Photographic Development: A Q&A With Dr. Rebecca Senf on Ansel Adams’s Growth as an Artist
Ansel Adams was more than just a champion of mid-century landscape photography whose famous, vivid imagery challenged the limits of the black-and-white medium. He was also an environmental activist and co-founder of the Center for Creative Photography (CCP) in Tucson. Adams’ work, filled with passion for the great outdoors, continues to resonate with artists and consumers of today.
Dr. Rebecca Senf, the Chief Curator for the CCP, dedicated her graduate study to develop the world’s understanding of Ansel Adams. Her fascination with Adams’s journey as a photographer began when she worked on an exhibition that featured the Lane collection, the largest private collections of Adams’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. For this she traveled across the country to visit collections of his work, meet with his studio assistants, and visit Yosemite National Park, where some of his most famous images were made.
In Senf’s new book, Making a Photographer: The Early Works of Ansel Adams, she turns her attention away from Adam’s well-known dramatic landscapes and rich style of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Instead, she investigates his softer, earlier photographs and how they demonstrate his personal development as an artist.
Phoenix Home & Garden: Is there a moment that stands out when you realized there was an untold story to Adams’ earlier work and that you would focus on it in your studies?
Dr. Rebecca Senf: I had this moment of epiphany when I listened to someone describing Ansel Adams and his work saying that there was a big change in his style and his approach around 1940. It occurred to me that the reason that his work changed so dramatically around that time is that he was hired by the federal government to do a big project photographing the national parks to create a large-scale set of murals to hang in the Department of Interior building. This was such a dream come true for Adams. He was really excited to make pictures of the national parks and he felt strongly that they had tremendous value to American citizens. To get to do that for the federal government was just thrilling for him. So, I understood why his pictures changed around that time, but then the question for me as a researcher is: Why did that change happen then, and what led up to it?
So I asked why the earlier work looks so different. And basically, it’s not rocket science, it’s just that he was learning. He started out not knowing very much about photography, who he was, or even how to get across his ideas through photographic images. Over a 20- to 25-year period, he learns, and he practices. He has various mentors, he learns from his failures and successes, and that combination of experiences and personal growth leaves him with a set of skills. So when he gets this amazing opportunity to make pictures of the national parks for the U.S. federal government, he’s ready to debut a new stylistic language and a new way of communicating his passion.
PHG: What are some of those changes that can be observed in his style?
RS: One of the things that we see in the earlier works is that they are less contrasting. It’s a much more subtle black and white photography, so we see a less dramatic use of the contrast
between blacks and whites. That use of a wide range of grays really becomes a stylistic signature later on for Adams. Another thing is that the early pictures tend to focus more on single elements like one mountain peak, a view of a lake or a stand of trees. We don’t see that broad expanse of the landscape. They’re just more subtle. They are beautiful, and they are very often intimate. But they don’t have as clear a message or as clear an invitation to the viewer about Ansel Adams’s own emotional response to the scene. And so, those earlier pictures in many ways are less effective at engaging the emotions of the viewer to the value of the wilderness.
PHG: Why is understanding his early work so important to the common reader?
RS: Often I think with people like Ansel Adams who are famous for being great at their craft, we don’t think much about how they got that way. We almost assume that they just have inherent talent or genius. But in the case of Adams, he worked really hard, he was persistent, and he learned from a whole range of opportunities to come out with this really powerful photographic style that has resonated with Americans for 60 to 80 years. To get to follow along and see him in that process can be really, I think, very exciting and in many ways inspiring, because it’s not about photography. It’s about how someone who was great at what he did became great at what he did.
PHG: What are some examples of his early works that demonstrate this journey?
RS: The Center for Creative Photography’s Ansel Adams archives has a range of these works, starting with very early photographs including a childhood album he made when he first visited Yosemite as a 14-year-old kid in 1916. Those photographs are a really great starting point for understanding his journey, because at that point, he’s just using a little handheld amateur camera, but we can see him beginning to experiment with photography. It’s a wonderful way to understand his enthusiasm and his excitement about the medium, but he doesn’t yet have any technical skills.
I would also point to a great picture we have in the archive of a stand of trees in Yosemite. It was made around 1920, and it’s just a tiny little thing. It’s maybe 3 by 4 inches, and it’s very subtle. It’s almost all middle grays. You see very subtle variations between the darker areas and the lighter areas. It’s very intimate; you don’t see the whole group of trees, you see a group of trunks and grasses growing up in the foreground. You can barely make out the cliff wall of Yosemite Valley in the background. it lacks the punchy drama, intensity and emotional vigor that the later pictures have. This is much more subtle, beautiful, tender and sweet.
Ansel Adams, Forest in Yosemite Valley, c. 1920. Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust
PHG: What are the untold stories in your book that help it stand out from other Ansel Adams material out there?
RS: I think the single most important revelation in my book is the importance of his work with a particular commercial assignment: the Yosemite Park and Curry Company that begins in the late 1920s through the late 1930s. It was that particular job where he reported to the head of the marketing department. He was advised about how to make pictures that would convey a message very clearly to an audience. That lesson and years of practicing as he worked for the company had a huge impact on fine art photography of the 1940s. That experience transformed him from a picture maker into someone who could convey complex ideas and emotions through the photographic image. That’s what made him so successful as a fine art photographer, and
there has never been a study that really brings to light the way in which that particular job from the ’20s into the ’30s influenced his artwork. I think that’s a really significant discovery.’
PHG: What are important parts of Adams’ legacy as both a photographer and environmentalist?
RS: He has this style: the panoramic landscape, the omniscient perspective, the use of light and weather, the range of grays and use of contrast. All of those characteristics he popularized as the way to photograph the wilderness landscape. For a period of many decades in the late 20th century, that was the way that you photographed landscapes. Adams created a style that was very widely accepted, understood and appreciated. Interestingly, in the late 20th century starting in the 1970s 1980s that created a backlash, where people reacted against that very dramatic approach to photographing the landscape with a much more reserved and almost deadpan approach to photographing our surroundings. This is sometimes referred to as “new topographics”, which was the name of an exhibition in the 1970s done by William Jenkins, who now teaches photography at Arizona State University. But all of that engagement is because his style was so influential. His work was so famous and so appreciated and resonant for so many people that it just has had ripples in photography that have lasted to the present day. I mean, people still buy Ansel Adams calendars, and his books are still sold. So his popularity has persisted, and his influence is still felt very strongly today.
His photography has encouraged people to value and appreciate wilderness and in particular, the protected landscapes in the United States, many of which we see in national parks. But he worked as an activist as well. He worked with the Sierra Club and other kinds of political action to create policies that he felt helped protect our natural resources, not just wilderness lands but also things like clean air, water, forests and oceans. That model of using your affinity for the outdoors, backpacking and hiking to move you to political action, whether it’s writing to your representative, or being a better steward of your own backyard, making sure that you’re doing your part to help protect the Earth, I think all of that was part of his legacy.
The third part of his legacy that I would want to mention is the Center for Creative Photography. So not only do we have the Ansel Adams archive, but he was actually the co-founder of our institution back in 1975 with then-university President John P. Schaefer. For Adams, it was really important to create a place like the CCP that would give people a place where they could go and see great examples of photographers that Adams himself loved and valued, to learn about the medium and be introduced to ideas within photography that were maybe new to them. You could see brand new works of photography, what was happening with the young people, the new photographers who push the boundaries of what photography could be. Adams didn’t just want a museum of himself. It was important to him that you could go to research, so that the scholars of the medium could learn from the raw materials and creative processes of many important photographers. Because photography meant so much to him, and he worked so hard to have it accepted as a fine art, he wanted a place where people could understand that struggle and keep thinking about the potential of the medium.