The Loudest Silence: Ansel Adams’ Art of the Print

By Kelly Lydick

Image Credit: Photograph by Ansel Adams – © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Before Ansel Adams discovered photography, his interest was in piano. Beginning around age 12, and with the help of his neighbor Henry Cowell (who would later become a famous composer), Adams was determined to become a performance pianist—until a visit to Yosemite National Park in 1916 with his family changed the course of his life. Unknowingly at the time, the park would later become home to Adams’ annual photography workshops, and draw thousands of visitors.

Yosemite was established in October of 1890 after advocacy from environmentalist John Muir and became America’s third national park. Home to the largest granite monolith in the U.S., El Capitan, Yosemite would become a place to which Adams would frequently return throughout his career.

One of his most famous prints, a mural-sized print of the single frame “Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park” fetched a whopping $722,500 at a 2010 Sotheby’s auction. The image is a stunning view of El Capitan shrouded in cloud cover cradled by the valley below, emitting an etheric glow that seems to stop time altogether. Its towering height thunders over the valley, showing an array of light values and depth. This is the essence of Adams’ images.

On display through June 6, 2021, Ansel Adams: Performing the Print gives viewers an inside look at the iconic photographer’s darkroom techniques and the ways in which an image can be interpreted through printing techniques. Adams famously once said that “the photographic negative is like a composer’s score, and the print a performance,” an homage to his early days at the piano. Adams carried this philosophy through each print that he had ever made; each is an artifact unto its own.

The exhibition is curated from the Ansel Adams Archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson, the carefully chosen prints are arranged side-by-side to show the varying techniques and effort put into each silver gelatin print. A slow deliberateness can be noted in the subtleties of each. He would employ the strategic use of burning and dodging to heighten high-contrast negatives for a more dramatic effect.

Much like a game of “Can You Spot the Difference?” these images evoke questions about time, place, and the meaning of a single image. “Dodging and burning,” Adams has said, “are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”

Arches, North Court, Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona (1968), shows a dramatic difference in the ways that light cascades onto the building’s façade. The burning of the top edge heightens contrast, and brightens the archways of the lower level’s entry. A single cloud hides behind the dome like a pause in the musical score of time that narrates this structure’s history.

Winter Sunrise (1944), the largest print on display in the exhibition, catches a glimpse of the Sierra Nevada mountains range from Lone Pine, California. The two images on display appear as single frames from what the viewer can imagine as a long, time lapse movie, the clouds rolling overhead, the shadows dancing across the craggy surfaces of the mountain’s ridges, the trees below ranging from hidden to spotlighted as if they were part of a stage performance.

In one print, the foothills below are dark, in the other they are darker. One displays the soft wisps of small clouds that surround the highest peak in the top left quadrant, and in the other, they are nearly invisible, burned into the sky behind them. The craft in these prints is the way in which they evoke mood: an existential awareness of the magnitude and power of the Earth.

Although known for his landscapes, the exhibition also includes portraits, carefully framed and cropped to highlight mood in an innovative way. Adams proves through these images that the musical qualities we can attribute to the land, are also true in the myriad of ways one’s relationship to the land—and to life—can be captured on film. Adams leaves to the viewer’s own mind the soundtrack to which each of these images play.

A lifetime innovator, Adams’s contributions to visual art (photography in particular) are far reaching. A co-founder of the magazine Aperture, developer of the Zone System for calibrating light values in photography, and founder of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Adam’s legacy preceded him. He once said: “I am sure the next step will be the electronic image, and I hope I shall live to see it. I trust that the creative eye will continue to function, whatever technological innovations may develop.”

Exhibition Details

Phoenix Art museum

Jan. 11, 2021-June 6, 2021

In the Norton Photography Gallery on loan from the Ansel Adams Archive @ The Center for Creative Photography at University of Arizona, Tuscon


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