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Book Review: Ansel Adams – 400 Photographs, Edited By Andrea G. Stillman

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Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs is one of those monumental undertakings not only because of the man who created this body of work, but because of the volume of his body of work, and the number of people he influenced. To try to pare this down to 40 (Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs by Ansel Adams) or in this case 400 photographs takes time, effort, and dedication.

For those who may not know of Ansel Adams, or whom have only heard his name with relation to photography, he was the most honored American photographer of the twentieth century. Once destined to become a concert pianist he instead chose photography. Over the course of the next 50 plus years he defined the art of photography.

400 Photographs constitutes a study in that life. The book is 440 pages long and, as the title states, contains 400 of Adams' finest photographs. The book is arranged into five major periods which correspond to his growth as an artist. It is edited by Andrea Stillman, a close associate and editor of seven of Adams' books. 400 Photographs starts with an introduction in which Stillman gives a brief overview of Ansel Adams' life.

"1916-1930 – Yosemite and the High Sierra" begins when Adams was 14 years old and he visited Yosemite for the first time. He had his first camera, and on this trip he recorded a "visual diary" of where he had been. This chapter begins with some of the images he took and of the album he had made with his father. Some of these are very rare images including one of his first of "Half Dome." You can see the growth of his work between 1918 and 1927 as he developed from simple records of scenery to more artistic expressions. In 1927 he began the process that would later become "visualization." It was here that he began to photograph with much more authority and you can see the new power that his images gained.

"1931-1939 – Group f/64 and Alfred Stieglitz" shows the influence of a loose group of West Coast photographers that included Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham called Group f/64. This group promoted "straight" photography as opposed to the "pictorialist" methods that were in vogue at the time. They were trying to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation as opposed to photography as relating to painting and graphic arts.

During this time the compositions of Adams' photographs began to change. He tried to present his subject in as straightforward manner as possible. He also lowered his horizon now including cloud filled skies. It was also during this time that Alfred Stieglitz, the director of America's foremost gallery of modern art, An American Place, exhibited Adams' photographs which took Adams' work to a larger audience.

Image by Ansel Adams for the National Parks Service 1942"1940-1949 – National Parks and Monuments" describes the time period in which Adams was commissioned by then U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to photograph the national parks and monuments for murals to be displayed in the Department of the Interior's new Washington D.C. headquarters. It was during this time period that his work grew in different geographic directions beyond California and the Southwest, branching out to other locations across the country.

"1950-1959 – Conservation, Publications, and Commissions" focused Adams' attentions on photographic commissions and writing. It was during this time that he wrote the many technical books that became standard course materials, even to this day. He also spent time working on conservation issues with the Sierra Club as well as mounting exhibitions for them.

It was in 1956 with the help of Nancy Newhall that the exhibition "This is the American Earth" was presented. It was later turned into a book with Newhall's poetic text, and characterized as a wake up call to the nation for environmental issues.

"1960-1968 – Carmel" examines the time in the life of Adams, that although he photographed less and less, he printed more and more. Adams never worked with a lab as did many of his contemporaries. He made every print himself. During this time, when he was not printing, he was writing, teaching, and tackling conservation issues.

"Notes on Selected Photographs" contains information on selected images from throughout the book. There are over 75 images that contain comments, history, and other interesting insights into the artist. 400 Photographs is fully indexed by title and by subject. There is also included a bibliography of both Adams' work as well as works on Adams.

When I was growing up, my doctor had an Adams mural on the walls in one of his patient rooms. The image to me was enormous. Even more, the impact on me of this image was enormous. It has shaped the way I viewed photography and in many ways, how I view life in general. When I view the photographs in 400 Photographs, I get this same feeling.

Sure, the small images that are presented in this book cannot replace the feeling that one gets when you see his full size presentations, but that is not the purpose of this book. 400 Photographs is about presenting a body of work from someone who chose not to make photography fit into the notion of the pictorial art of the day, but instead made photography into an art form that could stand on its own. That is what makes this book so important.

I think that Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs is an absolute must have for anyone that enjoys Ansel Adams, art work, photography, or just wants to get lost into the world of images. It is also a must have for artists from other disciplines as the compositions, arrangement of light, and locations are inspirational. It should also be in every waiting room or patient room as well; you never know whom it will inspire.

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.
  • http://www.runningbowline.com Chris Bancells

    Ansel Adams’ photographs are, without exception, breathtaking. If you ever have the chance to stand where he stood, with a copy of one of these pictures in your hand, do so. You will feel suddenly connected to the man and the land in a way which defies description.

  • T. Michael Testi

    Chris,
    Thanks for the comment. I cannot say that I have done that, but will try to make a point to. I have always been just so awe-struck by the feeling that one can get from the all encompassing feeling from the largeness of his work.

    Thanks — T.