SAN FRANCISCO — Ansel Adams's dramatic landscapes - especially of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevadas - are so familiar and are reproduced so often that the diversity of his photography has been overshadowed and the images as works of art undermined. With more than 100 images from his entire career, the traveling exhibit "Ansel Adams, a Legacy" offers a fresh look at this visionary photographer, teacher, and environmentalist.
To illustrate the artist's diversity, the exhibit juxtaposes abstract landscapes and close-ups, architectural views, and portraits - notably Jos Clement Orozco and Georgia O'Keeffe - to Adams's great American landscapes.
Interestingly, the less-familiar images reveal the artist's human side and locate him in the circle of photographers that emerged in the West during the 1930s and '40s. But, unlike the carefully composed panoramic vistas, the portraits and abstract images have an experimental quality that suggest his uncertainty when faced with casual or elusive subject matter, whether it be a migrant worker or a transitory landscape.
The show is enhanced by the technical mastery of the prints, which the photographer created in the late 1970s. For Adams, photographic printing paralleled musical interpretation. As he put it, "We may think of the negative as the score, the print as the performance."
In the 1970s, Adams's technique changed; the prints became darker and richer, with more chiaroscuro. The resulting drama evokes anew a sense of discovery that is particularly appropriate for his sublime vision of nature. Ultimately, the pairing of the landscapes with intimate and experimental studies underlines the power and originality of such works as "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" (1941) and "Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite (1960). Such eloquent, compelling views of America's natural beauty capture its majesty in symbolic and revelatory light, and it is in such enduring images - photographs of America unlike any that have been produced before or since - that we find Adams's legacy.
* This exhibit moves to the Hunter Museum of Art in Chattanooga, Tenn., July 12-Sept. 28; Washington's Smithsonian, Nov. 14-March 29, 1998; Tampa Museum of Art, April-June 1998; Fort Wayne (Ind.) Museum of Art, December 1998-February 1999; and then goes to Japan.