Ansel Adams on Film

Ansel Adams is not one of my real favourite photographers, perhaps because his view is both very American and also from an earlier era*; it’s fine to admire what he did (and in many ways I do) but it has inspired too many to try and do the same, and the results are almost always uninspiring and insipid.

I did learn a lot from him, and his ‘Basic Photo‘ series in particular, teaching myself to print from an old copy of one of the volumes that I came across by accident in our local library when I moved to a new home in 1974. I ended up buying my own copy of ‘The Print’ and the other volumes in the series. But Ansel taught me how to print, and it was then a true master-class, though later editions of the work did get somewhat dumbed down.

I sat down at the computer today to write about something completely different, then spent the best part of 80 minutes (I did fast-forward a little) watching  the PBS documentary on Adams that I found on the Peta-Pixel site. As it says, “an elegant, moving, and lyrical portrait” though perhaps sometimes lacking in critical bite about his photography.

After watching it, I went to take another look at some of his photographs, which he also deserves to be remembered for and are too often forgotten, on the Library of Congress site, Ansel Adams’s Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar.

Ten years ago, at the time of the centenary show of his work, I wrote about Ansel Adams at some length as well as reviewing the show, but those features are no longer available. Written at the same time and published in The Atlantic Monthly was a long piece by Kenneth Brower, still available on-line and worth reading.   Among many other things he tells how MoMA in New York censored the show of his Manzanar work, insisting on the removal of a panel by Nancy Newhall referring to a letter written by Lincoln and including the words:

As a nation we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it as “all men are created equal except Negroes.” 

MoMA insisted on the removal of this panel and that the original title of the show be changed from “Born Free and Equal” to “Manzanar: Photographs by Ansel Adams of Loyal Japanese American Relocation Center.


*But that doesn’t stop me liking Walker Evans.  I think there is a line between creating creative landscape images and pretty pictures that just sometimes Ansel Adams got the wrong side of. Or perhaps I just prefer the classical to the romantic. Or think it wrong that there were people who failed to realise that Edward Weston was so much a better photographer!

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