Editor's note: The following essay from the catalogue for the exhibition Nancy Newhall: A Literacy of Images was reprinted in Resource Library on November 20, 2008 with permission of the Museum of Photographic Arts. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Museum of Photographic Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:
An Eloquent Image
by MaLin Wilson-Powell
After her mother's death in 1964, Nancy Newhall wrote to the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower descendants, which had asked her to become a member.
The two books Nancy Newhall mentions in this letter are among her most eloquent and widely praised publications. Both were uncommon books that set a high standard for future generations. Time in New England, published in 1950, was the first major book in which her innovative ideas as a designer, editor, and collaborator coalesced. This Is the American Earth, published in 1960, featured the work of Ansel Adams and thirty-two other photographers in the first large-scale photo book in what would become the Sierra Club's Exhibit Format series. In both books, Nancy Newhall struggled to create a new relationship between word and image. The text was not a description of the photographs, and the photographs were not mere illustrations of the text; rather, the words were approached as enhancements, and the images were the finest art photography. Newhall called this relationship synergistic, and it was closely related to Alfred Stieglitz's idea of equivalence. Long acknowledged and revered by insiders for her creativity, she combined intellectual breadth and depth with hands-on design. Nancy Newhall was a very shy person who was most comfortable and effective directing from "backstage." She shunned celebrity and refused invitations to teach and lecture. These two books also frame her personal transformation from a New Englander to a woman of the West and Southwest dedicated to the causes of conservation.
Nancy Newhall revolutionized art photography book-making in particular, along with notable innovations as a curator, editor, and perceptive historian. Currently, the value of her contributions to both photography as a fine art and conservation as moral imperative is in many ways still on the ascendance. During her lifetime, she published over eighty articles, books, and catalogs, curated fifteen major exhibitions, and wrote the script for a never completed film on Sierra Club founder John Muir. No discussion of the history of photography or the American conservation movement is complete without reference to the work of Nancy Newhall. With hindsight, the range of her work is staggering. She confidently tackled both nineteenth and twentieth-century photographers in the United States and in Europe. Her work is often reprinted, and her contributions continue to resonate, especially her role as editor of The Daybooks of Edward Weston I & II. Chosen by Weston as his official biographer, their work together is still unfolding. An unpublished 1953 collaboration, Edward Weston's Book of Nudes, that could not find a market in the prudish fifties, was released by The J. Paul Getty Museum in September 2007. It is an exemplary book faithful to Newhall's elegant layout and design and Weston's juxtaposition of nudes with landscapes and still lifes. There are more unpublished treasures in the Estate of Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, including her biography of Alfred Stieglitz and a 1956 mock-up of a book on African-Americans. 
Born Nancy Wynne Parker in 1908 in Swampscott, Massachusetts, she was the only child of prosperous parents. Her father's position as an executive for B.F. Goodrich Company required moving constantly and included a year in Paris when Nancy was age eleven. Fluent in French, she wrote poems in that language, and translated Latin poems into lyric English forms. She wrote her first poem at the age of seven and had one of her poems published in St. Nicolas, an excellent juvenile magazine of the era, at the age of twelve. After this, she never quit publishing. Precocious and anxious to enter art school at the age of sixteen, she wrote that her parents "compelled" her to enroll at Smith College, her mother Beulah's alma mater. After graduating from Smith in 1930, mother and daughter moved to New York so Nancy could study painting and engraving at the Art Students League. In 1932, Nancy Parker and Beaumont Newhall met through Eleanor Newhall, a cousin and Smith College alumni who lived across the street from Beaumont's family home in Lynn, Massachusetts. In recalling his early impressions of her, Beaumont noted, "Nancy was tall, elegantly dressed; she loved fancy hats. She was friendly with people, not aggressive, very attentive, an amazing mind, very sharp." From their first encounter, these young idealists found they had much in common and they formed very close bonds that strengthened throughout their marriage. By all accounts of friends and acquaintances, the two of them began a decades-long high-minded conversation that flourished until Nancy's premature accidental death in 1974. 
During their courtship, Beaumont remembers preparing Nancy's painting panels of wood with gesso in his weekend workshop, where as a youth he built model ships. In 1933, her first solo exhibition of paintings and wood engravings at the Grace Horn Gallery in Boston was reviewed by the critic of the Boston Herald: "Not only does the young artist show command of her medium . . . but she also shows an amazing sureness of touch. She draws exceedingly well. She is capable of filling a small canvas with brilliant sunshine without resorting to obvious tricks. Her shadows are vibrant with illumination." During this time, she was the Art Editor for The New Frontier magazine and wrote provocative articles on Thomas Hart Benton and Leon Kroll, highlighting their very different orientations. She wrote that Benton, ". . . has hacked a clear trail through the decadent jungle of European art" and heralded his leadership in the, ". . . revolution to free art from a ridiculous ritual in the hands of the spiritually dead, and to set up again in all its power to fulfill its great public duty of interpreting life of the present." Kroll, who thought the claims of the American scene painters' nonsense and false, asserted that, ". . . great art rises above the conditionings of time and place, and is admired for universal qualities." Rather than see these views as oppositional, Nancy Newhall readily conflated both positions -- truly great American art was also universal.
Beaumont and Nancy became officially engaged on New Years Eve 1935, in Times Square, with the promise to marry as soon as Beaumont secured a steady, well-paying job. As fiancés, they took frequent train trips to Manhattan where both would use the library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art -- he to research photography, she to research early American architecture. Beaumont gave Nancy her first camera, a miniature Kodak called a Bantam, and she began learning from him, ". . . about photography, its esthetics and its ignored role in 19th and 20th century art history."
Nancy was living in her painting studio in Marblehead, Massachusetts, when Beaumont began working as a librarian at the fledgling Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in November 1935. In spring 1936, with his appointment as Director, International Exhibition of Photography, 1839-1937, Beaumont and Nancy set the wedding date. Married on July 1, their honeymoon was delayed until the autumn, when they boarded the SS Queen Mary for Europe. This trip to Paris and London would become the modus operandi for their lives as a couple, a flexible itinerary combining work and pleasure that were most often one-and-the-same. Together they met photographers, collectors and publishers, and searched the libraries of photo societies. They reviewed portfolios and visited studios. Beaumont selected prints and often left it to Nancy to collect them for his inaugural history of photography exhibition. Ultimately, Beaumont's ambitious landmark installation at MoMA had a checklist of 841 items, including cameras on tripods, daguerreotype-processing equipment, even a nineteenth-century field dark tent. Although in later years, Nancy Newhall always said, "When I married Beaumont, I married photography," her immersion was not instantaneous. While in Paris, she also researched Gericault paintings at the Louvre. More specifically, it was with the installation and the March opening of the exhibition "Photography, 1839 - 1937" that Nancy became fully engaged in championing photography as art. On her resume, she pinpoints 1937 as the year she, "gave up painting; took up photography; decided to put energies behind artists and causes I believed in."
The newlywed's first apartment was a third floor, one-bedroom walkup in a brownstone at 19 W. 56th Street, within walking distance of MoMA. Beaumont described this apartment in terms of how many people, thirty-five to forty party guests, the main room could accommodate. In addition to "marrying photography," this reserved woman also married a gregarious host who loved to cook and entertain. Their door was always open, and as they moved to larger homes, it was not unusual for a guest to come for a few days and stay for months. In their New York apartment, they both worked at the dining room table, across from one another. This changed when they moved to their first two-story home in Rochester, where Beaumont had a study for writing in the early hours before going to his job at the George Eastman House, and where Nancy often wrote in bed on a portable typewriter, with her current project spread out around her.
True to her enthusiasm for photography and ready for a crusade, Nancy wrote and Beaumont selected the photographs for a 1937 article titled "Against Iconoclasm." Signed Nancy Wynne, it is a passionate entreaty to preserve the artistic treasures of Europe, with a text that noted how the world stood "on the verge of a terrible war." Beaumont had been a contributor to The Magazine of Art for a number of years, and this collaboration surprised and delighted the editor. Nancy submitted a completed layout, with sequenced, sized, and captioned photographs. This was as unusual then as it would be now, and the magazine printed the article just as she submitted it. Nancy began with a photograph of a peaceful New England church and built visual tension by juxtaposing undisturbed moments of ravages from previous wars. The article culminates with an image of religious statues heaped in the streets, ablaze. Nancy's captions reads: "Saints in Agony, Spain 1936, Destroys Its Heritage in Civil War." Nancy's desire to use her talents for the good of humanity, and her gift for creating an emotionally strong appeal are evident in this article. Also notable is her conception of the article as a whole. Throughout her life, she approached each project as unique, demanding a result that felt fully integrated. As she matured, the concept of wholeness evolved to include the subject's place in history, in geologic time, on the planet, and in the galaxy. The idea of wholeness is a demanding one, and Nancy Newhall sweated, toiled, and wept over her projects. Always behind deadline, Nancy had just begun at the point where others would have been satisfied. Beaumont remembers how often he was impressed with a draft she asked him to read, followed by her relentless ". . . revising, revising, revising." She wrote of her process, "good jobs are real growths, they are slow, like a seed or a child; they mature into the tempo of the earth . . . . I don't want to sound obstructionist -- I just want to make the tremendous thing that is the idea and the material live and endure and extend its power....I work in the grain of whatever is under my hand."
"Horatio Greenough, Herald of Functionalism" was the Newhalls' next jointly signed article.  In an attempt to give the "form follows function" mandate of the Bauhaus an American context, the Newhalls revisited nineteenth-century sculptor and philosopher Horatio Greenough. Nancy certainly found in Greenough an echo of her own desire to create new forms that would grow out of the challenges of the American experiment. "In the America of the 1840s and 50s, the native tradition in building evolved through scarcity of labor, was already passing architecture and crafts into new fields, finding new forms for necessities and powers." Her search for, and emphasis on, inspirations unique to the development of the USA is a theme running throughout her life's work.
Anxious to continue and expand her work, and to reach the broadest possible audience, Nancy wrote to Gilbert Seldes, the director of television programming for CBS in 1939. The network was planning a series entitled "Americans at Work." In a published article, "Television and the Arts," and in a number of unpublished scripts, Nancy shows an astute understanding of the potential of the new medium, which she optimistically termed "televisionary." It suited her desire to address a wide spectrum of the American public:
The first chapter of an unrealized television script written at this time, America Makes the Americans, is titled "The Savage Continent." She presents wilderness as a challenge, a provocateur for human invention, and presents a perspective on the frontier that emphasizes taming of the environment for human purposes. It continues the thread of "functionalism" and reflects identification with the American Renaissance of the 1920s. Virgin territories are seen as potential sites for a city, farm, or factory.
Within a year, Nancy glimpsed the unfamiliar American West, an environment that changed her perspective on landscape and human tenancy of the land. She began an apprenticeship that combined the art of photography with a call for conservation. Nancy's fascination with television was set aside, but not her desire to present Americans with an inspirational image of themselves. Until she created This Is the American Earth, her predominate focus would be collaborations with individual creative photographers, many of whom worked in the West. Her period of initiation into photography as art, and into the landscapes of the West, was both arduous and rewarding.
In 1940, the Newhalls boarded a train bound for California. It was their first trip West, and it was prompted by the devastation and upheaval in Europe: "France had just fallen, the last of the continent; England was under heavy bombing; there was no Europe to go to anymore..Refugees..to listen was to scream inside..In the West we would at least be exploring different country."  Ansel Adams and his wife Virginia took charge of the Newhalls' visit, introducing them to a wide circle of San Francisco artists, to the drama of Yosemite Valley, and to the splendors of Big Sur. After meeting Edward Weston and Charis Wilson in their modest Carmel Valley home, the Newhalls canceled plans to visit relatives in Oregon and checked into the Highlander Motel for two weeks. Each day they walked to the Westons' home where they looked at his prints, and where they first saw the journals he wrote every day at dawn, his daybooks: "We just wanted to read it. It knocked us over. It was a beautiful beginning." 
Up to this point, Nancy had seen and handled thousands of photographs. Both she and Beaumont usually carried small hand-held cameras; however, Nancy had not been in the company of creative photographers who worked with large-format cameras. Ansel and Edward lugged their monstrous black boxes to the rocky coast and up mountainsides to spend hours looking into the large ground glass viewfinder, with their heads beneath a white cloth lined with black velvet:
At first, Nancy was intimidated by both Adams and Weston, and her timidity was surely compounded by the overwhelming proportions of the landscape. Her vista was literally expanded by many miles wide. Her sense of being adrift and disoriented is conveyed in her photograph made at Point Lobos, on the coast near Carmel. This image has a completely ambiguous scale and is a negative Nancy printed repeatedly during her lifetime. Although the pool of water is probably tiny, the craggy rocks also feel monumental and ominous. Like many of her best photographs, the Point Lobos prints engage viewers on a kinesthetic level, with the central calm warmth surrounded by protective barriers.
Edward and Charis's sparsely furnished cabin on Wildcat Hill was constructed with one purpose; everything was in support of Edward making art. All of it, especially the wild majesty of the West, was fundamentally different from the decorum of Nancy's upbringing. She was startled at how directly the land spoke to her innermost person:
Nancy, the creative artist, was undoubtedly responding to the camaraderie of thoroughly dedicated artists. Ansel, the main protagonist and native son of this unsettled terrain, exuded an intensity that matched her own and on which she thrived: "If you work with Ansel Adams, you get up before dawn . . . the unrisen day calls forth Herculean amounts of work, you may get two breakfasts before noon, or far from towns, and too busy to bother . . . exist on laughter until sundown."
On their California sojourn, the Newhalls told Adams of their hope to establish the first museum department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. By the fall of 1940, Ansel was brought to New York with the financial support of museum trustee David McAlpin to assist the Newhalls in founding the department. Beaumont and Ansel had known Alfred Stieglitz for a number of years. Nancy says of her introduction to the great photographer: "I had tiptoed in and out of the place [gallery] for yearsBetween them, they dragged me, much like a reluctant puppy...I was to go back almost every day for two years...It was one of the most illuminating experiences of my life. I learned about art and its creators as I doubt any university can ever teach."
For two years, Nancy visited Stieglitz daily with a plan to write his biography. Beaumont remembers her method as a test of her remarkable memory.  Wanting nothing to come between her and Stieglitz, she would take no notes during their time together, and then rush home to write down their conversation word-for-word. In 1922, Stieglitz made his first "Equivalents," a series of photographs of clouds called Music: A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs. The photographer had been accused of producing magnificent portraits either because he photographed extraordinary personalities or because he hypnotized his sitters with his own powerful personality. Music was intended to "show that my photographs were not due to the subject matter."  This linkage between music and photography served as a model for Nancy. When working with Paul Strand on Time in New England, she wrote "The book begins to sing in my head: I can see it."  Equivalence is a concept that inspired many photographers, most notably Ansel Adams and Minor White at this time. Nancy was the first to take hold of it as a model for combining words and images. In her response to each project, without a formula or recipe, she wanted to potentiate the power of photographs. Equivalence is a concept that has defied definition by numerous articulate writers. Even Nancy, who was both precise and poetic, could only recount her experience of viewing Stieglitz's "Equivalents." Nancy's photo of Stieglitz in gallery with equivalents lined up):
For all of her artistic orientation, Nancy was a rigorous scholar who very early began to describe the characteristics that qualified a photograph as fine art for her. Beaumont always emphasized Nancy's approach to photography as a medium, rather than as different techniques. She did not care if photographs were in focus or blurred, and she avoided technical discussions of equipment and f-stops and darkroom specifications. In an article titled "Four Photographs" featuring images by Stieglitz, Strand, Helen Levitt, and Weegee, she identifies three qualities common to the work of these disparate artists:
As World War II escalated, Nancy Newhall was needed at MoMA, and she could no longer meet with Stieglitz in his tiny gallery. In August 1942, Beaumont received his orders to report immediately for active duty with the Army Air Force. Nancy stepped forward as acting curator of photography at MoMA. She served for the three years Beaumont served as a photo intelligence officer in Egypt, North Africa, and Italy. With one-way delivery of a letter averaging two weeks, Nancy was on her own for a job she never wanted, her mission to sustain the fledgling department of photography. It was a time of great personal stress. Not only were New Yorkers subject to frequent air raid drills, but there was a demoralizing lack of confidence and support from the museum administration. These three jam-packed years at MoMA reverberated throughout her life. According to Beaumont, because of this experience, Nancy swore off any possibility of working for bureaucratic institutions. On the more positive side, her working with so many excellent contemporary photographers would generate a plethora of worthy projects in her future.
Ansel Adams, an irrepressible correspondent, fed Nancy's romantic, independent spirit with invitations to the open expanses of the West:
During the summer of 1944, Nancy, exhausted and unhappy, left New York for Los Angeles. Ansel and Virginia picked her up at the train station and they drove up the Owens Valley to Yosemite:
Virginia was determined that Nancy witness the devastation of the once fertile and verdant agricultural valley. Water from the Owens Valley had been drained to fill reservoirs for the expansion of Los Angeles. Virginia had been raised in Yosemite. She was the daughter of Harry Best, the owner of Best's Studio, a concession in the park. Both Ansel and Virginia were ardent conservationists, and Yosemite was home to their family. Although Ansel took a more active public role in the cause of conservation, Virginia was no less fervent.
Nancy's photograph of a dead tree is an image not of the romantic splendor of the West, but of devastation in the name of progress. Her own fatigue and loneliness is also amply conveyed. On this trip, her education as an advocate of the environment began in earnest. While her and Beaumont's first trip was an introduction to untrammeled beauty, on this second solo visit, Nancy saw just how vulnerable that beauty was and how it needed active protection. In the company of the Adamses, both native Californians with few ties to the cultural traditions of Europe, Nancy rethought previously held perceptions and experiences not only of the landscape, but also of photography and art:
Nancy was not only working out her attitude toward Ansel's vast panoramas, she was struggling with the dissolution of hope brought on by the war. Adams had been accused of being frivolous and unpatriotic in his persistent concentration on nature's grandeur in his photographs. Nancy was feeling her way toward an idea expressed in a letter to Ansel upon publication of This Is the American Earth:
Upon returning to New York, Nancy was surprised by a new sense of bravado and confidence, an unexpected legacy from her trip. She noticed this fundamental change while visiting a frail and ailing Stieglitz:
Nancy needed all the mettle she could muster in her struggle to realize the Strand and Weston retrospectives at MoMA. Her position had always been considered temporary; her salary was set at half pay. Nancy wrote Ansel about the Edward Weston show, "I'd like people to come out of [the] show with a feeling as of hearing a great horn-note among the mountain tops." Upon Beaumont's return from World War II in 1945, there was suddenly no place for the Newhalls at the museum. Even though Nancy exceeded all expectations with running an adjunct center of photography and realizing both small and large exhibitions, she was told she would have to leave. The winds of favor had shifted to Edward Steichen, who promised a hundred thousand dollars from ten photographic manufacturers for his appointment as director of the department of photography. When Beaumont was told Steichen was his boss, he resigned in frustration. The Newhalls turned their hopes westward at Ansel's urging. He proposed they found an institute in California to publish a journal and books, teach workshops, and organize exhibitions.
Both Nancy and Beaumont were determined to live as freelancers. At lunch with Paul Strand, the photographer mentioned to Nancy his desire to do something on New England. She suggested a book featuring the words of New Englanders themselves from the 1700s to the present. "The first photographs by Paul Strand I ever saw were images of forest, raindrops and rock made on the Main coast in 1927 and 1928. They struck me with the force of revelation. Here was what I had felt as a child close to the same earth and never expressed in any medium." Originally thought of as a three-month project, Time in New England absorbed Nancy for five years. Paul Strand did not have a darkroom when he and Nancy worked on his retrospective, and he printed all the exhibition prints in the museum darkroom. When Nancy found a rousing quote, she would contact Paul and ask him to make a specific photograph to accompany the words.  In the foreword, she cites two compelling challenges that kept her embedded in the project. She wanted to "examine first hand the enigma of New England, unobscured."
Nancy's correspondence with Ansel from this period reveals that both were working with Stieglitz's idea of the equivalence. "Ansel at one end of the continent, high up in the Sierras, and Paul Strand and I at the other, in sweltering New York . . . using the subtle connotations between word and photographs, [discovering that] you can create a third effect --- synergistic if you like --- which is emotional and visual all at once and more powerful than either."
Beaumont and Nancy headed west together in May1947 for a photo excursion to truly remote and untouched patches of the Southwest: Death Valley, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks. It was on this trip that Nancy and Ansel became a team that eventually produced numerous articles, books, and exhibitions. Jokingly, she began to call herself the "Anselographer." Undoubtedly, Nancy's powerful public presentations of Ansel Adams as a serious artist were in large part responsible for elevating him to the pantheon of America's most successful photographers.
Following their western adventures, Nancy accompanied Beaumont to North Carolina for the summer session at Black Mountain College. While Beaumont taught, Nancy concentrated on making photographs. With insight and apparent ease, she made exquisite penetrating portraits of Annie Albers, Buckminster Fuller, and others. She was most challenged by the landscape. "A difficult branch of the art," she wrote "in only one of the two kodachromes and maybe two of the black-and-whites have I succeeded in making them convey something of what they make you feel. Of course, the Blue Ridge isn't the Sierra or the Tetons, but they do sweep and swoop until you feel like a small bubble on a very large wave." "Black Mountain Landscape," an image of hills reflected in a placid lake (an image Nancy always referred to as "Mae West") is one of Nancy's finest photographs. As with most of her favorite images, she printed it in many variations through the years. It is appropriate that Nancy first satisfied her criteria for a successful landscape in North Carolina, where she was more on her own, and where the mountains were not as staggering as the Sierra Nevada. This Black Mountain image invites the viewer with quietude and gentleness, a very different tone than the heroic monumentalism of Adams's photographs, which often render the individual insignificant.
Time in New England, though finished to Nancy's satisfaction in 1948, would not be published until 1950. This was after Strand's 1949 move to France due to his disaffection with American politics and the trial of his friend Alger Hiss. Although the publication would receive high praise and Strand would go onto publish five more portraits of a place, Strand was not on hand to supervise the printing of the book. The reproductions did not meet either Nancy's or Strand's high standards and the book was quickly remaindered. Despite this, an editor at Little Brown offered Nancy a contract for a book of her own photographs and writing. She responded, "My husband was even more pleased with your letter than I was. He is the leader of a small but determined faction who insists that I should stop editing and exhibiting and biographing other people."  Ansel agreed and wrote to Beaumont:
In the fall of 1949, the Newhalls set aside their dream of moving to the West and made their way to Rochester, New York, where Beaumont became the first curator of photography at the George Eastman House. When Nancy was not assisting Beaumont in setting up the collection and mounting exhibitions, she was increasingly absorbed in projects directing her toward the West. Between 1949 and 1967, Nancy would make more than a dozen trips to the West. During the 1950s, she would spend at least a third of her time in California as a houseguest of Virginia and Ansel's. According to Beaumont, Nancy's career at this time was really in California. On a trip in 1950, Nancy found that she had missed something else essential to her understanding of America. Three hours late and trying to gain time, the transcontinental train deposited her on the platform in Sacramento without her baggage. Too late for the connecting train to Merced to meet the Adamses, she boarded a local bus. The result was, "one of the most important journeys of my life."
Up to this time, although Nancy may have wanted to speak to the diverse peoples of America, she had little exposure. She had been sheltered in a society of artists and intellectuals, among the educated, the comfortable, the witty, and the empowered.
In 1951, both Newhalls joined Ansel for a photographic expedition to Santa Fe, Taos, Chimayo, and the small pueblos and mountain villages of Northern New Mexico. The journey culminated at a photo symposium in Aspen, Colorado where they officially co-founded the influential journal Aperture with Minor White as editor. Nancy made many of her best images of the Southwest on this trip. Her camera vision was confident and mature. One of the strongest photographs is taken from a graveyard atop a foothill, using the string of houses in the background as the horizon line. It is, in many ways, a modest image that refers to the cycle of life in a small frontier town. She has framed a fragile sweetness in the wrought-iron grave marker, a reminder of human tenderness in the unforgiving terrain of the Southwest.
A contract for a series of articles for Arizona Highways magazine to be written by Nancy, with photographs by Ansel, increased the frequency of her trips to the Southwest. Beginning in March 1952, they traveled on assignment to Death Valley, Mission San Xavier del Bac south of Tucson, and Organ Pipe National Monument on the Arizona-Mexico border. In many ways, Arizona Highways, a state-sponsored magazine promoting tourism, an attitude despised by both Nancy and Ansel, seems an unlikely vehicle for the two artists. However, they had in common a desire for validation of their skills in the marketplace. A chatty editorial introducing the series claimed that Ansel Adams would "interpret and wrap up" the country, and Nancy Newhall would write "interpretive" texts. Of course, Nancy had nothing of the kind in mind; her intent was a new form of visual communication she called "photograph-writing."
Had the Arizona Highways editor read her article in the first issue of Aperture (January 1952) titled, "The Caption: The Mutual Relation of Words and Photographs," he would have realized that the articles submitted by Nancy Newhall would be unlike any he had ever published. Nancy wanted to hasten the time when, "the old literacy of words is dying and a new literacy of images is being born." In addition to the three types of traditional captions: (1) the enigmatic, as found "in full classic purity in Time"; (2) the miniature essay, as found in Life's "Picture of the Week"; and, (3) the narrative, the common or familiar form, a "bridge between text and photograph"; Nancy proposed a fourth, which she called additive:
Arizona Highways eventually published six articles by the Newhall-Adams team. Nancy strengthened her vision as an editor and designer. Her emphasis on the primacy of the image led her to open each article with a dramatic full-page photograph, without a caption and before the text. Nancy's "additive" incantatory prose unfurled aside Adams's austere, uninhabited images. She wrote of the past, the people, the light, and the sound.
Two places in particular magnetized Nancy in her travels for the magazine: Death Valley and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. These two environments epitomized the wilderness to Nancy, a place to shed her accepted concepts of reality.
In researching Death Valley, Nancy kept digging deeper. She buried herself for months in treatises on geology, wagon trains, and mining. The opening of the article clearly demonstrates how thoroughly she was jolted to a new perspective, an expanded sense of time and space: "Unearthly and immense, Death Valley so seizes the imagination that during the century the white men must have known it, it is a history of illusion." The eight-page article would turn into a sixty-four-page guidebook, self-published by the newly incorporated "5 Associates," made up of Ansel and Virginia, along with Beaumont and Nancy. As in Time in New England, Nancy selected quotes revealing the vanity, insanity, heroism, and desperation of fortune-seekers and frontier families. However, combined with words of eyewitnesses from a lost time in whose, "cadences was the sound. . . . and in [whose] thought [was] the germ of a nation," Nancy added her own words for the wonders she discovered. 
Finally, as the article concludes, Nancy claims, ". . . if you stay to explore, you will begin to understand why the Indians are still here. . . . Phenomena that anywhere else would be objects of pilgrimage are lost in the immensities . . . . Up at the Race Track after a rain, huge boulders weighing up to a quarter ton move in the wind leaving tracks like snails on the clay." Death Valley, in its remove and isolation, was a place where every nuance, however fleeting and transitory, could resound in a willing and open participant.
It was at Organ Pipe, however, that Nancy experienced a personal transformation. Like Death Valley, Organ Pipe, in the harsh desert of southern Arizona, is desolate and stark, tough and unforgiving-a home for cacti, lizards, and litters of bleached bones. In this article, Nancy does not speak through others; she does not quote geological or historical sources. She includes the reader with the hortatory use of the word you. All is sensation; the land is a living body:
Nancy was speaking in a new tone, mystical and religious, and distinctly out of place in a cynical, fashionable world. She reveals herself as a woman of undeniable faith, a humble convert to immense mysteries. Her words are testimony of an epiphany, declaring how she felt embraced within the whole of creation. Although Beaumont was baffled by Nancy's turn toward mysticism, he was completely accepting of an orientation made familiar by their dear friend Minor White. They met Minor in New York in 1945, and he was an integral part of their circle of closest friends and cohorts. They worked together at MoMA, and Nancy wrote a script for a movie with Minor when he lived in the Adamses' San Francisco studio building. Minor also lived with the Newhalls when he first came to Rochester to work at George Eastman House, and gave Nancy a cherished and much used copy of the I-Ching.
The fifties were a productive and busy time for Nancy. In addition to the Arizona Highways series, she curated "The World of Edward Weston," an exhibition of one hundred of his finest prints, sponsored and traveled by the Smithsonian Institution. In 1952, she and Beaumont took an extended trip to Europe, with especially memorable visits to Alvin Langdon Coburn in Wales, Bill Brandt in London, and Cartier-Bresson and Brassai in Paris. Together, they also prepared a series of live television programs for WHAM-TV in Rochester, with Beaumont displaying his flourish as an entertainer in front of the camera, and Nancy completely at home sending countdown signals from the control room. During this time, she and Ansel took on well-paid commercial jobs, including a 1954 book titled The Pageant of History in Northern California, a prestige publication commissioned by a San Francisco bank. 
The most extended project of the decade for Nancy began as a two-week volunteer effort in 1955. Nancy offered to help the Sierra Club save its small clubhouse, the LeConte Lodge, built before Yosemite was a National Park. To keep it in Sierra Club hands, the government required it to be open to the public. Originally, Nancy began coordinating a modest conservation exhibit. Over the next five years, it grew into Nancy's most triumphant creation, reaching far beyond the borders of fine art photography. This Is the American Earth initially expanded into an ambitious exhibition of more than one hundred photographs by Ansel and thirty-two other photographers, with Nancy's accompanying lyric poem as wall text. A second copy of the show at the Academy of the Sciences in San Francisco attracted a huge audience, with two more copies of the exhibition packaged by the Smithsonian to circulate throughout the United States, and four more copies ordered by the United States Information Service (USIA) to travel internationally. By 1959, Nancy was being pressured and given carte blanche to design, edit, and create a book from the exhibition for the Sierra Club.
While This Is the American Earth branched into and built momentum throughout the 1950s for Nancy, she and Beaumont also returned to Edward Weston's inspirational daybooks. Motivated to help Weston as he declined from Parkinson's disease, they were able to use the George Eastman House to raise funds and publish The Daybooks of Edward Weston: Volume I, Mexico, in 1957. Weston wrote in a large cursive script on both sides of his journal pages, and as the editor, Nancy was distressed to find he had literally excised the names of those still alive, carefully cutting rectangular windows through the paper, leaving Nancy with puzzles to solve in verso. Greeted with acclaim, Volume II, California was picked up by Horizon Press, a New York commercial house, and co-published with George Eastman House in 1961. Weston's Daybooks and Nancy's monograph on Weston subtitled The Flame of Recognition, a complete issue of Aperture in 1958,  would became reliable standards on the list of Aperture editions, as did Time In New England.
Beaumont and Nancy ambitiously began a joint project in 1957 titled Masters of Photography, featuring sixteen European and American photographers. Together they selected the images, but due to extenuating circumstances, the biographies and introduction landed in Nancy's capable hands. In 1958, when the book was due at the publishers, Beaumont was in Europe-first in Salzburg giving a seminar on film, then in Paris, where he received news that General Oscar Selbert, the first director of George Eastman House, had died suddenly. Nancy described the situation:
With the 1960 publication of This Is the American Earth, Nancy raised the bar yet again for a book of "photograph-writing." In accordance with her desire to augment the visual with the musical, her oversized symphonic format opens with an "Overture" of four panoramas spread across the fold, edge-to-edge. Underneath, Nancy begins her invocation:
She poses such questions as "What is the price of exaltation?" next to an image of a raging waterfall.
One way to assess Nancy's accomplishment is to ask if this book meets her own criteria for photographic art. First, is the book "photographic"? Does it achieve results impossible in other mediums? Beginning with the Overture, she exploits one of the most startling characteristics of discovering the world through the lens of a camera-its range from microscopic to telescopic scale. The question "What is the value of solitude...?" links an image of a grand mountain lake with a close-up of raindrops on feathery ferns. A Spiral Nebula in the night sky is juxtaposed next to a rock pool, bypassing what Ansel called a human's limitation on anthropocentric concepts of size.
Next, does this book bear the imprint of Nancy Newhall's individuality? This Is the American Earth is unmistakably hers in its scholarship, rhythmic prose, and hope for the future. Into it she poured her hard-won experience, her keen perception, and her convictions about wilderness, photography, wholeness, America, humanity, and God. No one else could have gathered such a broad scope of photographs and ideas, "selecting, compressing, arranging, restating, at last achieving a stirring counterpoint of images on film and in word, that can reveal in the whole what only the parts could suggest." The structure of a classical music composition reflects a lifetime of a home filled with music and on-going Ansel piano concerts for friends. For the book, she creates six "Movements": (1) Brief Tenant, (2) New World, (3) The Machine and a New Ethics, (4) The Mathematics of Survival, (5) Dynamics, and (6) The Crucial Resource. As with Time in New England, she constructs an autobiography of place, quoting poets, historians, philosophers, scientists, the Bible, Thoreau, John Muir, and many others concerned with the individual's relationship to the natural world.
The third criterion Nancy Newhall demanded of a photographic work of art is "inner life," a much more subjective judgment. This Is the American Earth reached many hands. When it went out of print, over ninety thousand copies had sold, and a worldwide audience of untold thousands had visited the exhibit. Today, the publication is recognized as groundbreaking and still referenced in the tsunami of books written to champion environmental efforts.
With the coming of the sixties, Nancy continued to work actively in both California and New York. Along with helping Beaumont much more closely in upgrading the George Eastman House physical plant, she immediately selected the most significant and beautiful photographs of all periods for a permanent exhibition that proudly affirmed their orientation to "The Art of Photography." A highlight was the 1963 M. H. de Young Museum's invitation to curate and design a retrospective for Ansel. It would be the largest one-man show they had ever given to a photographer and filled an entire wing. It would also be the occasion for Nancy to publish the first part of her Adams biography, Volume I: The Eloquent Light. Too large for most museums, Beaumont edited the exhibition and it successfully traveled throughout the country. Like the earlier bank commission, in 1964 the Newhall-Adams team was tapped for another well-remunerated commercial project, an extravagant commemorative publication to celebrate the University of California Centennial in 1967. Nancy and Ansel visited the six existing campuses and the three new ones barely beyond the planning stages. For the final book called Fiat Lux, Nancy fussed over three separate mock-ups though three years of revising.
Culminating a twenty-year vision, on New Year's Day of 1967, Nancy and Beaumont met with their close California friends to plan a center for photography. Ansel, Brett Weston, Wynn Bullock, and others founded The Friends of Photography, with Nancy serving as a Trustee, and Beaumont serving as an Advisor. Anticipating a time when they could retire and be free to work on only projects of their choice, Nancy and Beaumont bought land next to Ansel and Virginia. With renewed purpose, they began to take every opportunity to work together in the West. Beginning in 1967, they would teach five summer workshops at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Titled "Images and Words, The Making of a Photographic Book," it was a twelve-day intensive with Adams concentrating on photography, Beaumont on books and layout, and Nancy on sequence, sizing, and pacing. The result was a forty-six-page Santa Cruz portrait of the city published by the university. The next year's summer workshop drew forty-three students for a pilot program to search out the problems of the aging poor. Co-sponsored by the Office of Economic Opportunity called Project FIND, the OEO thought the results so moving they ordered 25,000 copies to distribute.
At the end of the decade, Beaumont noted, with characteristic consideration and reserve: "Nancy and I decided to retire in 1970 because I had enough executive experience." He took early retirement and gave George Eastman House one year's notice. Ready and open for adventure, neither he nor Nancy had any plans beyond leaving Rochester and driving toward California. While staying for two weeks at The Wild Horse Guest Ranch on the outskirts of Tucson, Beaumont received an invitation to fly to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Unprepared to give a formal lecture, he gave a gallery talk, and was thoroughly surprised by an invitation to join the faculty. With a proviso that he would attend no meetings and serve on no committees, Beaumont called Nancy who instantaneously said, "Take it. Take it." They bought a very contemporary condominium still under construction in the La Luz compound on Albuquerque's west mesa, and worked with the then young and now famous architect, Antoine Predock to customize it for both books and cooking. To Nancy's delight, Beaumont not only loved teaching, but invited students to use his library, which was much more comprehensive than the university's. He cooked, they entertained, they made many friends, and they worked on their independent projects. At last, they were both happily settled in a home where the spectacle of weather, sun, and sky played dramatically across the contours of the Sandia Mountains, their view framed in floor to ceiling glass panels.
The last of the Nancy Newhall and Ansel Adams guidebooks was released in 1970, a booklet on The Tetons and the Yellowstone. In Beaumont's 1993 memoirs, he recounts Nancy's unexpected and accidental death on their trip to the Grand Teton National Monument during the summer of 1974:
Beaumont was deeply touched that after Nancy's death three contemporary composers sought the rights to set to music her words from This Is the American Earth. With the benefit of hindsight, there was a silence to looking at black-and-white photographs before Nancy Newhall added her soundtracks. In his memoirs, Beaumont concludes the chapter of his life with Nancy by quoting from Ansel's tribute at her funeral:
On a more personal note, Ansel concluded a written eulogy for Nancy, edited by Beaumont and published by the Friends of Photography in 1976:
Ever since her death, Nancy Newhall's root earnestness and poetic understandings have made her susceptible to easy dismissal, to charges of a naiveté. Yet, a rereading and reevaluation confirm just how far she went beyond platitudes to excavate the rough-hewn complexity of the American soul. After an era of disillusionment, greed, and corruption, perhaps a new generation is ready for her sensitive nuanced approach.
First names are used throughout this essay, not only to avoid confusion about which Newhall or Adams is being discussed, but also in keeping with the spirit of their informality and friendships, and in accord with the author's familiar experiences as Beaumont Newhall's assistant from 1980 to 1985.
The correspondence between Beaumont and Nancy Newhall and Ansel Adams quoted in this essay is in the Archives of the Center of Creative Photography, University of Arizona.
All other materials by Beaumont and Nancy Newhall are in the J. Paul Getty Museum and Archives. Photographs and quotations " 2006 from the Estate of Beaumont and Nancy Newhall are reproduced with permission of Scheinbaum and Russek Ltd., Santa Fe, New Mexico.
This essay has been rewritten and expanded from a version originally
published in The Desert Is No Lady: Southwestern Landscapes in Women's
Writing and Art, edited by Vera Norwood and Janice Monk, New Haven:
Yale University Press, 1987; reissued by University of Arizona Press, 1997.
1 Nancy Newhall to Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, 9 June 1964. Estate of Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, The J. Paul Getty Museum and Archives.
2 Estate of Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, The J. Paul Getty Museum and Archives.
3 In 1956, Nancy Newhall curated "The Negro Exhibit" at George Eastman House, Rochester, NY.
4 Nancy Newhall biographical data, 1972: 1. Estate of Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, The J. Paul Getty Museum and Archives.
5 Beaumont Newhall, interview by David Scheinbaum, October 4, 1990.
6 MaLin Wilson-Powell, interview by Loretta Libby Atkins (former student of Beaumont Newhall and friend of Nancy Newhall), March 14, 2008.
7 Beaumont Newhall, Focus: Memoirs of a Life in Photography (Boston: A Bullfinch Press Book, 1993), 34-35.
8 Nancy Wynne Parker, "Thomas Benton," The New Frontier 1, 2 (April 1934): 24-27.
9 Nancy Wynne Parker, "Leon Kroll on 'Art in America'," The New Frontier 2, 1 (February 1935): 24-27.
10 Nancy Newhall biographical data, 1972: 1. Estate of Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, The J. Paul Getty Museum and Archives.
12 Nancy Wynne, "Against Iconoclasm," Magazine of Art 30, 3 (March 1937): 136-140.
13 Beaumont Newhall, Focus: Memoirs of a Life in Photography (Boston: A Bullfinch Press Book, 1993), 245.
14 Nancy Newhall to Ansel Adams, 3 January 1951.
15 Nancy Wynne and Beaumont Newhall, "Horatio Greenough: Herald of Functionalism," Magazine of Art 32, 1 (January 1939): 12-15.
17 Nancy Newhall, "Television and the Arts," Parnassus (January 1940): 37-38.
18 Nancy Newhall to Gilbert Seldes, 16 February 1939.
19 Nancy Newhall, "The Enduring Moment," (unpublished manuscript, 1972). This manuscript was meant to be Volume II of the Ansel Adams biography. Ansel Adams: Volume I, The Eloquent Light, appeared in 1963.
20 Beaumont Newhall, interview by David Scheinbaum, November 10, 1990.
21 Newhall, "The Enduring Moment," (unpublished manuscript): 104.
22 Ibid., 109.
23 Nancy Newhall, Ansel Adams: Volume I, The Eloquent Light (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1963), 13.
24 Nancy Newhall, "The Enduring Moment," (unpublished manuscript): 142.
25 Beaumont Newhall, interview by David Scheinbaum, November, 10 1990.
26 Alfred Stieglitz, "Why I Photograph Clouds," Amateur Photographer 56 (19 September 1923): 255.
27 Nancy Newhall to Paul Strand, n.d.
28 Nancy Newhall, "Notes for a biography on Stieglitz" (unpublished manuscript): 131-132.
29 Nancy Newhall, "Four Photographs," Magazine of Art 36, 4 (May 1943): 180-183.
30 Ansel Adams to Nancy Newhall, 11 June 1942.
31 Nancy Newhall, "The Enduring Moment," (unpublished manuscript): 273.
32 Ibid, 264-66.
33 Nancy Newhall to Ansel Adams, 27 February 1950.
34 Nancy Newhall, "The Enduring Moment," (unpublished manuscript): 273.
35 Nancy Newhall to Ansel Adams, n.d.
36 Nancy Newhall, foreword to Time in New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), v.
37 Beaumont Newhall, interview by David Scheinbaum, November 10, 1990.
38 Nancy Newhall, foreword to Time in New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), v.
39 Nancy Newhall, "The Enduring Moment," (unpublished manuscript): 320. Adams first published his intent that his photographs act as "equivalents" for Bach and Beethoven in an article "Problems of Interpretation of the Natural Scene," Sierra Club Bulletin (1945): 47-50.
40 Nancy Newhall to Ansel Adams, 18 September 1948.
41 Nancy Newhall to John Woodburn, 29 May 1951.
42 Ansel Adams to Beaumont Newhall, 27 October 1050.
43 Beaumont Newhall, interview by David Scheinbaum, November 10, 1990.
44 Nancy Newhall, "The Enduring Moment," (unpublished manuscript): 719-721.
45 White co-founded Aperture, which he would edit until 1975, with Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Barbara Morgan, Nancy Newhall, and Beaumont Newhall.
46 Nancy Newhall, "The Caption: The Mutual Relationship of Words and Photographs," Aperture 1, 1 (1952): 17-29.
47 Nancy Newhall, "Controversy and Creative Concepts," Aperture 2, 2 (1953): 12.
48 Nancy Newhall and Ansel Adams, "Death Valley," Arizona Highways 29, 10 (October 1953): 68-75. This article was expanded into both a paperback and clothbound book: Death Valley (Redwood City: 5 Associates, 1954). Subsequent editions were published in 1959, 1963 and 1970.
49 The 5 Associates publishing venture was established by the Adamses and the Newhalls, and a young man ? (Unfortunately, no one seems to have his name), who died shortly after the group came together. 5 Associates was founded in Redwood City and also published expanded versions of the Arizona Highways articles on Mission San Xavier del Bac, 1954; and The Tetons and Yellowstone, 1970.
50 Nancy Newhall, foreword to Time in New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), v.
51 Nancy Newhall and Ansel Adams, "Death Valley," Arizona Highways 29, 10 (October 1953): 68-75.
52 Nancy Newhall and Ansel Adams, "Organ Pipe National Monument," Arizona Highways 30, 1 (January 1954): 8-17.
53 Nancy Newhall and Ansel Adams, The Pageant of History of Northern California (San Francisco: American Trust Company, 1954). This bank merged with Wells Fargo in the 1970s.
54 Nancy Newhall, "The Flame of Recognition," Aperture, 6, 1 (1958).
55 Nancy Newhall biographical data, 1972: 4. Estate of Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, The J. Paul Getty Museum and Archives.
56 Nancy Newhall and Ansel Adams, This Is the American Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1960), ii-iii.
57 Nancy Newhall and Ansel Adams, This Is the American Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1960), jacket.
58 Beaumont Newhall, Focus: Memoirs of a Life in Photography (Boston: A Bullfinch Press Book, 1993), 245.
59 Beaumont Newhall, interview by David Scheinbaum, November 10, 1990.
60 Beaumont Newhall, Focus, 245.
61 Ibid., 245-46.
62 Ansel Adams, "A Tribute to Nancy Newhall," in Untitled
10, ed. Beaumont Newhall and Peter Hunt Thompson (Carmel, CA:
Friends of Photography, 1976), 43-44.
About the author
MaLin Wilson-Powell has been an active participant in the art world since 1972. She has held curatorial positions and was an independent art critic, lecturer, art projects coordinator, editor, and educator. Wilson-Powell's appointments in New Mexico included Curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, and assistant to photo-historian and McArthur Fellow Beaumont Newhall. She has curated over twenty-five exhibitions with brochures or catalogs and published over three hundred articles.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on November 20, 2008, with permission of the Museum of Photographic Arts, which was granted to TFAO on November 11, 2008.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Lauren Turner of the Museum of Photographic Arts, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
To view Resource Library's article for the exhibition please click here.
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