photographs; it cannot be explained in words -- that's why he was a photographer, not a writer. But he's one of the most eloquent photographers who ever lived.
For many years now, brothers Ric and Ken Burns have separately done excellent biographies on different aspects of Americana, both cultural and historical. "Ansel Adams" is the work of Ric Burns, and is an outstanding, engrossing documentary. It follows Adams' entire life, from his birth, through his discovery of the qualities of Yosemite he wanted to capture, through times of little money, through the times he became the most famous landscape photographer who ever lived, on to his death as a respected artist.

No effort is made in the narration written by Burns to demonstrate how Ansel Adams' intense black and white photographs are art; that's for the viewer to understand for him/herself. But it traces themes in Adams' work. It points out that all poems are made up of the same words we all have access to; it's the way the words are put together that form the art. Adams takes pictures of the landscape of Yosemite (and elsewhere) just like the tourists do. He considered the hard-won, carefully composed and exposed negative half or less of the final work, which he accomplished through highly skilled work in the lab, as he went through print after print, searching for the unspoken meaning he knew lay within the photo.

Among those interviewed is John Szarkowski says, "it means what it means... [we can get] a sense of what it might ultimately be about." The narrator says that Adams' "whole life would be a journey and an exploration -- a search for meaning and order, for beauty and redemption, for contact with something larger and more lasting, for community, connection and hope" within "the great earth gesture of the Sierra.... More than any artist of the [20th] century, he would help transform the meaning of wilderness in America." There seems little doubt that Adams' silent pictures spoke to millions of people as the attitude toward the environment evolved during his lifetime. He helped change what people thought and felt about their own land.

He was born in San Francisco in 1902, a difficult child who found it hard to find an outlet for his boundless energy. His father understood this, and was able to provide Ansel the kind of education he needed. During all his life, Adams frequently spoke fondly of what he owed his father. Ansel was a funny-looking kid with a crooked nose and ears that stuck out, but he was also obviously a very bright kid. Initially, he began studying the piano, learning much of what he needed to know without a teacher; music and the piano remained an important part of his life; few know that Adams was an accomplished pianist -- isn't enough that he was a great photographer?

But in 1916, he visited Yosemite for the first time, and had one of the great moments in his life that even John Szarkowski rather reluctantly terms an epiphany.
In the early 20th century, photography was mostly just pictures, or wedding portraits, that sort of thing. Alfred Stieglitz was one of the few who had a reputation as an actual artist, so eventually Adams sought him out. To his great relief, Stieglitz declared Adams' work true art, and until his death, was one of Adams' staunchest supporters.

In 1936, thanks to Stieglitz, in New York Adams had his first one-man show, and from then on, his path was steadily upward as he finally achieved international fame. Eventually, he had a small studio/shop in Yosemite Valley that itself became one of the attractions of the Valley that tourists just had to see.

The film also mentions Adams' private life, his wife Virginia, his assistant Patsy English he came to love -- but wouldn't abandon Virginia for. There are occasional movie clips of Adams, mostly as the Santa Claus-looking older man tourists occasionally encountered in Yosemite. The interviewees don't cover a broad range, nor is there any reason they should. They comment on Adams and his work from the various perspectives of family member, or Sierra Club official, or assistants, or other photographers.

The film itself is presented in clean, uncluttered footage as well as plentiful photos. Burns knows his audience, and that people become restive if there's much silence other than the score, and so scenes of, say, trees in the woods might have a very faint wind sound behind them, or when we see a helicopter, there's a faint mechanical whirring on the track. These are not obtrusive, and perfectly fulfill their function. The score itself seems drawn from many sources.

The only flaw with the film is Burns' frequent panning over Adams' photographs without including a long shot of the photo altogether. We often never know if we're seeing a small detail of a larger work (like some of the gigantic murals Adams created later in live), or even what shape the original photo is -- vertical or horizontal.

But those are small complaints; this is an exceptional documentary from an exceptional director. Just what did the Burns brothers' mother FEED those remarkable boys?

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