Ansel Adams and the American Landscape

Perhaps no other artist has been as successful in capturing the austere beauty and untamed spirit of the American West as photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984). From Yosemite National Park to Big Sur, California, to Hernandez, New Mexico, Adams’ images have become as much a part of American cultural history as the places themselves. Yet, as Jonathan Spaulding writes in ANSEL ADAMS AND THE AMERICAN LANDSCAPE, Adams’ influence and vision extended far beyond the making of photographic images: He was a central figure in the efforts to preserve the wilderness areas of Yosemite, to promote the conservationist message of the Sierra Club, to encourage the expansion of the National Park Service, and to establish photography as a major art form.

Drawing upon archival materials as well as interviews with Adams’ wife, closest friends, and colleagues, Spaulding traces Adams’ development from youthful amateur to major artist within the context of the social, historical, and cultural changes of the twentieth century. Throughout his career, Spaulding argues, Adams struggled to reconcile competing interests and pressures, within the growing conservationist movement and within the art world. As an early member of the Sierra Club, Adams was keenly aware of the conflicts between increased tourism in the National Parks, commercial interests to develop roadways and water projects, and efforts to preserve wilderness areas. As an artist working during times of unprecedented social upheaval, when human suffering reached seemingly overwhelming proportions, Adams was confronted with questions regarding his moral responsibilities as an artist: Was the camera an instrument for documenting society’s problems or could its expressive value extend beyond journalistic endeavors? Through his art, Adams tried to address both concerns, seeking to “reforge the broken links” between humanity and nature by capturing the spirituality and restorative powers of the landscape.

Thoroughly documented, Spaulding’s biography contains an extensive bibliography of works by and about Ansel Adams. His detailed descriptions of Adams’ photographs, projects, and relationships offer compelling insights into the man who has come to represent the American West.