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The Spiritual Impact of Ansel Adams’ Work

Looking at Ansel Adams’ pristine rendering of the natural world in all its unspoiled glory can be a spiritual experience. Standing in the scene, feeling the sting of the wind and the warmth of the sun, being immersed in a silence punctuated only by weather and animal song must have been truly special for Adams. His lifelong devotion to a deeper understanding of the wilderness, beyond physical beauty, proves its importance to the artist.READ ENTIRE ARTICLE

Tetons and the Snake River, 1942

Tetons and the Snake River, 1942

Adams often said he enhanced what he saw in nature by isolating parts of the landscape as well as using all the tools (red filters, the zone system) and skills he had to recreate his vision in the final print. Because Adams was building pictures rather than recording them, his emotions and ideas are embedded in the prints. A sense of spirituality, in its myriad incarnations, shines through.
“His pictures have enlarged our visceral knowledge of things that we do not understand. Although he devoted a lifetime to the cause of wilderness preservation, Adams did not photograph the landscape as a matter of social service, but as a form of private worship. It was his own soul that he was trying to save . . .. Ansel Adams’ great work was done under the stimulus of a profound and mystical experience of the natural world,” wrote curator John Szarkowski.
 Trailside, Alaska, 1947

Trailside, Alaska, 1947

After a camping trip in the High Sierra in the 1920s, Adams said later, “I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light . . . . I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds steaming above the peaks.”
Szarkowski contents that “Adams spent the next quarter century trying to make a photograph that would give objective form to this sense of ineffable knowledge.”
The fact that Ansel rejected the idea of merely recording nature, allowed him to express spiritual ideas, including those of Transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
David Peeler, a scholar writing in the Colby Review, explores the spiritual roots of Adams and Edward Weston, who shared many of Adams’ beliefs. “Weston and Adams were photographers, not philosophers. But they had their metaphysical moments, and both engaged in some heady speculation about the world they photographed. They believed that reality had two distinct dimensions, one that was merely physical and perceived by the senses, and a higher, transcendental one that the mind alone understood.”
Mono Lake, 1948

Mono Lake, 1948

Others have suggested that Adams’ early devotion to music shaped his transcendental views. Michelle Janine Lanteri, writing about a past Adams exhibition at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC, makes this assertion.
“Originally, Adams trained to be a concert pianist, and through his musical practice, he learned the abstract qualities of ‘architectural’ depth and fineness. Adams’ acute understanding of musical aesthetics gave way to his life-long career of creating transcendental landscape photographs which reinforced the tradition of portraying the sanctity of the earth, albeit with a modernist approach to detail.”
Lanteri asserts that by eliminating the foreground in most of his pictures, Adams was adding a sense of spiritual immediacy to his work that could be understood intuitively by the public. “To encourage viewers to experience an intimate view of the earth, Adams compositionally eliminated the distance between the landscape and the viewer and offered a personalized, close-up view of the earth’s materiality. Moreover, in an effort to formally describe the earth’s spiritual power in his artworks, Adams adopted Stieglitz’s philosophy of “equivalents,” where physical entities, like the earth, embodied such subjective qualities as emotions.”
Mountain and Sky - Lake George , 1924  © Alfred Steiglitz

Mountain and Sky – Lake George , 1924 © Alfred Steiglitz

Alfred Stieglitz, who had a profound influence on the young Adams, used cloud formations, as his best-known equivalent. The abstract nature of a cloud makes it a malleable metaphor for whatever the artist or viewer desires it to be.
Adams absorbed the idea of equivalents and expanded it. This coupled with his transcendentalist leanings and technical ability, gives his prints a powerful spirituality. Ansel Adams: Before and After, an exhibition co-curated by the Booth Western Art Museum and Lumière, displayed over 25 Adams prints and explored their own notions of spirituality. The exhibition included younger photographers who were influenced by Adams’ ideas or learned directly from him during workshops, as well as the generation of early 20th century photographers who preceded Adams. This exhibition was on view from November 2015 – March 2016.
This is the third article in a series of four providing a Deeper Look at the work of Ansel Adams.
ANSEL ADAMS & TODAY’S TECHNOLOGY (1 of 4)
ANSEL ADAMS – EARLY MODERNIST (2 of 4)
ANSEL ADAMS – EXTRACT OVER ABSTRACT (4 of 4)

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In this post from our blog archives, we bring attention to a 70’s film by Thom Tyson about Wynn Bullock, documenting the artist and his philosophy in his own words.

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November is #InspirationalRoleModelsMonth. Is there a particular artist who made you fall in love with photography?

Photo Credits: Pirkle Jones - Dorothea Lange, 1956
(Silver Gelatin Print - 10 x 8)

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Paul Strand - From the Viaduct, 125th Street, 1915
Photogravure - 13 x 10

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