Mention the work of Ansel Adams and most fans conjure the photographer’s sweeping views of Yosemite or his haunting vision of “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.”
But before he became a luminary, Adams revealed a more intimate side through his early nature and architectural studies. Open at the New Mexico Museum of Art, “Ansel Adams: Pure Photography” reveals this more subtle imagery through 16 prints from the museum’s collection, augmented by two promised gifts.
“I’ve always loved that work and I’ve never done a solo Adams show by myself,” museum photography curator Kate Ware said. “We have this wonderful little group of things and they’re not what people think about when they think of Ansel Adams. It’s him becoming Ansel Adams. He’s a household name, but how did he get there?”
In contrast to the dramatic views Adams later made of American’s most stunning landscapes, these works from the 1930s show a quieter vision relying on an abundance of richly delineated detail conveying the essence of his subjects.
Born in San Francisco, Adams had originally explored a career as a concert pianist.
“There’s a story that he made the decision (to pursue photography) in Taos when he saw (photographer) Paul Strand’s negatives,” Ware said. “It’s a nice story, but he had already decided.”
By 1932, Adams was 30 years old and fully dedicated to a photographic career. He and his cohorts, such as the northern California photographers Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston, formed Group f/64 to promote what they called “pure”or “straight” photography. Their name referred to a number on the lens of the camera’s diaphragm favored for bringing clarity and definition to their imagery.
The group moved away from the so-called “pictorialism” advocated by photographer/impresario Alfred Stieglitz, an approach known for a soft-focused, more romanticized approach.
Adams and his colleagues sought a sharper vision, using large format cameras and 8-by-10-inch negatives.
“They weren’t cutting; they weren’t cropping,” Ware said.
“They almost sought to reveal the essence of what they were capturing.”
In his late 1920s portrait of artist and filmmaker Henwar Rodakiewicz, Adams was already moving toward this approach. But his use of a matte, textured paper softened the contrast and tone. In a later trio of portraits made in 1932, he briefly tried artificial light for sharper illumination and printed on the glossy, high-contrast paper favored by his colleagues.
In the sharply focused “Leaves, Stump, Frost, Yosemite Valley” (c. 1932) and “Pine Cone and Eucalyptus Leaves, San Francisco” (1932), viewers can almost feel the knotty textures of his subjects.
“That picture of the pine cone; you can almost smell that,” Ware said.
By the 1940s, Adams shifted his lens to grander vistas with more dramatic conceptions.
A small number of later photographs – including “Aspens, New Mexico” and “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” – show his mature style of the 1940s, characterized by broader views, darkroom manipulation and large prints.
“He was a very serious hiker and he became an environmentalist,” Ware said. “And he loved weathered wood. It’s the wonder of seeing things.”
Rebecca Senf, chief curator of the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, will give a lecture at the museum at 5:30 p.m. March 4 in conjunction with her recent publication “Making a Photographer: The Early Work of Ansel Adams.”