'400 Photographs' a wide view of Ansel Adams' work

By Jan Johnston, Columbian book reviewer

Published:

 
photoJan Johnston is the Collection Development Coordinator for the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District. Email her at readingforfun@fvrl.org.
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Review

"Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs" edited by Andrea G. Stillman (Little Brown, 440 pages)

I have always been a great admirer of Ansel Adams' work. Perhaps because I grew up in the Southwest, I feel a special sort of kinship with much of his subject matter. New Mexico, Arizona — these are my states, too, having lived in a variety of Southwest towns throughout my childhood. Even the many pictures he took in California — especially El Capitan in Yosemite National Park — speak to me in a way that centers me and reaffirms my deep love for the American West.

The unique thing about this week's title, "Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs," is that it has so many photographs, and not just the most well-known or iconic of Adams' photographic oeuvre. As the introduction states, "This book … is the only one that traces Adams' artistic development from the first photographs made in 1916 to the last great photographs made in the 1960s." Unknown or seldom seen photos include snapshots (although I probably shouldn't use that term because it sounds more incidental than intentional) taken by Adams when he was just 14, visiting Yosemite National Park for the very first time. His father helped him place these photographs into an album, using white ink on black paper to identify each image. A few of these album pages are included in the book, and I can't tell you how much the photographic arrangement and the labeling with white ink remind me of my grandmother's photo albums. It astonishes me to realize that my grandmother — born just eight years before Ansel Adams — probably would have seen his photographs in magazines not years after he was famous, but just when he was starting out.

As you peruse this collection of photographs, it doesn't take long to recognize Adams' passion for national parks and monuments, especially Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada region. But he also recorded gorgeous images from Canyon de Chelly in Arizona; White Sands in New Mexico; Big Bend National Park in Texas; and many other destinations in California, Colorado, Utah, even the Northwest.

His most iconic photographs are here, too, such as "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" taken in 1941; and the 1958 image "Aspens, Northern New Mexico" used on the cover of "This is the American Earth," a book published by the Sierra Club which is "synonymous with both the Sierra Club and the environmental movement."

In fact, Adams was the director of the Sierra Club for thirty-eight years, always keeping his heart and mind in step with nature, working to capture as well as conserve nature's splendor.

This is a truly lovely book. Ansel Adams had a gift, and I'm very grateful that he chose to share his gift with everyone. His message, as described by Andrea G. Stillman, the editor of today's book, is one worth remembering: "The earth has been given to us to live on and enjoy, and we have an obligation to preserve it for future generations."