A Peak Affair: “Ansel Adams at 100” at SFMOMA

“Bishops Pass, Kings River Canyon, 1936,” part of “Ansel Adams at 100” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

I like my mountains to look like men — rugged, hard-bodied, and a challenge to mount. When I see a peak, I see potential routes up to a dramatic climax. The more difficult the climb, the more orgasmic the experience. Of course, prior to any attempt at conquest, the way up must be carefully surveyed, so typically I accord photographs of peaks, whether in mountaineering journals or on the walls of SFMOMA, the same loving scrutiny straight men give pictures of Playboy models. While I’m at it, I also closely inspect the surroundings — the windblown trees, the ice-encrusted streams, the lichen-covered stones — as any man will do in the boudoir of his lover.

Ansel Adams has provided more mountain centerfolds than probably any mountaineering/nature photographer ever, and you can see them all nicely (i.e. conservatively) displayed at the SFMOMA exhibition, Ansel Adams at 100, which opened August 4 and runs through January 13. The work was curated by a great eminence in the photo-art world, John Szarkowski, who was director of the photography department of New Yorks MoMA from 1962-1991.

In his prime, when Adams was most active in the outdoors, he brought a zest for mountaineering to his photographic work, and consistently turned out images of superior technical quality as pure, pristine and crystal clear as the wilderness landscapes themselves, as Adams demanded. He was a master technician, and the key to his success was not just in being the first to photograph a particular peak, but the one who captured the best shots of those peaks, and then developed his prints to the highest possible standards of perfection. His forms are sleek, sensuous, seductive, and presented in all their naked glory at SFMOMA. Adams loved those Sierra Nevada peaks I imagine as women, if he sexualized them at all and worked tirelessly at capturing every nuance of their delicate, subtle forms. Seeing his original prints spread out with great dignity and formality on the walls of SFMOMA reminded me, for some odd reason, of classy peep shows where one views gorgeous body after gorgeous body, the display of beauty leaving you panting.

At times I also like my mountains soft and willowy, warm and completely enfolding. That sort of temperament can only be come upon by chance in the great outdoors, and capturing it on film is an art of the highest order. Adams routinely captured that and countless other mountain moods, as well or probably better than any mountaineering photographer before or since. His name is revered in circles of mountaineering photographers, virtually all of whom in the past 60 years or so owe a debt to Adams. He, more than anyone except writer/naturalist John Muir, conveyed the character of mountains in a way that moved people both spiritually and emotionally, without hammering them over the head with religion. Especially in the early years of his long career, he was exquisitely subtle in his mountain portrayals; in his renderings you could perceive traces of femininity and masculinity where others found only stone and wind-swept vistas.

The problem with Ansel Adams is that his work has become thoroughly cliched and cheapened in value through gross overexposure especially because his images have spread widely among those who have little or no personal connection with the places Adams worshipped. His art is not abstract, it’s enormously concrete, attempting to signify universal truths through attention to specific places and objects. He, like Muir, treated the wilderness as a spiritual home, and mountains as cathedrals. He worshipped idols.

Adams was conflicted, like so many conservationists of his day. On the one hand he worked taking photographs for mining companies and other industrial interests. At the same time, he worked to preserve and protect the wild places he truly love. His art developed to its fine degree because he was driven, as all mountaineers are, to conquer peak after peak, to be the first to a lofty place from which he could look out across creation and claim it as his own. But while his friends and contemporaries David Brower, Dick Leonard, Glen Dawson, and Bestor Robinson were making all the notable first ascents, Adams was making the even more notable and enduring images of the peaks being conquered.

To truly appreciate Adams, you must appreciate how difficult it was, especially in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, to journey deep into the Sierra, often with pack mules and a hundred or so fellow backpackers on a Sierra Club outing, carrying a full load of photographic gear. You must be familiar with the old Sierra Club Bulletins in which Adams work first appeared, with their quaint mountaineering essays and black-and-white plates. You must know that Adams tangled famously with his editor at the Sierra Club, David Brower, who was as wildly liberal and daring in his way of doing things as Adams was conservative and cautious. Together they rocked the conservation world, built a lasting environmental movement, and carried on the spirit of John Muir.

While I adore all the Adams images now on display at SFMOMAs big centennial retrospective of the San Francisco natives work (Adams was born here in 1902), and appreciate them being nicely organized in one section of the museums 4th floor, in that sterile environment, they dont generate a lot of heat. Its hard to look at Adams photographs there without thinking about the publishing/marketing decisions that have led to Adams photographs being massively reproduced and disseminated for decades, so out of context so out of touch with the wilderness realm that inspired them that today they work almost as much as nostalgic kitsch as inspiration.


This article originally appeared in the August 9, 2001 edition of the Bay Area Reporter