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Ansel Adams' photos defined the West

Sunday, April 21, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Ansel Adams' father handed him a gift - and the seeds of a career and a legacy - during a family trip to Yosemite Valley in 1916.

'Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film'
When: 9 tonight on PBS
Writer/director: Ric Burns

He gave his son, a boy who today might be considered hyperactive and dyslexic, a Kodak Box Brownie camera in a leather case. Fourteen-year-old Ansel raced from one end of the valley to the other, shooting domes, spires, streams, meadows, waterfalls and cliffs. A photographer was born.

"Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film," written and directed by Ric Burns ("New York: A Documentary Film"), chronicles the career of the photographer who captured the grandeur of America, became an icon and the first mass-marketed fine arts photographer in the world.

Even if you're not familiar with his name, I bet you've seen his calendars at the mall during Christmas - and that is not to diminish the power or importance of his work. It's a reflection of how popular he remains a century after his birth and nearly two decades after his death.

He shaped the world's vision of the American West with his landscape prints and voice as an early environmentalist. President Carter gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. Six months after Adams' death in 1984, Congress set aside a tract of wild land southeast of Yosemite and named it the Ansel Adams Wilderness. A peak there is now called Mount Ansel Adams.

The 90-minute documentary, narrated by David Ogden Stiers, interviews Adams' son and daughter (although they seem to get short shrift), his biographers, other photographers, curators, naturalists and general keepers of the flame.

With a leisurely pace and made-for-PBS string music, it traces his life in chronological fashion and revisits many of the majestic scenes he captured. It includes many of his famous and not-as-famous pictures, but it sometimes pans up or down them, which is not necessarily how you view a photo in a gallery or on someone's wall. Consider it the curse of TV, or the blessing, since it's bringing these images into your home.

"Ansel Adams" explores the boy and then man behind the camera. Born in San Francisco, he was the only child of a once prosperous family. He was lucky enough to have a father who realized that Ansel might benefit more from a year's pass to a world's fair than a year squirming in a classroom, that a simple camera and a $6,000 piano (bought on installment) would broaden his son's horizons.

In fact, music and the mountains became his twin obsessions, and Adams seriously considered becoming a pianist before deciding that the musical world was "bunk, so much petty doings" and poses, insincerity and distorted values. That's what he told Virginia, the woman who would become his wife after a long and on-again, off-again courtship.

The documentary explains how Adams, while taking a photo, tried to visualize the eventual print and how he attempted to make the picture reflect his emotion at the time. But strangely enough, it's stingy with details about what it was like to lug around a 40-pound camera pack on a steep slope or handle glass plate negatives in those early days. Today, of course, many photographers use digital technology, eliminating the need for film and trays of pungent, fingernail-staining chemicals in the darkroom.

Adams drew upon his musical roots to explain his philosophy in manipulating his work in the darkroom. He considered the negative the equivalent of a composer's score, and the print the equivalent of a conductor's performance.

The documentary recounts how Adams made what he called his most well-known photograph, "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," in 1941. In his autobiography, Adams said he had received more letters about that image than any other. "I must repeat that 'Moonrise' is most certainly not a double exposure."

Adams was driving with his son, Michael, and a friend when he saw the makings of a potentially perfect photo: The moon rising over distant clouds and snowy peaks and the sun slicing across a row of crosses in a church cemetery during the last light of the day. Scrambling to make the shot, without his trusty light meter, he took one shot and forever froze the moment in time.

The documentary focuses on Adams the photographer and environmentalist, paying scant attention to Adams the father. He was hiking when his son was born and working on a commercial job when his daughter came along. That probably was typical of the time, but you never get a good sense of whether he bought his children their own Kodak cameras, for instance, or wanted them to follow in his footsteps.

It touches on but glosses over his love for a pretty printing assistant, a breakdown, battle with depression and the occasional criticism of Adams' choice of subject matter. The fact that Sierra Club Productions co-produced the project explains its environmental tilt, although that was a huge part of his life.

This is a reverential, well-illustrated primer on Adams and how he became an artist and elder statesman of the environmental movement. It may, in the best of worlds, want to send you to the library or Internet in search of more information about its subject.

At the very least, it should give you a new way of looking at a photo - the location of the horizon, the tone of the sky, the ability of the picture to convey what the artist was feeling and thinking. A friend once said Adams tried to pour into his magic little box, that first Kodak camera, his wonder and ecstasy at the magnificent American landscapes in front of him. The boxes may have changed through the years, but the feeling never did.

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