On a blazing summer day in 1916, a teenager named Ansel Adams first encountered the awesome beauty of Yosemite Valley. “From that day,” he later wrote, “my life has been colored and modulated by the great earth-gesture of the Sierra.” This youthful awakening to the sublime power of the wilderness was the beginning of a lifelong journey for Adams — a quest in which he would discover the power of photography to reveal mankind’s place in the natural world. His work was part of an extraordinary revolution in photography that sought to capture what Adams called “the continuous beauty of things that are,” the landscape of the North American continent. More than any other artist of the twentieth century, Adams helped transform the meaning of wilderness in America; his greatest images of the American West changed forever what Americans thought about their own land.
American Experience presents Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film, written and directed by Ric Burns and co-produced by Sierra Club Productions and Steeplechase Films. For the centennial of the artist’s birth, Burns has created an elegant, moving, and lyrical portrait of this quintessentially American photographer. The documentary weaves together archival footage, photographic images, dramatic readings of the artist’s own writing, and interviews with leading photographers, historians, curators, naturalists, as well as Adams’s family, friends, and colleagues, to tell the story of a man who was at once a visionary photographer, a pioneer in photographic technique, and an ardent crusader for the cause of environmentalism.
In making the biographical film, Burns blazed trails of his own through the Sierra to capture the essence of Adams’s unique relationship with his subject matter. “To get to the heart of what so inspired Ansel Adams, we literally followed in his footsteps,” said Burns. “We lugged our cameras up sheer rock faces and hiked the winding trails that led Ansel to his photographic revelations. And they led us to Ansel.” Burns’ dramatic footage — fluidly juxtaposed with the photographer’s extraordinary work — places Adams’s photos in their natural context for the first time on television.
Born in February 1902 in San Francisco, Ansel Easton Adams grew up with America’s natural beauty all around him. “That landscape was just in his bones,” remarks Andrea G. Stillman, editor of numerous volumes of Adams’s photographs. In illuminating the way that Adams became so intensely drawn to the natural beauty of the West, Ansel Adams traces the growth of an awkward, nervous, home-schooled boy — from the discovery of his precocious talent for music through his fateful first trip to Yosemite with a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie camera. “I knew my destiny,” Adams later wrote, “when I first experienced Yosemite.”
But as the documentary reveals, achieving that destiny would take time. Early on, Adams found himself caught between his hopes of becoming a concert pianist and his great passion — exploring and photographing the Sierra Nevada. Adams’s life came to a dramatic turning point in 1927 when he made his famous photograph called Monolith, the Face of Half Dome — a view of Half Dome taken after an arduous day of climbing and shooting, on his very last photographic plate. The brooding image, with its sky rendered dark by a heavy red filter, was a breakthrough. “It was a picture that for Ansel came to represent a moment when he had made a great leap forward,” says John Szarkowski, director emeritus of the Museum of Modern Art’s department of photography and author of Ansel Adams at 100.
The documentary observes the years of remarkable productivity and growth that followed the Monolith revelation: the lessons Adams learned from the work of Paul Strand, his indelible encounter with the great Alfred Stieglitz; his physical, perfectionist approach to printmaking; and his relentless dedication to clarity.
“He set himself problems of extreme depth and focus and of extreme renditions of textures, and almost fell into the ground glass with excitement,” says Nancy Newhall, Adams’s close friend and collaborator. “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.”
As it charts his dramatic accomplishments as an artist, the film provides intimate glimpses into Adams’s private life, especially his eight-year-long, on-again, off-again, courtship of Virginia Best, who would eventually become his wife and mother of his two children. She served as a quiet anchor for Adams as he reached for greater and greater artistic heights. The film also looks at the defining emotional crisis of Adams’s life — his relationship with his printing assistant, a young former model named Patsy English. While the relationship seemed to inspire some of his best work, it finally led Adams to a nervous breakdown.
In his later years, Adams was one of the most recognized photographers in the world. The precision and depth with which he captured nature’s beauty excited people’s imaginations and elicited the kind of popular response that few other photographers have known. In those years, he took advantage of his popularity and redoubled his efforts to raise public awareness of the wilderness. That commitment to the environment would continue even as Adams’s artistic zeal began to wane and he underwent a gradual transformation from creator of masterworks to elder statesman of the environmental movement. For an artist whose life and work were so profoundly bound up in the beauty and mystery of the American West, the documentary concludes, no tribute could have been more appropriate than the creation of the Ansel Adams Wilderness, which the United States Congress set aside shortly after his death.
“He believed the future was going to be better,” says William A. Turnage, Adams’s longtime friend, business manager, and trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. “He was the first great optimist among environmentalists. He really felt we were going to win, and I think in the long term, everything is happening in the way that Ansel dreamed it would.”