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Southwestern exposure

An exhibit in Massachusetts showcases newly discovered Ansel Adams photographs.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 27, 2002



FITCHBURG, MASS.

Rarely do vacation "snapshots" cause much excitement beyond close friends and family.

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But a small museum here in central Massachusetts has some that may interest a much larger audience. That's because they were taken by Ansel Adams, one of America's greatest photographers, on a trip through the Southwest in 1937 with a group of friends that included another iconic American, painter Georgia O'Keeffe.

Among the approximately 75 proofs to be displayed at the Fitchburg Art Museum are shots taken at the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and other locations in northeastern New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and Colorado on a two-week camping trip that began Sept. 27, 1937, exactly 65 years ago today.

The other campers included David McAlpin, an investment banker; his cousin Godfrey Rockefeller and wife, Helen; and Orville Cox, the head wrangler at the Ghost Ranch, O'Keeffe's home in New Mexico.

Curator Stephen Jareckie says he's been so excited about "getting these photos up on the walls" that he hasn't had time fully to consider what they will teach about Adams and O'Keeffe.

Among the proofs – which have never before been displayed – are some iconic shots of the natural beauty of the American West, with Adams's signature dramatic lighting, bold patterns, and strong contrasts. But also to be shown are portraits of his companions – including some of O'Keeffe that have never before been seen. A number were shot with an upward view in the "heroic" style that had become popular in the 1920s, Mr. Jareckie says. Others show ranch hands, native Americans, and children.

In at least one case, Adams had made a crop (printed only a portion of the negative), something that he was known to do only on rare occasions.

Like most photographers, Adams wasn't interested in putting himself in his pictures, and he is the only traveler not seen. But documented accounts of the trip, though they vary somewhat, make it unquestionable that Adams is the photographer, Jareckie says.

The proofs were made with extraordinary care as a gift to McAlpin, a close friend of Adams who financed the trip. The use of thicker paper, for example, shows Adams had a special use in mind, Jareckie says. The black-and-white prints, about 4 in. by 6 in. and mostly made with a hand-held 35mm camera, evidence the power and control Adams exhibited as a photographer, Jareckie says.

By 1937, Adams was doing some of his best work, and beginning to be acknowledged as a major American photographer. The year before, he had mounted his first solo exhibition in New York.

The proofs were loaned to the Fitchburg museum by the estate of Sally Sage McAlpin, David McAlpin's widow, who died in 2001. They were discovered in a box at her Princeton, N.J., home that contained about 300 small prints, or proofs, all from the trip.

The lenders wish to remain anonymous, Jareckie says. Though he wouldn't comment on their specific reasons, he notes that such lending practices have become more common, as lenders' concerns about personal privacy and security for the works outweigh the desire to be acknowledged.

The Center for Creative Photography, which Adams founded at the University of Arizona, is believed to have contact sheets and negatives for most of the images in the show. Several shots are similar to known Adams' works. But in most cases they represent the only known prints of these subjects ever made by Adams, whose darkroom techniques played a crucial role in the look of his finished work. The prints were done with "consummate care and concern," Jareckie says. "They aren't ordinary proofs."

• The exhibition, 'Adams and O'Keeffe on the Road,' opens Sept. 29 and runs through Jan. 12.

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