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The Golden Age of Russian Impressionism

Ansel Easton Adams, 1902-1984, and "The Tetons and the Snake River", 1942


During his lifetime, Ansel Adams was the foremost nature photographer in the United States. Born to prosperous upper-class parents in San Francisco, California, he grew up in the Golden Gate area. He was an only child named after his uncle, Ansel Adams, and had a keen interest in nature at an early age. He explored the beach nearby, collected bugs and enjoyed the telescope his father bought. His father, Charles Adams, shared the hobby with his son and raised Ansel to follow the ideas of Ralph Waldon Emerson which were to live a modest, moral life guided by social responsibility to man and to nature.


His father also insisted that Ansel spend a good part of each day studying art exhibits, he enrolled him in private school at some point which Ansel attended through grade eight. He quickly learned to read music and play the piano since he had a photographic memory. Ansel applied himself seriously toward becoming a concert pianist.


Ansel Adams first visited Yosemite National Park in 1916 with his family where he experienced an emotional response to the American wilderness. He appreciated the natural environment greatly and wrote of his first view of the famous valley, "the splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious... One wonder after another descended upon us... There was light everywhere... A new era began for me." His father gave him a Kodak Brownie Box Camera, his first camera, during this trip and he enthusiastically took his first photographs. The following year Ansel returned to Yosemite with better cameras and a tripod. During the winter, he learned basic darkroom techniques by working for a photo finisher in San Francisco.


At age 17, Ansel joined the Sierra Club, a group dedicated to preserving the world's natural wonders and resources. He acted as custodian of the club's conservation headquarters in Yellowstone Valley for a summer job but stayed on for four more years where he made many friends.


After World War I, significant aesthetic changes occurred in photography. Early types of photography relied upon techniques employed in the darkroom, manipulation of images and tricks that resulted in staged looking works imitative of sentimental, moralistic paintings. The new generation of 20th century photographers were determined to move away from the pictorial style and soft appearances toward a more direct, sharp focus.


Ansel Adams' steadfast visual approach influenced those who care about our environment. He carefully used large and small cameras with various size lenses to record the smallest details in the best focus to represent his sharp, poetic landscapes of the American West. Well known for his technical innovations, Adams was a pioneer in the movement to preserve the wilderness. His work did much to elevate photography to the level of art with its variety in light, texture, rich detail and brilliant tonal differences. The black and white prints have dramatic contrasts achieved by using different colored filters.


In 1941, Adams began making photo murals of the United States which required mastering techniques to photograph the light and space of immense landscapes. He developed the "zone system", his unique way of predetermining the final tone of each part of the landscape. Along with fellow members of Group f/64, he was able to find a way to translate perceived light into specific densities on negatives and paper, giving photographers better control over their finished products. Adams also advocated the idea of "visualization" meaning to "see" the final image in the mind's eye before taking the photo. His goal was to plan for the achievement of all effects at one time: aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual and mechanical. He taught these and other techniques to thousands of amateur photographers through his publications and workshops. His many books about photography have become classics in the field.


Ansel Adam's lasting legacy includes helping to elevate photography to an art form comparable with painting and music, equally capable of expressing emotion and beauty. As he often reminded his students, "It is easy to take a photograph, but harder to make a masterpiece in photography than in any other art medium".


"The Tetons and the Snake River" has the same essential elements that any fine piece of art or music has: the subject or content, technical aspects, dynamics and contrasts, plan of composition and influences of other art and artists. The natural landscape and the quality of the light in a specific place at a specific moment seem to be the subject for Ansel Adams in this work. The landscape was not a fixed, solid sculpture but transient and insubstantial like the light that continually redefines it. His plan of composition is based on the winding diagonal line of the river leading our eye back into the middle of the scene where we have to notice the majestic mountains in the background. The subtle, constant flow of dark to light punctuated by strong contrasts defines soft, quiet beauty as well as the boldness of nature. There is such light and life in the sky but also a foreboding in the areas of dark wilderness.


Adam's "The Tetons and the Snake River" was one of 115 images recorded on the Voyager Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft. These images were selected to bring information about Earth to a possible alien civilization. This photograph mirrors one of Adams favorite sayings: "I know that I am one with beauty and that my comrades are one. Let our souls be mountains, Let our spirits be stars, Let our hearts be worlds."

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