'You are there' intimacy of Ansel Adams

We all know them Â- we've seen reproductions of Ansel Adams photographs in books, on postcards, in magazines, and on the walls of businesses and museums.

They are synonymous with the American West and American high-art photography. But how many of us know the man behind the camera? A remarkable TV documentary by Ric Burns, "Ansel Adams," a tribute to Earth Day (PBS, April 21, 9-10:30 p.m., check local listings), fills in the blanks.

It does more than just tell Adams's story Â- the film puts in motion many of the same sites Adams froze in time, and thus attains a kind of "you are there" intimacy. Mr. Burns gets behind Adams's spectacular images of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada Mountains to grapple with his creative process Â- and, behind that, to the spiritual impulses of his art.

The film introduces us to the young Ansel, who was born in 1902 in San Francisco Â- a place still rapturously beautiful and wild. Ansel, too, was wild Â- both precocious and unschoolable. He couldn't sit still for the kind of discipline popular in the period. But he was blessed with a father who understood him and did not try to press him into the public-school mold. He hired tutors for Ansel and let him roam the hills and valleys nearby as much as the young loner desired.

When young Ansel discovered the piano, his life changed radically. Music focused his vast intelligence and disciplined his mind and behavior. Until he was a teenager, Ansel was certain the life of a concert pianist was for him.

But while carrying a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie camera, he found Yosemite. "I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite," Adams wrote later.

Like many another artist before him, his development came in bursts of inspiration. The real breakthrough was "Monolith, the Face of Half-Dome," which he shot on his last photographic plate with a dark red filter over the lens after a long and arduous hike. That stunning photograph was the leap forward he needed.

A perfectionist, he spent hours in the dark-room, manipulating his prints until they were perfect.

He married Virginia Best, and the couple had two children. She was his rock, his anchor in a stormy world. Alfred Stieglitz honored him with a one-man show at his famous gallery, An American Place. But while Ansel was preparing for that show in 1936, he fell in love with his beautiful young assistant. He could not leave his family, but the strain of overwork and thwarted desire led to a breakdown.

Still, out of that experience, he learned something of the true nature of life. A year later, he wrote to a male friend, "For the first time in my life, I know what love is, what friends are, and what art should be. Love is searching for a way of life that cannot be followed alone Â- the residence of all spiritual and physical things. Friendship is another form of love ... full of the transmitting and accepting of many things Â- like thunder clouds, and grass and the clean granite of reality...."

Comments filmmaker Burns: "His hard-won ethical depth and decency is so moving and so unusual in an artist of his stature."

It is too often the case that the concentration, strong ego, and focus of making works of art becomes an excuse for self-indulgence and license, Burns says.

Adams "wasn't perfect, but when it came to the most important choices, he managed to pull back, and his art did not suffer."

"On the contrary, it deepened his art. It was part of one long commitment to things outside the self.... It was so moving to see his struggle ... and humbling. He found a way back to what was fundamental."

Adams saw order and beauty and meaning out in the world, Burns says, in something larger than himself. One of the most important things art can do is help us see our lives objectively, and Adams' pictures do that, he says. But they also offer transcendence Â- stylistically these photographs make equivalents of the inner world, he says.

After the events of 1936, Adams returned to Yosemite with his family, and his greatest pictures followed. Later in life, he became a teacher and conservationist. His pictures helped save the park he loved so much. Congress set aside the Ansel Adams Wilderness in his honor.

Adams also preserved the wilderness in the American imagination. Looking at those incandescent pictures, knowing the intensity of feeling and discipline behind them, is to feel a "swelling of the soul," Burns says. "The world is good, and we are all part of it."

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