Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film (2002) Movie Script

The reason that he is as important to us as I think he is
is because he was a good artist.
In his best days,
he was a terrific artist.
And he found some way
to put together those little
fragments of the world
in a way that transformed them
into a picture.
In the same way that, you know,
a poet uses
the same dictionaries
that the rest of us do--
all the words are in there,
all the words
in the poem are there,
they're in alphabetical order
so you can find them.
And it's just a matter
of taking a few of them
and putting them
in the right order,
and that's all there is to it.
And so why is it
that some lines of poetry,
some sentences grasp us,
you know, grip us, and we think,
"That's... that's right,
that's true.
"Whatever... I don't know
quite what that means,
but whatever it means,
it's true."
And a good picture
does something like that.
The best of Ansel's
are part of our memory,
part of our sense of what
a picture might be made out of
and what it might look like
and what it might
ultimately be about,
which is the part
we can't explain.
His 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 home.
Born on the far western
edge of the continent
in the years following the close
of the American frontier,
he first encountered the awesome
beauty of Yosemite Valley
in the summer of 1916.
"From that day," he later wrote,
"my life has been colored
and modulated
by the great earth gesture
of the Sierra."
He would spend the rest of his
life trying to capture on film
the wild majesty
of the American continent
and the sublime and humbling
exaltation of wilderness.
It's a place that you step into
and you don't know
what's going to happen.
It's a place
that can surprise you.
It's a place where you're small
but where being small
is not a bad thing,
where being small
is actually a wonderful thing.
If you look
at Ansel's photographs,
the photographer,
wherever he stands,
is clearly tiny compared
to the detail and the light.
You have a sense
of the entire solar system:
the sun is shining in
on a church in New Mexico
or a peak in the Sierra.
And the eye, the camera
is this small part,
but it's not
an insignificant part.
It's the part which gives
the whole thing meaning.
Well, I think Ansel
had a message in his art
that was consistent
throughout his career
and this is that
the world is beautiful,
that humanity is part
of this larger world,
that the concerns of the moment
are part but not separate from
a larger system of forces that
connect us to all of creation.
I can't... I can't verbalize
on the internal meaning
of pictures whatsoever.
Some of my friends can
at very mystical levels,
but I prefer to say that
if I feel something strongly,
uh... I would make a photograph
that would be the equivalent
of what I saw and felt.
When I'm ready
to make a photograph,
I think I quite obviously
see in my mind's eye
something that
is not literally there
in the true meaning of the word.
I'm interested
in expressing something
which is built up from within
rather than
just extracted from without.
When he photographed the wild landscape--
especially in his own special
home wild landscape
in the High Sierra
and Yosemite--
he felt some consonance
with that material
that was very profound,
very deep, very mystical,
perhaps almost religious--
although he would certainly
object to that very strongly,
because he was not
in any conventional sense
a religious person.
And then you try to find a way
to make a picture
that is consonant
with your sense
of your relationship
to that experience.
Not just a place,
it's an experience,
especially in Ansel's case,
that has to do with that time,
that moment, that evanescent
disappearing thing.
I don't think Ansel was ever
self-consciously concerned
with personal expression.
It's wanting
to join something else.
Ansel, I think the issue
was to understand
and become part of
something that was larger.
And to make a picture
that demonstrated
that there was some... actually
some communion going on.
For nearly 70 years he would wander
the great unoccupied spaces
of the American West
photographing the landscape
as the landscape itself
changed all around him
and as the wild places of the
continent dwindled and shrank
and came under attack
as never before.
More than any other artist
of the century,
he would help transform the
meaning of wilderness in America
and change what people thought
and felt about their own land.
In the course of time,
he himself would change
as the rapturous visions
that sustained him in his youth
lost their power
and began to fade,
and as he came
increasingly to resemble
the avuncular, trusted
elder statesman of his old age.
But as a young man,
he had seen something in the
mountains of the Sierra Nevada,
something that resonated
far out into the landscape
and down into the deepest
recesses of his soul
that would haunt him
for the rest of his days,
and that he would spend his
entire life trying to convey.
I can't think of any artist in our history
who was more American
than Ansel Adams.
He grew up in a city
that was only 50 years old.
His subject matter was
as quintessentially American
as it possibly could be.
The thing that separates us
from the Old World
more than anything, I think,
is that we have
all of these extraordinary
great pieces of wild land
which Ansel of course devoted
much of his life's
energy to saving.
So his cause was American.
His work was about America.
He was odd, yes, he was odd.
The pictures of him as a child,
he looks really odd.
And he was actually
kind of odd looking
when he was a young man,
too, in his early 20s.
His ears stuck out
and he was balding
and then he did have
false teeth--
and by the time I knew him,
he had a pretty good set--
but I think it took a while to
get a good set of false teeth.
He was gangly
and extremely, extremely thin,
and then he had
this black beard.
The pictures of him from
the early Sierra Club hikes,
he almost looks kind of scary
in some of them.
But he also had
this joie de vivre
and this sense of
enthusiasm and humor
that just swept people
off their feet.
Well, either you loved it
or you hated it.
He was born Ansel Easton Adams in the city of San Francisco
in the winter of 1902,
the only child
of a once-prosperous family
on its way down in the world.
His earliest memory
was of lying in a pram
watching silent fingers of fog
flowing east
above his family's house--
a lonely structure
perched high above the dunes
beyond the western edge of town
overlooking the waters
of the Golden Gate.
He always said he was formed
by those early
landscape experiences
and where he was living.
I mean, once you've lived
a while in San Francisco,
you can feel that fog
kind of tiptoeing in,
where it changes the sound and
kind of gets into your bones,
or when there's
a glorious clear day
and it's just
breathtakingly beautiful,
and that was just part of Ansel.
On the morning of April 18, 1906,
when he was
a little more than four,
an immense aftershock of the
great San Francisco earthquake
sent him flying headfirst
into a low garden wall,
severely breaking his nose,
which forever after veered
violently to the left.
One year later,
the fortune in timber
his grandfather had assembled
in the years following
the Gold Rush
finished collapsing completely
in the Panic of 1907,
plunging his father into
a sea of financial difficulties
and his mother into a depression
from which she never
fully recovered.
At the end of the day,
by the time
his grandfather died in 1907,
the family was
pretty flat busted,
and that deeply affected
the relationship
between Ansel's parents
and created a lot of stress
in the home
while Ansel was growing up.
He was a lonely child
in the gloomy, troubled house
by the sea,
often ill, prone to fits
of uncontrollable weeping,
and filled with
a restless surging energy
he could not contain.
Enrolled without success
in one school after another,
he often found it difficult even
to remain seated at his desk.
In Ansel's autobiography, he makes it very clear
that he was not
an altogether ordinary child.
Certainly my impression is that
he was a very nervous child
and that relationships
with other people
were not easy for him.
He was probably a very difficult
kid to live with,
and I think he drove
his parents crazy.
He was very full of energy
and full of vitality
and tremendous drive,
but it was scattered,
it was all over the place.
I think almost certainly if it were today
he'd be considered
to have been dyslexic.
He said himself, you know,
"Today, I'd be considered
a hyperactive child."
There was this incredible chaos
or fire or energy or something
roaring around inside...
all the time trying to get out.
Abandoning the idea of conventional schooling
when the boy was only 12, his
gentle, courtly father, Charles,
poured all the love
and energy he had
into his difficult only son,
arranging private tuition
in algebra and Greek
and letting him roam for hours
along the dunes and cliffs
beyond the house--
anywhere his boundless energy
took him.
His father just adored him, just adored him.
But Ansel was so odd,
but at the same time
he was so intelligent,
with this zest for life.
I mean, who wouldn't have been
enchanted by this child?
He just indulged him
to an extraordinary degree.
He realized he had
a very unusual son,
both unusual
in the positive sense
and unusual in
a somewhat negative sense.
When Ansel was 13,
he got him a year's pass
to the World's Fair--
the Panama Pacific Exposition--
and that was a fabulous idea.
Ansel went every single day,
and he learned more there
than he ever could have
in a year at school.
I don't think a lot of fathers
then or now
would have tolerated
Ansel's unique character.
And here was a father
who not only tolerated it,
but nurtured it.
One afternoon in the fall of 1914,
when he was still only 12,
he began to find a focus
for the chaotic feelings
that welled up inside him.
He was one of those geniuses
and sat down at the piano
when he was just a kid
and within a couple months
without a teacher
could read music at sight.
The piano was something
that he instinctually fell
absolutely in love with.
And yet it was very demanding,
the height of discipline
and rigor--
practicing scales
for hours at a time--
hard for any kid to do,
but really hard for a kid
who's kind of scattered
and a little bit hyperactive.
But he somehow focused
all this chaotic energy
and, by God, he did,
I mean, he really focused it.
In the years to come,
despite the family's continuing
financial troubles,
Ansel's father would do
everything he could
to nurture the boy's
unusual gift,
hiring the best instructors
he could find,
and purchasing on installment
a $6,000 Mason & Hamlin piano.
Even when Ansel was 80 years old,
he lowered his voice
and spoke with reverence
when he spoke about his father.
And he really understood what
his father had done for him.
ADAMS ( dramatized ):
I often wonder at the strength and courage my father had
in taking me out of the
traditional school situation
and providing me
with these extraordinary
learning experiences.
I'm certain he established the
positive direction of my life
that otherwise could have been
confused and chaotic.
I trace who I am and the
direction of my development
to those years of growing up
in our house on the dunes--
propelled especially
by an internal spark
tenderly kept alive
and glowing by my father.
He, in effect, had to teach himself slowly
and I would suspect
not without pain
to become a properly functioning
member of the society.
And he taught himself very well.
But there was always that
wilder, asocial, lonelier person
who was struggling to get out,
and during his best years
as an artist
would get out whenever it could.
The World's Fair had broadened his horizons;
music had opened up a new world
of beauty and order.
But nothing could have
prepared him
for the stunning impact
of another kind of music
which he first encountered
in the summer of 1916
high in the mountains
of the Sierra Nevada.
When he was 14,
his aunt gave him a book to read
about Yosemite when he was ill,
by the earliest major promoter
of Yosemite-- J.M. Hutchings.
And it was a wonderful, romantic
book about the Indians
and this great Valhalla,
this American place--
"a throne room of the gods,"
as it were.
And Ansel was swept away by it.
On June 1, 1916, propelled by a ceaseless barrage
of youthful pleadings
and entreaties,
the family set off
for the first time
on the two-day journey
from San Francisco to Yosemite:
Rumbling by train
across the shimmering heat
of the Central Valley,
up through the parched
brown foothills of the Sierra
until they reached El Portal.
Then on by open bus
still higher,
following the pristine waters
of the Merced River
ever deeper into the mountains,
until at length the river
angled sharply to the east,
and "the splendor of Yosemite,"
Adams later wrote,
"burst upon us."
"There was," he said,
"light everywhere.
A new era began for me."
It was love at first sight.
I don't think there's any place
that hits you
in the solar plexus
the way the first time you come
into Yosemite Valley.
It's simply overwhelming.
You're much closer to it, you're
much more surrounded by it
than you are in the Tetons
or in the North Cascades.
It's awesome.
And you put all those things
together, and Ansel--
it changed his life,
it completely changed his life.
I mean, it, it was...
that was it-- bang!
Yosemite became his home place.
Shortly after arriving in the valley,
his father presented him
with a simple, fateful gift:
a Kodak number one
Box Brownie camera,
in its own leather case
with a strap.
After being shown how
the simple apparatus worked,
he was off, racing from one end
of the valley to the other,
shooting everything he saw--
domes, spires, streams, meadows,
waterfalls and cliffs--
endlessly trying, his friend
Nancy Newhall later said,
"to pour into the magic little
box his wonder and his ecstasy.
"Somehow he must capture
this beauty,
"somehow convey
this opening before him
of a new heaven
and a new earth."
I think that what he found was
a chance to break out
of the bonds--
both psychologically
and physically--
of his childhood,
a kind of liberation from his
own internal demons, as it were,
the family tensions,
the kind of cold and foggy
environment of San Francisco.
And out here was
this giant playground.
And so I think
here was a chance
to create another identity
away from his family,
away from these illnesses.
For the next 50 years,
he would divide his time between
San Francisco and Yosemite--
the twin poles of his
exuberantly outgoing,
yet intensely private
I mean, Ansel and San Francisco are inextricably intertwined.
And he lived in San Francisco
for 60 years
and participated very, very
deeply in the life of the city.
But if San Francisco
was his bride,
Yosemite certainly
was his mistress.
It was a duality all his life.
It's hard to imagine
an Ansel Adams without Yosemite,
and I think for most Americans
it's hard to imagine a Yosemite
without Ansel Adams.
I think what artists are after is an object
that seems to confirm
that their understanding,
their experience of the world
is not just a personal opinion,
that they really do have
some objective relationship
to their intuitions
and that their intuitions
are not made up--
that there really is
a world out there
that we really can
on some level understand,
in spite of the fact
that on the surface
it seems so constantly chaotic
and full of meaninglessness
and unpredictability.
So we try to make
of our experience
something that exists
outside of ourselves,
that has an objective life.
In the years to come,
music and the mountains would
become his twin obsessions.
Each fall back in San Francisco,
he threw himself into
the study of the piano,
often practicing more
than six hours a day.
Each summer, he made his way
back up to Yosemite,
eager to explore
the wondrous landscape,
and to work on his new hobby.
The higher the better.
The higher up in the mountains,
the better the work got,
it seems to me.
His first photographs were little more than snapshots--
aids to memory.
Disappointed that
they conveyed so little
of what he had seen and felt
at the moment of exposure,
he set out to learn
everything he could
about the photographic process,
teaching himself how to develop
and print his own negatives,
and experimenting with
different approaches,
including pictorialism--
the painterly, soft-focus style
then in vogue,
that in the name of art
sought to soften and blur
the photographic image.
"June 8, 1920.
"Dear Father,
I am more than ever convinced
"that the only possible way to
interpret the scenes hereabout
"is through
an impressionistic vision.
"A cold, material representation
gives one no conception whatever
"of the great size and distances
of these mountains.
In the summer of 1920,
determined now to pursue
a career as a concert pianist,
he began searching the valley
for a summer piano to practice
on, and soon found one
in the studio of a local painter
named Harry Best,
whose fair-haired 17-year-old
daughter quickly became
another reason for the tall,
gangling 19-year-old to visit.
On paper, Virginia was the perfect mate.
She loved poetry,
she was studying to be
a classical singer.
So she was involved in music
and literature,
all the things that Ansel
cared most deeply about.
And she could hike.
She could out-hike Ansel,
I bet, at that time.
It was a very long courtship, and off again, on again.
Several times Ansel gave up,
gave his life to music again,
which didn't include
getting married,
and then they'd get back
together again.
"March 29, 1923.
"Dear Virginia.
"The desire to get into
the mountains
"has grown very strong
in me lately.
"How often I wish
"that the valley could be now
like it was 40 years ago--
"a pure wilderness with only
a wagon road through it,
"and no automobiles nor mobs.
"I long for the high places.
They are so clean and pure
and untouched."
Each summer, he ventured farther and farther up
into the rugged high country
beyond Yosemite Valley,
sometimes on his own
and sometimes with members
of the Sierra Club,
the wilderness group John Muir
had founded 30 years before--
long days of climbing and hiking
that began before dawn
and often ended well after dark,
making pictures when he could,
and wandering, he wrote,
"in translucent unity
with the world and sky."
Late one morning
in the summer of 1923,
wandering amidst the harsh and
bleakly beautiful high country
east of the valley,
he came as close as he ever
would to capturing in words
the soaring emotions
that sometimes came over him
in the high mountains.
"I was climbing the long ridge west of Mount Clark.
"It was one of those mornings
"where the sunlight is burnished
with a keen wind,
"and long feathers of cloud
move in a lofty sky.
"The silver light turned
every blade of grass
"and every particle of sand into
a luminous metallic splendor.
"There was nothing,
however small,
"that did not clash
in the bright wind,
"that did not send arrows
of light through the glassy air.
"I was suddenly arrested in the
long crunching path up the ridge
"by an exceedingly pointed
awareness of the light.
"The moment I paused, the full
impact of the mood was upon me.
"I saw more clearly than I have
ever seen before or since
"the minute detail
of the grasses,
"the small flotsam
of the forest,
"the motion of the high clouds
streaming above the peaks.
"I dreamed that for a moment
time stood quietly,
"and the vision became
but the shadow
"of an infinitely greater world,
"and I had within the grasp
of consciousness
"a transcendental experience.
Ansel Adams."
He would spend the rest of his life trying to capture on film
the quicksilver light
he saw that morning
and the sense it conveyed
of a deeper truth and meaning.
I think one could risk saying
that in a broad way
it's a quasi-religious
sense of identification
with the landscape.
The quality of the experience,
I think one might call
Do you know
Bernini's St. Teresa--
the same kind of
nervous insubstantiality,
this flickering, flamelike,
ecstatic quality.
I mean, it's...
it's outside yourself.
It's an experience of, um...
I mean, I think one might
actually for a change
really use the word "epiphany,"
uh... without
forcing it too much.
For seven more years,
he would continue to struggle
to define himself as an artist,
still convinced that music
was the higher art form,
but increasingly torn
between music and photography--
San Francisco and Yosemite.
In the fall of 1925,
in a painful, soul-searching
letter to Virginia,
he broke off their engagement,
certain that marriage and music
were incompatible.
She bore up as well as
she could for 18 months,
until in the late winter of 1927
another letter arrived
signaling a radical
change in mood.
"Dear Virginia.
"If you only knew the yearning
to get into the mountains
"that fills me these days.
"Music is wonderful,
but the musical world is bunk--
"so much petty doings,
"so much pose and insincerity
and distorted values.
"I find myself looking back
on the golden days in Yosemite
"with supreme envy.
"I think I came closer
to really living then
"than at any other time
of my life
"because I was closer
to elemental things.
"I love you immensely
at this moment
"and will be so glad
to see you again.
"I am coming to Yosemite
sometime in the spring...
or bust-- Ansel."
They were married nine months later
in the parlor of Virginia's
father's house in Yosemite,
the bride in black,
the groom in a tie
plus fours and tennis shoes.
He was 26 years old.
It would have been difficult for Ansel to spend his whole life
as a professional musician
with the constant pressure
to deal with an audience,
to deal with other people,
to deal with other musicians,
to deal with that
complex social life,
that professional social life
that is forced
on a musician really.
He had a very
gregarious side to him.
He loved parties,
he loved to be entertaining--
he was entertaining.
He was totally at home
with a room full of people.
I think he might have been
more at home
with a room full of people
than with one person.
There was also a very,
very private part to Ansel.
He would be a party animal
for two weeks, a month,
and then he would
have to get away.
In the end, it was Yosemite perhaps
more than anything else
that had brought Adams back
to Virginia and photography,
along with a remarkable
that by the spring of 1927
had begun to take place
in his photographic work itself.
Within four weeks of
his ecstatic letter to Virginia
he had returned to the Valley,
where on a brilliant Sunday
afternoon in early April
high up on the western flank
of the great granite
face of Half Dome
he made a series
of pivotal photographs;
among them one his friend
Nancy Newhall later said
that "even then spoke
to beholders like a trumpet"--
as haunting and as crystal clear
as his vision on the slopes of
Mount Clark four years earlier.
In a day in April, he set out
to hike up to-- it's called
the "Diving Board,"
a little tiny,
tiny point of granite
from which you can look up,
right up at the sheer face
of Half Dome above you.
On the way up,
he takes some pictures.
He stops and takes a picture
out towards Glacier Point
and he takes a picture
of Virginia
and he takes a picture
of Mount Clark.
So by the time he gets up
to the Diving Board--
which is the purpose
of this exercise--
he only has
two glass plates left.
And he sets up the camera and
he puts the first glass plate,
he removes the slide
and he carefully composes
on the ground glass
and he clicks the shutter,
and he suddenly thinks,
"Oh, the picture I just took,
when I print it,
"is not going to translate--
communicate to people-- what
I'm feeling as I stand here."
He was there, it was the last plate of the day.
He'd had a difficult climb,
and suddenly it came to him
that maybe the idea, the sense
of what the experience was like
would be more
faithfully rendered
if he put on
the heavy red Wratten A filter
which would radically
darken the sky
and make, in fact,
the sky darker
than the face of the cliff.
And, by George, it worked.
And it gives you more power and drama and majesty.
It's all the things he's feeling
about this incredible granite
monolith in front of him.
And it's kind of almost scary,
the picture.
There's a sense of terror
in the enormity
of this slab of granite
that the front has come off.
It came to represent a moment
when he had made
a great leap forward
in terms of the notion
of pre-visualizing
what the print should look like,
and thinking about how
to produce his negative
in a way that would achieve
that pre-visualized idea.
It was a turning point.
For the first time,
he later said,
he had found a way
to make a mountain
look how it feels--
a huge, monumental thing.
Two weeks later,
he wrote Virginia:
"My photographs
have now reached the stage
when they are worthy
of the world's attention."
That fall, his first portfolio
of photographs was published
in San Francisco,
thanks to the generosity
of a dapper
Bay Area insurance magnate
and art patron
named Albert Bender.
Not long after
his wedding that winter,
a notice appeared for
the first time in a local paper
advertising his services
as a commercial photographer.
By 1930, he and Virginia
had settled into
a new house and studio
right next door to Ansel's
parents in San Francisco
where he threw himself headlong
into his career
as a photographer.
Well, I think Ansel and Virginia were as good a match
as Ansel could have
hoped to find.
And the fact that
the relationship was not perfect
was more Ansel's fault
than hers.
He was, like many artists,
very absorbed in his work
and in his own quest
for greatness.
And she had to deal with that,
and I think she
dealt with it very well.
In fact, when she gave birth to their first child,
Ansel was not there.
Ansel was out hiking in the
Sierra when Michael was born.
And when she gave birth
two years later
to their second child Anne
in 1935, Ansel was not there.
Virginia was in San Francisco,
Ansel was in Yosemite
on a commercial job.
She was sort of the unsung hero.
My mom had
the business in Yosemite--
she inherited it from her father
after he passed away
in the '30s--
and that enabled them to live
and Ansel to have more time
to do the creative work.
Commercial jobs
were very important,
but her support financially
allowed him
to do a lot of things
that he might not otherwise
have been doing.
The next five years would prove to be the most crucial
and formative period
of his entire career.
In 1930, he was barely a real photographer
or a full-time photographer
or a recognized photographer,
and five years, six years later
he was one of the better known
serious photographers
in the United States.
Now, it was a small community
in those days,
but there was this sort of
meteoric recognition.
Adams' breakthrough on the face of Half Dome
was only the first in a series
of stunning revelations
that in the years to come
would transform his sense of
the poetic power of photography.
In the summer of 1930
on a trip to New Mexico,
the photographer
Paul Strand showed him
a set of his own
recently exposed images.
Even in negative form,
it was clear they possessed
a tonal range
of breathtaking beauty.
"Full luminous shadows,"
Adams recalled,
"and strong high values,
in which subtle passages
of tone were preserved."
Six months later,
in the spring of 1931,
he awoke one morning
with another dazzling vision.
"Photography," he declared,
"is really perception--
the analytic interpretation
of things as they are."
The medium's true power,
he now saw,
came not by evading reality
but by embracing it.
"It was like the Annunciation,"
he later said.
"Suddenly I saw
what photography could be--
"a tremendously potent,
pure art form,
an austere and blazing
poetry of the real."
Abandoning pictorialism
once and for all
along with anything else
that diminished
the brilliance and clarity
of his subject matter,
he dedicated himself to the
principles of pure photography
striving for the greatest
clarity of vision,
and the greatest tonal range,
and rejecting textured papers
for what he called "the simple
dignity of the glossy print."
"He set himself problems of extreme depth of focus
"and of extreme rendition
of textures
"and almost fell into the
ground glass with excitement.
"An old board fence
behind a patch of thistles
"could in sunlight become
"a brilliant clash
of dissonant textures.
"A rose on driftwood indoors
on a dark day could glow softly.
"The moods of light
could be voiced,
"textures used
like different instruments.
"Now clouds could float,
waterfalls flash,
"snow hold its hidden light,
"grasses bend in infinite
delicacy under dew.
Nancy Newhall."
"Gradually," he said,
"my photographs began to mean
something in themselves.
"They became records
of experiences
as well as of places."
"It seems to me,"
his best friend Cedric Wright
wrote in the summer of 1932,
"that your prints have improved
like hell in the last year.
"This is the first time
they have seemed on a par
with your best writing."
Six months later
in the winter of 1933,
he traveled east to New York
for the first time in his life,
to meet the great photographer,
Alfred Stieglitz.
In the stillness of his gallery
on Madison Avenue,
the uncompromising old master
silently perused
the portfolio of prints
Adams had brought with him--
not once but twice
without uttering a word--
then carefully closed
and retied it with a bow.
"These," he said simply,
"are some of the finest
photographs I have ever seen."
Alfred Stieglitz meant the greatest in art.
To be accepted
by Alfred Stieglitz
was to be accepted
as a great artist,
and that's what Ansel
aspired to be.
Adams' encounter with Alfred Stieglitz
would prove life changing
and the final step in his long,
painstaking apprenticeship
as a photographer.
"I will always remember,"
he wrote the older man
in the fall of 1933,
"what you said about
the quality of tenderness
"in things of art,
a sort of elastic appropriation
"of the essence of things
into the essence of yourself,
"a giving of yourself--
"without asking too many
intellectual questions--
to the resultant
combination of essences."
"As with all art, the photographer's objective
"is not the duplication
of visual reality.
"Photography is an investigation
"of both the outer
and the inner worlds.
"The first experiences
with the camera
"involve looking at the world
beyond the lens,
trusting the instrument
will capture something seen."
"The terms 'shoot' and 'take'
are not accidental.
"They represent an attitude
of conquest and appropriation.
"Only when the photographer
grows into perception
"and creative impulse
"does the term "make"
define a condition of empathy
between the external
and the internal events."
"Alfred Stieglitz told me,
"'When I make a photograph,
I make love.'
Ansel Adams."
The landscape photographs he now began to create
were unlike any
that had ever been made before.
Those pictures looked unlike other pictures.
If you wanted to try
to define the content of it,
I think you'd have to say
it has to do
with his appreciation
of the landscape
as something that's
not permanent but evanescent,
always, always in the process
of becoming something else.
Ansel's landscapes more--
surely more than any of the
great 19th-century photographers
who worked over
much of the same territory--
are much less about sculpture,
they're less about geology,
they're less about permanence.
They're less about
the solidity of the rocks
than about the ephemeral nature
of the rocks.
that they're always
something defined
by the transient quality
of the light, by the weather.
Ansel's technique
was designed to solve
the very difficult problem
that his sensibility required.
If you're going to photograph
the mountain as weather,
as opposed to geology, you've
got to have a better technique.
In Ansel's best photographs,
you have the sense you could
identify the temperature,
the relative humidity,
the hour of the day,
the day of the month, because
that's what they're about.
He's not doing this for nothing,
he's not doing this to show off.
That's the nature
of his subject matter
and requires that
he be able to describe
the quality of the air.
There's something in Ansel's
work that is almost gothic.
It's this tracery,
it's this shimmering tracery.
It's not really substantial.
It's like a movie screen,
flickers like that.
It's all this surface ornament,
very vital and animistic
and never still--
shimmering, shaking.
Though he had abandoned music for photography,
for the rest of his life
the love of making beauty
through precisely ordered
chords of sound
and precisely ordered
chords of gray
would perform an intricate
ballet in his sensibility.
He talked a lot,
a very great deal,
about how important
the piano was
most often in the context
of teaching him discipline
and craftsmanship,
and he clearly felt that
it was absolutely a key element
in his success
as a photographer.
I've tried to explain to myself
why it is that there are so many
distinguished photographers
who are interested in music.
One can make certain parallels
between the photographic
gray scale and chord structures.
Certainly it was important
to Ansel's way of thinking
or perhaps even way of feeling.
He would talk about
"chords of tone."
He insisted that
the photograph be...
seem to be "tonally complete,"
"tonally fulfilled," "resolved,"
and that it could have
no holes in it.
But that's fundamentally
the classical idea
of photographic technique.
You're not supposed to look
at the piece of paper,
you look through it
like a window,
and anytime there's a hole
in that photograph
that makes it turn to paper,
it ruins the illusion.
He used to say, "The piano has 88 keys
"and you have to be able
to play all of them.
"And the range of white to black
is analogous to the 88 keys
"and you have to be able to play
all 88 keys in that palette
from white to black."
And that's why I believe
his photographs are so rich.
He was a master at bringing out
all those incredible
nuances of tone.
And to me, his photographs
have the same bell-like quality
that he could make on the piano.
After you look at
an Ansel Adams photograph,
you remember it,
it kind of reverberates.
And Ansel always said, "You can
tell if it's a good work of art
"if you remember it afterwards,
"if there's, like...
burned into your brain
"and you can close your eyes
after you see it,
is it still with you?"
And, to me, his best photographs
are like his
playing on the piano--
they linger in your mind's eye
and your ear
and they stay with you.
I never met anyone who worked as hard as he did.
Never took a day off.
Never took a vacation, ever.
He simply worked
seven days a week,
every day of the year,
every year,
even when he was 80,
he was still doing that.
The only time
he would take a day off
is if he was recovering
from a hangover
and then that
was not infrequent.
But his own career was
really precarious economically.
One of the reasons he worked
so hard was to make a living
and it was difficult
to make a living
as a photographer in those days.
There was the Depression.
It wasn't a profession that was
particularly well established.
He really struggled
to pay the rent
and to make ends meet literally.
I mean, you know,
he couldn't go on a trip
to take photographs somewhere
because he didn't have $100
to pay the costs-- all his life.
Well, Ansel had just begun to mature as an artist
when the Great Depression
He was achieving recognition,
some degree of success,
at a time when
a lot of the foundations
of the style he had developed
were being questioned,
as the impact of the Depression
caused artists around the world
to reassess the motivations
for their work.
"What am I doing?"
"Why am I doing it?"
"What's the point
of making beautiful pictures
at a time of national--
international-- catastrophe?"
Well, he and Edward Weston were both criticized
because they
weren't photographing
the social crisis of the 1930s.
And Cartier-Bresson said that
the world is going to pieces
and Adams and Weston are
photographing rocks and trees.
And Ansel was very stung
by this criticism.
He believed that
photography should be...
his photography was about art.
He felt that
documentary photography,
unless it was practiced
at an extremely high level,
was propaganda, and he wasn't
interested in that.
He wasn't trying
to send a message.
First of all, at that point,
people didn't think
the environment was
a terribly important issue.
They thought unemployment
and the dust bowl and hunger
and social injustice
were the issues.
Now, ironically, it turns out
that one of the great social
human issues of the 20th century
has certainly been
the environment,
and Ansel was way ahead of
the curve on understanding that.
It's not that the '30s and that criticism didn't affect him,
it's that it didn't affect him
in the standard way.
He wanted to be
politically active as well
and he wanted his art
to have a commitment
and a sense of purpose beyond
creating beautiful objects.
But his sense
of what was important
was not the breadlines
or the wartime issues.
He wanted people to understand
the deeper time of creation,
the great forces of nature
and of creation
that go on despite
the permutations of today.
And he thought that this was
the fundamental message
that people needed
to understand:
that the world exists
within this larger world.
"There is a deeper thing to express:
"the return of humanity
"to some sort of balanced
awareness of the natural things,
"some rocks and sky.
"We need a little earth
to stand on
"and feel run
through our fingers.
"Perhaps photography
can do this.
"I am going to try, anyhow.
Ansel Adams."
That was really the motivation
that made him turn
towards this activism
that came out right in the '30s
when he started
to lobby in Washington--
he became a member
of the board of directors
of the Sierra Club in 1936
in the depths of the Depression.
And he sensed
that here's a chance
for me to be an activist
with my art,
to say something
with my photography.
I think in Ansel's case, you can't disconnect them.
They are linked.
The feeling for the land--
and therefore environmentalism--
is an integral part
of the photographs.
And he never set out
to take a picture
for an environmental purpose,
but he could go out
and take a picture
and show you how he felt about
this incredible landscape
and then it could be used
in many different ways.
But he said it had to
come from his soul
and his heart and his spirit
and it couldn't be imposed
from the outside.
But I truly believe
that he was an environmentalist
down to his toenails--
just every little bit of him was
all about the beauty of nature
and the need
to keep it inviolate
for generations to come.
"March 1936.
"As I look back on it now,
"I realize a certain
'unworldly' quality
"about the point of view
"that was drilled
and dynamited into me.
"I have existed only
for the quality of art
"in relation to itself,
"the production of beauty
without other motivation.
"For quite a few years, however,
I have been fully aware
"that something was missing,
something of supreme importance.
"The 'contact with life,'
you may call it.
Ansel Adams."
If you read Ansel's autobiography
you would think that he never
had a dark day in his life,
but in fact I don't think
that's true.
And I think he had genuinely
difficult times in his life
when he wasn't sure
about the work,
he wasn't sure about
personal relationships,
he wasn't sure about
his relationship
to the larger
artistic community.
Well, Ansel had
a sort of manic side,
where he would just
push himself workwise--
20 hours a day
or even all night--
all day, all night for several
days to finish an assignment,
and in the darkroom
and out photographing
and back in the darkroom.
And he would just go
until he was shot
and then he would shut down.
The most turbulent, intense
and harrowing year
of Ansel Adams' life
began with a stunning triumph.
By the third week
of January, 1936,
he was on his way east again,
bound for Washington,
where he hoped
to convince Congress
to have the vast
Kings Canyon Wilderness
southeast of Yosemite
set aside as a national park.
Along the way,
he stopped off in New York,
to show Alfred Stieglitz
his latest photographic work.
He was stunned when the old man
offered him a one-man show
at his gallery that fall--
the first photographer to be so
honored in more than four years.
It was one of the highest points
of his entire career.
"Everything seems to come to him
who waits," he wrote Virginia.
Here he was in his mid-30s with now two children,
a developing
but hardly flourishing
career as a photographer,
and along comes an opportunity
from Alfred Stieglitz
to have a one-man show
at An American Place--
the ultimate venue for any
photographer of the day.
And he threw himself
into this project.
Back in California, with not one
but three exhibits
to prepare for in the fall,
he plunged into
a maelstrom of work
with the assistance of
a dark-haired, 22-year-old,
one-time model
named Patsy English,
whom he had hired to help out
with the avalanche of printing.
The show at the Stieglitz Gallery is in the fall of '36,
and all that summer
in the High Sierra
he's hiking and taking pictures,
and when he got back
from the summer
then he started printing
in earnest.
And I think it was
white hot in the darkroom,
and his assistant,
Patsy English,
said she remembers
that he would say,
"I've got to make this...
it's just got to be fantastic
because it's going to be
at Stieglitz's gallery."
And sometimes he'd show her
a print in the tray, still wet,
and then he'd say,
"What do you think?"
And she'd say,
"Oh, I think maybe
you need to do a little more.
Is there more?"
So he'd keep going.
And so those prints
for that show,
it's a body of work
that's absolutely incredible.
He wasn't sure how much was Stieglitz inspiring him
and how much Patsy
was inspiring him,
because at the end of the day,
he did know, whatever it was,
that these were, in his mind,
the best prints he'd ever made.
And at the same time
he had the one great love
experience of his whole life.
He fell deeply in love
and had a very intense affair,
although I don't think it was
sexual with Patsy English.
But it was the absolutely
great love of his life.
The prints he made that summer
were some of the most inspired
and luminous of his career.
But week after week,
the physical and emotional
strain of the work
and of his increasingly
conflicted feelings
for Patsy and Virginia
began to take a toll
until the stress
had become all but unbearable.
So he pushed on through the summer, working frenetically,
and got the show ready,
brought it to New York,
and it was a great success.
And in the wake of that success,
Ansel fell apart.
The fundamental reason was
just pure physical exhaustion.
He'd been working himself
just beyond the breaking point.
But there was a psychological
component as well, you know.
He was just not able
to deal anymore
with the complexity of his life.
And I think
that he had this sense
of feeling trapped within
a whole set of expectations,
of responsibilities,
of just a set of things
that he couldn't deal with,
and this was the only way
he could escape.
When he couldn't pull it off,
when he couldn't
go through with, you know,
getting a divorce and leaving
his family and going off,
he had a nervous breakdown
and wound up in the hospital.
And it was sort of like "pop!"
This period of his life,
his 30s, his early 30s
and the early '30s
of the century, uh,
kind of came slamming down
to an end.
For 18 months, he wrestled with depression
and a devastating
inner emptiness,
struggling to come to terms
with what had happened.
And he finally realizes he can't overturn things,
even though
he'd like to romantically.
And I think it was hard for him,
but he could really see
that that was... he had made
the right decision.
And he couldn't make
the decision to leave
because it wouldn't have been
the right thing to do.
And so he stayed.
And you could argue, "What would
have happened if he'd left?"
( sighs )
I can't say.
He stayed, and he was proud
to have been married
for 50 years to Virginia,
he was really proud.
And that his children
and his grandchildren
and great-grandchildren,
it made...
it gave him great happiness.
She was his ballast,
his rock, his anchor.
He always felt whenever
he got east of the Rockies
that his life-force was slowly
being sapped and taken away.
So he would come home depleted,
but he would always
come home to Virginia
and come home to Yosemite,
and he would heal again.
Little by little, he began to find his way.
In late December,
he wrote Alfred Stieglitz,
quoting lines
from the poet Robinson Jeffers.
"Does it matter
whether you hate yourself?
"At least love your eyes
that can see,
"your mind
that can hear the music,
the thunder of the wings."
When spring came, he and
Virginia decided to return
with the children to Yosemite,
the one place in the world
that had always brought him
solace and peace of mind.
On June 10, 1937, in a letter to
his best friend, Cedric Wright,
he struggled to put into words
what he had come to understand
about the things
that mattered most.
"Dear Cedric, a strange thing happened to me today.
"I saw a big thundercloud
move down over Half Dome,
"and it was so big
and clear and brilliant
"that it made me see many things
"that were drifting around
inside of me;
"things that relate
to those who are loved
"and those who are real friends.
"For the first time,
I know what love is,
"what friends are
and what art should be.
"Love is a seeking
for a way of life,
"the way
that cannot be followed alone,
"the resonance of all spiritual
and physical things.
"Friendship is another form
of love, more passive perhaps,
"but full of the transmitting
and acceptances of things
"like thunderclouds and grass
"and the clean granite
of reality.
"Art is both love and friendship
and understanding,
"the desire to give.
"It is not charity,
which is the giving of things,
"it is more than kindness,
which is the giving of self,
"it is both the taking
and giving of beauty,
"the turning out to the light
"of the inner folds of
the awareness of the spirit.
"It is a re-creation
on another plane
"of the realities of the world;
"the tragic and wonderful
realities of earth and men
"and of all the interrelations
of these.
And from that Yosemite foundation,
which had been the foundation
throughout his life--
that sort of psychological sense
of home in Yosemite--
he came back to life.
Back in Yosemite,
with new, interesting prospects
coming in from New York,
from the Sierra Club,
from just the sense that,
"Well, I can start again."
In the end, work and the mountains saved him.
He was still struggling to find
his way in the spring of 1937
when a wealthy businessman
named Walter Starr,
asked him to take on
a special project,
a book of photographs
that he hoped would serve
as a memorial
to his young son, Peter,
who had died in a fall
while climbing alone,
amidst the craggy spires
of the Minarets.
He got very involved in this book project
that was one of the most
beautiful books he ever did--
Sierra Nevada:
The John Muir Trail--
and it was a limited edition,
only 500 copies,
but absolutely magnificent book.
It took several years;
there was a lot of difficulty
getting the printing right.
It was very definitely
the most important work
he had done as an artist
until then as far as books.
Sierra Nevada:
The John Muir Trail
was a photographic masterpiece.
"Here, in bright light
and rare clarity,
is to be found the very essence
of the Sierra," one man said.
Alfred Stieglitz,
to whom Adams had sent
one of the first copies,
was even more emphatic.
"You have literally taken
my breath away," he wrote.
"What perfect photography.
"And how perfectly preserved
in the reproductions.
"I am glad to have lived
to see this happen
"and here in America--
all American--
"and I'm not a nationalist,
"I am an idolater of perfect
workmanship of any kind,
"and this is truly
perfect workmanship.
I am elated."
And it also was influential
in the effort
to create King's Canyon
National Park.
He actually took many of
the photographs to Washington
to lobby the Senate
for the Sierra Club,
and he sent a copy
to Harold Ickes,
the secretary of the interior,
who was a great fan of his.
And Ickes took it over
to President Roosevelt
and used it
to persuade Roosevelt
to support King's Canyon
as a national park.
And Roosevelt liked it so much
he insisted on keeping it,
so Ansel had to send
another copy to Ickes.
On March 4, 1940,
President Franklin Roosevelt
signed into law
a bill officially incorporating
King's Canyon
into the National Park system.
"I realize,"
the head of the National Park
Service later wrote Adams,
"that a silent but most
effective voice in the campaign
"was your own book.
"So long as that book
is in existence,
it will go on justifying
the park."
In the pages
of Adams' exquisite volume,
art and politics had come
together and both had triumphed.
For 15 more years,
he would continue to work
at the very height of his powers
as a photographer and an artist
as the Depression waned
and world war came.
And the war itself served
to accelerate a crucial shift
in his photography
away from the lyrical intimacy
of his early work
towards grander,
more dramatic themes.
Too old at 40
for military service,
he began work
in the fall of 1941
on an ambitious series of murals
for the Department
of the Interior,
epic images of immense size
and technical difficulty
portraying an American landscape
as if "touched by the hand
of God," one man later said.
Well, it's clear that the style of his work changed
throughout the course
of his life
and the more quiet,
formalist fine-art modernism
of his early years did change
towards a grander, more heroic
and populist style
in his later years.
Part of his change in the '40s,
when this transformation
really happens,
was driven by the necessities
of his job.
For example, the mural project
for the Department
of the Interior,
he needed to create giant murals
for the hallways.
He needed images that were going
to work at that scale.
But at the same time,
there was, in a sense,
the historical moment behind
the transformation as well.
The coming of the Second World
War created the sense
that we're at a dramatic
transition point in history.
It was a time
of intense conflict
and intense sense
of anything could happen.
So, I think the drama
of those years
infused itself
into the tone of his work.
It wasn't a quiet time.
The first thing he does, he drops the horizon.
If you look at landscapes
from the '20s
and the very early '30s,
it's always a high horizon,
and you're kind of locked out.
When he gets into the early
'40s, he drops that horizon,
and suddenly you've got
these limitless spaces
and this incredible feeling
of space,
and that's when I think
he's at his best,
when you just can kind of lose
yourself in an Ansel Adams sky.
Driving through northern New Mexico late one afternoon
in early November 1941,
he came across a sleepy village
in the last light of day
and made one of the most
powerfully haunting photographs
of his career.
Well, Moonrise, Hernandez
I think is probably one
of the most famous photographs
of the 20th century
and continuing on
into this new century.
And it's one of those examples
of what Ansel liked to call
"chance favoring a prepared
mind," that he was ready,
and even though
he didn't have a light meter,
or couldn't dig it
out of his case in time,
he was able to successfully
get this on film with one shot.
All I remember is that we came to a very sudden stop
and it was one of these
"Hurry, hurry, hurry,
get out, get the tripod, get
the camera," this sort of thing,
"I see a wonderful picture."
And then, he took
this picture, Moonrise.
The one and only picture
that he got
is the one that we know today.
Within minutes or seconds
of that picture the sun set,
and lost the light
on the gravestones
that were in the foreground.
That's in the midst of a long photographic assignment--
he's photographing every day.
That 8 x 10 camera
is second nature to him,
even though, as the story goes,
he can't find his light meter
and he guesstimates the exposure
based upon
this cryptic knowledge
of the moon reflecting
250 candles per square foot.
He tries to make a second,
backup exposure,
but in whatever
the length of time is
that trained hand takes--
the few seconds to turn over
that 8 x 10 holder,
highly tuned, highly practiced,
at the prime
of his physical life--
he doesn't even make
the second exposure
because the light
goes off the crosses.
I mean, he's a tuned
photographic instrument
and he's regularly exercising
that part of his activity
and I think that's when he makes
his best photographs.
He manipulated the work tremendously in the darkroom.
He always said
the negative is the equivalent
of the composer's score
and the print is the equivalent
of the conductor's performance.
And the same piece of Mozart
is conducted differently,
performed differently
by different orchestras,
different conductors;
and Ansel performed
his own negatives differently.
It was very important to Ansel
to convey his inner feelings
about the subject,
and, you know, he put
the negative in the enlarger,
and every printing experience
was a new, essentially,
rebirth of the image.
Sometimes he printed things,
you know, very somber,
sometimes he would print things
light and airy.
But every time
he tried to be faithful
to how he felt about that scene.
The image is Winter Sunrise,
the Sierra Nevada winter.
If Ansel were
to just print it straight,
it would be pretty boring.
So what Ansel typically would do
would be to darken
the sky considerably
and give it a lot of mood,
and in this particular case
with Winter Sunrise,
darkening that sky
accentuates the drama
of the sunlight
on the snowy cliffs
and also enhances
that spot of sunlight
coming down
on the foreground here,
which helps enhance
that feeling of distance.
It was like a ballet, watching him in the darkroom
jumping around and dodging
and burning and, and saying,
"I want the sky to be richer,"
and he really worked them over.
And often it would take him
a whole day
before he got one print
from a negative right.
Once he did that,
he could make more prints,
but it was, uh,
it was real, real labor.
I don't know, half or 40%
of the creative process
occurred in the darkroom.
For me, Ansel's photographs exist on many different levels,
and that's why I find them
so rich.
There's the beauty,
there's the technique,
there's the message to me
that Ansel's photographs
always give me,
which is his patriotism.
And I believe that he
was supremely patriotic
in a very open, Californian way.
And to me, his photographs
just scream "America"
as if there's a flag up there.
There's a flag
on top of Moonrise,
on top of Mount Williamson,
on top
of Yosemite Valley View.
And that's one reason I think
people in America find--
all over the world,
but particularly in America--
find them enthralling.
In many ways,
the war was the defining moment
of Adams' career
and a watershed in the history
of the environmental movement,
as the forces unleashed
in the postwar years
threatened the wilderness
as never before.
My best guess is
it was, in fact, the interstate
highway system and the car;
that as long as part
of the country
was really hard to get to,
people took wildness
for granted.
And it was at the moment
when suddenly everything
was going to be out there
where you could touch it,
that people began to say,
"Wait a minute, if you touch a
butterfly's wings, you ruin it.
"And maybe some of these places
are more like a butterfly;
"maybe if we touch them,
then the scales will come off
and the glimmer will be gone
and the sheen will fade."
And people began to question,
I think, in the '50s,
whether ease of getting there
was always a good thing.
In the years to come, Adams would redouble his efforts
to make Americans understand
why wilderness mattered,
lobbying Congress
for stricter laws,
formulating policy
for the Sierra Club
and writing countless articles
and letters.
I bet he wrote more letters to the editor
than any sane person
in American history--
uh, at least 5,000--
and he really thought
this was a tremendous way
to influence things.
And he would just sit there,
he'd type every one of them
himself, you know,
sitting there
at his little typewriter.
But that's how he worked;
he was passionately involved.
He was one
of the great activists.
He came to be known
as "Mr. Sierra Club."
But... his real impact
on the 20th-century
American environmental movement
was the inspirational value
of his... of his work,
not made
for environmental purposes,
but they became symbols
of the American wilderness.
And I think that to me, that's
how he really made a difference.
Every now and then, he wondered
whether the creative fires that
had inspired him in his youth
had begun to fade,
or whether he had said
all he had to say
in the field of photography.
But there was little time
for such thoughts now,
and in 1952, he embarked
upon a series of magazine
and book projects,
in collaboration with
his good friend, Nancy Newhall,
hoping to reach an even broader
audience with his message.
"Confined by our own artifice,
"borne up on vast abundance
and colossal waste,
"restless and disconsolate,
"we course across this dwindling
globe that once seemed infinite,
"seeking somewhere in some
last, far place our birthright--
"the wild majesty,
beauty and freedom
"through which,
for a million years, man grew.
Nancy Newhall, 1959."
Of course, the most important thing they ever did together
was This Is the American Earth,
which was published
in the same year
as Rachel Carson's
Silent Spring--
and that was in many ways
the single most important book
that kicked off
the kind of modern, uh, mass
environmental movement.
But Ansel's book was very,
very influential in that process
in the same year,
and I think next
to Silent Spring
may be the most seminal book.
Three years later, in 1963,
Adams and Newhall
would collaborate again
on a vast retrospective
exhibit of his work
called "The Eloquent Light"
that would consolidate
his already considerable
reputation and fame
and mark the beginning
of the end
of the most fruitful part
of his career.
At some point in the late '50s,
the great creative urge
began to dissipate.
Certainly after
the mid-to-late '50s
he made very few photographs
of real consequence.
Whether he felt
he had said it or done it,
he continued
to make photographs,
but the drive was gone.
And he was 61 years old
at the time of the exhibition,
and many artists
have much, much shorter periods
of great productivity.
I think it probably has a lot
to do with just plain stamina.
Uh... I don't mean
just physical stamina,
the ability to kind of stay
with it and continue to worry it
and to do it
from the other side,
to try and to keep confronting
this suspicion
that you haven't
really understood it yet,
that you haven't found
the right place to stand,
you haven't found where
the edges of the pictures are,
or you haven't found,
haven't found really
what the components
of the picture are yet.
It gets easier to abandon it
half-done... when you get older.
And he felt very guilty about it.
I first came to know him
in the '70s, early '70s,
and he was 69, I think,
and he was always saying,
"Aw, I've really got to get out
and photograph."
You could tell that he felt
that they were going to take his
union card away or something.
He really... it was guilt,
and he was a big man for guilt.
But it didn't make
any difference,
he didn't...
he just didn't do it,
and when he went out,
nothing happened.
If you look at the few late pictures he made
late in his life,
Moon and Half Dome,
El Capitn Winter Sunrise--
oh, my gosh, those are two
of his 12 best pictures.
And he made them
on the spur of the moment
when he happened to be
in Yosemite with a camera,
which shows
he could still do it.
And so I am convinced
that the reason he didn't
was he was always worried
about the wolf at the door
and money.
He was nearing 70,
when the financial security
that had eluded him all his life
materialized at last,
in the form
of an enterprising one-time
graduate student in forestry
named Bill Turnage,
whom Adams had met in the spring
of 1970 while lecturing at Yale.
Taking over the management
of Adams' affairs,
Turnage swiftly turned
the Ansel Adams archive
into a multimillion-dollar
and Adams himself
into a popular icon
and the first mass-marketed
fine-arts photographer
in the world.
Ansel, in his last years, became a cross
between one's favorite uncle
and, uh, Smokey the Bear.
But that wasn't the real artist.
I think that was somebody
who had come to recognize
that his, that his best work as
a photographer was behind him,
and, uh, was proceeding to be
a extraordinarily valuable
member of society
as an educator,
as a conservationist,
as a spokesman
for a lot of things
that many of us regard
as highly important.
But that wasn't
the greatest Ansel.
In my view, the greatest Ansel
was Ansel the artist,
and that was... that Ansel
was operating at full steam
for more than 20 years,
which is very good,
very good for an artist.
You know, he spent the last two decades of his life
in a very, very productive way--
first of all, making prints
of many photographs
he'd been unable to print
when he was racing around
doing jobs and so on.
He created
a whole series of books,
which was tremendously
important to him
because he wanted people
to see his work.
He was also
at his most influential
from the standpoint
of the environmental movement.
He was the one American
who could meet
with the president
just by picking up
the telephone.
He was very,
very active lecturing,
going around the country,
both on...
particularly on photography,
more than on the environment,
so he was flat out.
Even when he was 80,
he was working 12, 14 hours
a day, seven days a week
and traveling constantly,
and very, very productive.
Year after year, the honors and accolades poured in.
In the fall of 1979,
he was honored
with a retrospective exhibit
at the Museum of Modern Art
in New York
and featured
on the cover of Time magazine.
One year later, at a gala
ceremony at the White House,
he was awarded the
Presidential Medal of Freedom,
the nation's highest
civilian honor.
( applause )
Ever considered what would be
a proper epitaph
for Ansel Adams?
I think Alfred Stieglitz's
He told me he wanted...
That would be ideal, it said,
"Here lies Alfred Stieglitz.
He lived for better or for
worse, but he's dead for good."
( interviewer laughing )
He was a person who had this incredible creative desire
to express himself,
and wanted to live...
and live and live.
And I... I... I used to
kind of kid him about it,
and he'd say, "Well, you know,
"you don't think
living forever is important now,
but you will
when you're my age."
He really, really feared death,
and he really...
I'm sure he wanted to live
to be 120 and keep on working.
In the end,
even Adams' phenomenal reserves
of energy began to fail.
In 1983, he visited Yosemite
for the last time.
One winter afternoon, not long
after his 80th birthday,
he ventured out to the headlands
of the Golden Gate
in San Francisco,
to wander the cliffs and
shoreline of his childhood
one last time.
High up on the rugged ramparts
overlooking the Pacific,
he came upon
an ancient concrete bunker,
a crumbling and abandoned relic
of the Second World War.
"It seems," he wrote,
"that almost anything manmade
that endures in time
acquires some qualities
of the natural."
"Bleak shapes grow
into a kind of magic
that, once seen,
cannot easily be ignored."
It was one of the last
photographs he ever took.
Two years later, on the evening
of April 22, 1984,
his heart gave out in a hospital
near his home
in Carmel Highlands.
He was 82 years old.
Six months after Adams' death,
in an extraordinary tribute
to the great photographer
and environmentalist,
Congress set aside
an immense tract of wild land
southeast of Yosemite
and named it
the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
One year later, in August 1985,
a remote, windswept peak in the
very heart of the High Sierra
was officially named
Mount Ansel Adams.
That would have thrilled him more than anything.
The fact that Congress
created the wilderness,
named it after him,
and that it was his
absolutely favorite part of...
of the world.
And so I think he would have...
I think he would have
really loved that.
We made a pilgrimage the next year
and we put Ansel's ashes
up on the mountain,
sort of between the mountain
and the national forest
that's now named
the Ansel Adams Wilderness.
But it's right on the south
border of Yosemite,
between Yosemite
and Sequoia National Forest.
Oh, I think it's so appropriate.
I can't think
of a better tribute to him,
this particular site,
with that mountain,
in an area
that he especially loved.
That means a lot.
Adams' pictures are perhaps anachronisms.
They are perhaps
the last confident
and deeply felt pictures
of their tradition.
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 for the future--
of what they missed.
For the aging,
for a little while,
they will be a souvenir
of what was lost.
Well, Ansel's life encompasses the long national debate--
the debate that I think began
ten years before he was born,
with the release
of the Census of 1890,
the declaration
that the frontier had closed,
and Frederick Jackson Turner's
famous challenge
to the American people--
Who were we going to be,
now that we didn't have
a frontier anymore?
And Ansel's life occupied
almost exactly a century
in which Americans debated
that question,
and at the end of the century
came to Ansel's answer,
which was
that while the frontier--
as a statistically measured
artifact of the Census Bureau--
might have ended,
wildness did not end
with the frontier
and that what it was
to be an American
was to respect
and cherish wildness.
And Ansel,
in his own wild way, I think,
was one of the crucial voices--
or, I suppose, images
in Ansel's case--
in saying
to the American people
that we had this opportunity.
If you look at Ansel's pictures
from the 1920s and the 1930s,
you wouldn't know
that the frontier had closed.
You would think that America
was still the wild place
that Bernard DeVoto wrote about
in his books about the 1850s.
And I think Ansel captured
in film
that opportunity,
that possibility,
which Americans spent
all of his lifetime
debating whether to value.
And then really, almost
at the end of his life,
I think Americans decided
we wanted to be Americans;
we did not want a second Europe.
We wanted a place
that was still wild.
Captioned by
There's more about Ansel Adams
at American Experience online.
Go under the black cloth and
find out how a camera works,
and see a gallery
of Adams' photographs.
All this and more
at PBS Online--,
America Online Keyword: PBS.
American Experience with
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Wildness shaped
the American character.
It tested and taught us,
made us bold and big-hearted,
quick to act, certain that one
person can make a difference.
As Americans, we are
so linked to the land
that something will go out
of us as a people
if we ever let the remaining
wilderness be destroyed.
Care about America?
Then help us care for America.
Contact the Sierra Club
to make a difference.
Together, we can protect
our country