Dayton Art Institute

Dayton, OH

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In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West


Billowing clouds enshrouding mountain tops, towering pines shading wildflowers, jagged cliffs overlooking deep canyons--these are images of the American West, which has been a source of inspiration for photographers since they first ventured west of the Mississippi. Tracing the American photographers' journey west from 1860 to 1960, In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West, a nationally touring exhibition organized by The Dayton Art Institute and presented by National City and WHIO-Channel 7, will open to the public in Dayton, Ohio on October 30, 1999 and run through January 2, 2000. (left: John Hillers (1843-1925), Marble Pinnacle, Kanab Canyon, 1872, albumen print, 13 x 9 3/4 inches, Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

Showcasing more than 150 rare photographs of America's rugged, natural beauty, this breathtaking exhibition includes more than 70 works by Ansel Adams and offers new appreciation for one of photography' s greatest masters by placing his work in the context of 100 years of photography by his predecessors and contemporaries. In addition to Adams, the exhibition showcases works by 25 other noted photographers, including Carleton E. Watkins, Timothy O'Sullivan, George Fiske, William Henry Jackson, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston. Also of note, In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West features a significant number of vintage prints, which are works printed by the artist at the time the image was created. (right: Sonya Noskowiak (1900-1973), White Radishes, c. 1933, vintage gelatin silver print, Courtesy of Shapiro Gallery, San Francisco)

"Ansel Adams was a genius with a camera and technical genius in the dark room," said Alexander Lee Nyerges, director of the Art Institute and curator of In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West. "His landscapes were operatic in composition, complete with lighting, tragedy and drama--luring those who viewed his works to seek Nature and capture the spirit of the wilderness." One of the most recognized and admired photographers of the 20th century, Adams' keen artistic vision and technical proficiency became a foundation for a highly successful 70-year career, which produced more than 40,000 negatives, 10,000 fine prints, 500 international exhibitions and numerous books.

Not only will visitors have the opportunity to view many of Adams' well-loved classic, monumental views of the American West, such as White House Ruin, Canyon de Chelly and Winter Sunrise, but In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West also features his more intimate, less-often-seen images of cacti and oaks. Additionally, the exhibition highlights his friend and colleague Edward Weston, considered by many photography scholars to have been the greatest photographer ever to live. Adams and Weston are compared and contrasted in their approaches to style and subject matter. (left: Edward Weston (1886-1958), Eel River Ranch, 1937, gelatin silver print,7 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 40.15.11; right: Edward Weston (1886-1958), Juniper, Sierra Nevada, 1937, vintage gelatin silver print,7 1/2 x 9 1/2 inches, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 46.23.4)

Through In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West, museum visitors also will gain an unprecedented view of Nature's profound spiritual influence on photographers working in the American West between 1860 and 1960. A believer in the transcendentalist philosophy espoused by 19th century writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau that religion and truth are found in Nature, Adams and his contemporaries strove to represent this spirituality in their work. Adams wrote that natural wonders "...have been approached with a reverential lens" and for the viewer of his photographs, he hoped the grandeur and intimacies of Nature would "encourage [one] to seek for himself the inexhaustible sources of beauty in the natural world around him."

In addition to shedding new light on Adams' inspirations and presenting his work in the context of early photographers of the West and of his contemporaries who carried on this great tradition, In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West traces the evolution of photography as an art form through depictions of Nature. In the mid-1800s when photography was in its infancy, aspiring photographers created a documentary of American life in the early West, depicting cities, haciendas, missions and Native Americans--many of which are now lost images. In the 1860s during the Civil War, Americans looked West for salvation, inspiration and hope and photographers found these qualities in Nature. At the turn of the century, they continued to use their art to preserve the boundless wilderness, which was no longer a frontier but an outlet for urban and economic growth. It was photographs by Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson that convinced Congress to protect these regions as national parks for generations to come. In particular, Ansel Adams became an active proponent of conservation through the Sierra Club.

In the early 1900s, photographs were Pictorialist in style, or created in soft-focus to mimic more romantic and impressionistic mediums. As Modernism enveloped the art world and industrialization overtook the nation, preservation of the West's natural beauty remained a driving force behind many photographers' work. In the 1930s, creative photography pioneers such as Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz created images in sharp focus, with a greater degree of abstraction and contrast. Through the work of Stieglitz, Strand and Group f/64, which Adams founded along with Weston and Cunningham in San Francisco, photography gained acceptance as an expressive art by the middle of the 20th century.


Brief Biographies of Selected Artists in the Exhibition

Ansel Easton Adams (1902-1984) Born in 1902 in San Francisco, Ansel Adams was an aspiring musician, conservationist, political activist, teacher and above all--a photographer. One of the most well-recognized and admired photographers of the 20th century, Adams' keen artistic vision and technical proficiency became a foundation for a highly successful 70-year career, which produced more than 40,000 negatives, 10,000 fine prints, 500 international exhibitions and numerous books. (left: Ansel Adams (1902-1984), Oak Tree, Sunset City, Sierra Foothills, California, 1962, vintage silver print, 1962, Used with permission of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust)

In 1916, at the age of 14, upon reading J.M. Hutchins' In the Heart of the Sierras, Adams convinced his family to vacation in Yosemite National Park, which he photographed with his first camera, a Kodak #1 Box Brownie. Greatly inspired by the park's natural beauty, Adams would return there nearly every year of his life. Adams' father with whom he shared an interest in photography, an Emersonian ideal of self-reliance and an intense connection with Nature--encouraged Adams to develop his creativity through a non-traditional classroom the Panama-Pacific International Exposition--where Adams viewed works by Cézanne, Gaugin, Monet, Picasso and Braque. During the same time, Adams taught himself to play the piano and further developed his musical talent through private lessons. (left: Ansel Adams (1902-1984), Dunes, Oceano, 1962, vintage silver print, 1963, Center for Creative Photography, 84.092.232, Used with permission of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust)

Upon graduation, Adams worked in a photo-finishing lab while fine-tuning his musical and artistic skills. From the beginning, Adams strove for perfection. He would wait hours for the ideal light and paid great attention to the composition of his photographs. After enjoying several wilderness trips and becoming the custodian for the Sierra Club's headquarters at Yosemite, Adams studied mountain photography, in particular the contrast between dark and light in the winter. While his early photographs were in a soft-focus, impressionistic style, Adams quickly turned to creating sharp, defined images. He fully believed photography was not objective, but interpretive and artistic, as it boasted so many variables, including composition, lens, filter, light and film. One of Adams' remarkable talents was his ability to visualize all these components and the final product before he created the photograph. (right: Ansel Adams (1902-1984), White House Ruin, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1962, gelatin silver print, CORBIS/Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust)

A trip to the Southwest in 1927 proved to be a turning point in Adams' career. There, he became enamored with the region's natural beauty and met photographer Paul Strand, who convinced him photography could truly be a form of artistic expression. In 1930, Adams' portfolio of the Taos Pueblo was published in an edition of 100 books and led him to chose a career in photography over music. Returning to San Francisco with his new wife, Virginia Best, Adams grudgingly pursued commercial clients in order to make a living, but remained faithful to his artistic vision of black and white photography. While completing projects for Pacific Gas & Electric, American Telephone & Telegraph, Hills Brothers Coffee and Eastman-Kodak, Adams became an integral part of San Francisco's growing art scene. Along with Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and other contemporaries, Adams formed Group f/64 to help advance photography as an art form. Named after the smallest aperture possible, which provides the greatest depth of field and maximum sharpness, Group f/64 promoted "pure" photography. Believing photography should not be used to imitate other art forms, they created images in sharp focus on glossy paper. During this time, Adams remained true to nature and conservation as a cause. As a member of the Sierra Club's board of directors, he lobbied Congress to create a new national park in Kings River Canyon, California. (left: Ansel Adams (1902-1984), Winter Sunrise, The Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, 1944, vintage silver print, Oakland Museum of California A65.126.1, Used with permission of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust)

In New York City, art photography was gaining a dedicated following with the assistance of acclaimed photographer Alfred Stieglitz. In 1936, Stieglitz agreed to show Adams' work in his gallery, An American Place, a decision that boosted Adams' confidence in expressing himself through photography. Co-founded by Adams, Beaumont Newhall and David McAlpin, the creation of a photography department at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1940 affirmed Group f/64's vision and gave the art form growing credibility.

Also in 1940, Adams began teaching photography at the Art Center School in Los Angeles, where he developed the Zone System for producing a technically proficient photograph. The system divides the range of light into 11 different zones, from total black to pure white, with which the photographer can determine and create different tones in a final print based on the subject's range of contrast. Adams thoroughly enjoyed teaching and would continue sharing his knowledge throughout his life.

As World War II escalated, Adams contributed to the war effort by escorting troops in Yosemite Valley, teaching practical photography at Fort Ord and developing top-secret negatives of Japanese military installations. In 1943, he visited the Manzanar War Relocation Camp and documented the strength and courage of imprisoned Japanese-Americans, later published in his book Born Free & Equal. During this time of burden and despair across America, Adams' work embodied an almost heroic quality with images of hope, promise and optimism. As the official photographer of the Mural Project, Adams was commissioned by the U.S. government to document Indian reservations, national parks and other facilities under control of the Interior Department. (left: Ansel Adams (1902-1984), The Tetons and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1942, vintage silver print, Center for Creative Photography, 84.092.190)

After the war, two Guggenheim Fellowships allowed Adams to travel and photograph the West's final frontier--Alaska. Once again, Adams was enraptured with the wild, untamed beauty. In comparison, Yosemite seemed on the verge of becoming over-developed and Adams recommitted himself to preservation of America's West. Returning to Yosemite, he held Ansel Adams Workshops there every summer from 1955 to 1981, sharing his appreciation of Nature and artistic skill with thousands of students. To enhance the image of the park he loved, Best's Studio, where he met his wife Virginia Best and which he later later operated in Yosemite, offered Yosemite Special Edition Prints as a high-quality alternative to cheap tourist souvenirs. Thousands of 8 x 10-inch prints were sold.

Throughout his life, Adams remained active and committed to his discipline. From the 1960s to his death in 1984, he continued to teach, publish books and arrange exhibitions. In 1966, he spearheaded the formation of The Friends of Photography, a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of creative photography. He personally lobbied presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan to respect and conserve the environment. In his later years, Adams received numerous awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Hasselblad Medal, an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Harvard University, and the French Legion of Merit. Today, his legacy continues through his work and influence on one of the world's newest art farms--photography.

Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976) Born in Oregon and raised in Seattle, Imogen Cunningham is one of the most enduring 20th century photographers of the American West. From 1907 to 1909, she worked in the studio of Edward S. Curtis, whose volumes on the American Indian were well-known in photography circles. She then established a studio in Seattle and specialized in portraiture, yet still created a substantial body of Pictorialist - inspired landscape work. Her work in the 1920s contrasts with her earlier Pictorialist photographs. Adopting the tenants of Modernism, she concentrated on creating striking images drawn from the natural scene. In 1932, Imogen Cunningham was one of the founding members of the short-lived Group f/64 along with Weston and Adams. Her long and active career continued into her 90s until her death in San Francisco in 1976. (left: Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), Exploding Bud, c. 1920, vintage platinum print, The Dayton Art Institute, 1973.26)

George Fiske (1835-1918) Born in 1835 on his family's farm in New Hampshire, Fiske followed his brother west to San Francisco to work in the banking business. There, he apprenticed with Robert Vance and Charles Leander Weed, Yosemite's first photographer, and worked as an assistant to Carleton Watkins and Thomas Houseworth. Following a brief departure from photography, Fiske and his wife moved to Yosemite in 1879, where they lived year-round for most of the remainder of their lives. At the time of Ansel Adams' first visit to Yosemite in 1916, the aged Fiske was concluding a nearly 40-year career of living and working in the Yosemite Valley, making a steady living from his series of photographs. (right: George Fiske (1835-1918), Agassiz Column near Union Point, 1885, albumen print, The National Museum of Natural History)

Timothy O'Sullivan (1840-1882) Born in Ireland, the O'Sullivan family immigrated to America when Timothy was only two years old. As a young boy, he worked for Mathew Brady, the great portraitist and Civil War entrepreneur. After the war, O'Sullivan traveled west and joined Clarence King's Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel in 1867. O'Sullivan returned to Washington, D.C. to pursue his photographic career and was appointed photographer of the Treasury Department in 1880. Unfortunately, his career and life were cut short by tuberculosis.

Additional support for the exhibition is provided by The Reynolds & Reynolds Company, MOTOPHOTO, Mrs. Mary Mikesell Mapp and the Dayton Marriott; special assistance was received from The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Admission will be charged for this exhibition.

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For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 11/1/10

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