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New York Museum Celebrates Photographer Ansel Adams' Centennial - 2003-07-15

The 100th birthday of the late great American naturalist photographer, Ansel Adams, is celebrated with an exhibit of his work at New York's Museum of Modern Art. The drama and power in which Ansel Adams captured Alaska's 6,000-meter Mount McKinley rivals the windswept blades of grass he photographed in the Tuolumne Meadows of California's Yosemite National Park. Those who knew him say Mr. Adams was blessed with an emotional knowledge of the natural world. He took his first photographs at the age of 14 with an inexpensive Kodak camera. He went on to become a photographic icon as he captured the magnitude of nature on film. In the last third of his life, until his death in 1984, Mr. Adams went back to his old negatives and reprinted the images, changing the interplay of light and dark.

Peter Galassi is chief curator of MOMA's photo department. He says the exhibition shows a very different side of Mr. Adams' work. "This is a radical revision of our view of one of our most familiar artists," he said. "It gives us an Adams we never knew before and which perhaps Ansel himself had forgotten."

John Szarkowski is the former director of the museum's photo department. He was befriended by Mr. Adams in 1962 and curated the current exhibition. It took him six years to select the 113 photographs taken from the 1920s through the 1950s. He says the subtlety of Mr. Adams' work transcends his acclaimed techniques as a naturalist photographer.

"There was a broad public perception that basically Adams redid what the great 19th century western photographers did," said Mr. Szarkowski. "He photographed the half-dome and he photographed the waterfalls in Yosemite Park.

"In fact that is not what Ansel Adams did," he continued. "He photographed the landscape as a transitory experience, not as the great granite monument, but as the ephemeral, transitory, constantly in flux, personal experience of nature."

These photos show Mr. Adams' artistic range. His 1961 photograph of a surging thunderstorm over the Great Plains near Cimarron, New Mexico rests at one end of the spectrum. His 1949 photo of a desolate Broad Street in lower Manhattan is at the other. Mr. Szarkowski says that is what made Mr. Adams' work so masterful.

"He had no hierarchy of subject matter that suggested that tall mountains were better than short mountains, or that short mountains were better than two blades of grass," explained Mr. Szarkowski.

If Mr. Adams had any photographic weaknesses, it was with human subjects. Mr. Szarkowski says that Mr. Adams once told him he liked to photograph people as if each one was a Greek vase. He says, however, that Mr. Adams, always the professional, rarely turned down an assignment.

"In his old age, he did the official portrait of President [Jimmy] and Mrs. Carter," remembered Mr. Szarkowski. "I certainly don't think that picture would rank very high among the portraits of our presidents and first ladies. But he didn't say, oh I can't do that, that's not my bag [interest]. He went and did it. I mean he was a professional. And he didn't apologize for it."

Mr. Adams directed the environmental organization the Sierra Club from 1934 until 1971. He took many of his most famous photographs for the group. Later, he published a number of books and helped found the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art. MOMA is the last stop for the exhibit celebrating the Adams centennial, which began in San Francisco in 2001 and traveled to Chicago, London and Berlin and Los Angeles.