The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will commemorate the centennial of the birth of photographer Ansel Adams (1902–1984) with Ansel Adams at 100, on view at the Museum from August 4, 2001, through January 13, 2002. Although his work has been more widely exhibited than perhaps any artist in the 20th century, Adams’ oeuvre has not been fundamentally reevaluated since his death in 1984. Organized by guest curator John Szarkowski, director emeritus of the Department of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Ansel Adams at 100 presents an aesthetic reappraisal of Ansel Adams as an artist and working photographer by bringing together 114 of Adams’ finest photographs, represented by exemplary prints drawn from important public and private collections of Adams’ work. According to Szarkowski, “Ansel Adams was one of the great photographers of this century. He was also one of the best-loved spokesmen for the obligations we owe to the natural world. It has been easy to confuse the related but distinct achievements that earned him these twin honors. The subject of the exhibition and catalogue for his centennial year will be Adams the artist.”
According to Sandra Phillips, senior curator of photography at SFMOMA, “We are delighted to host the official Ansel Adams centennial exhibition here. John Szarkowski is a distinguished and highly original curator who is assembling a compelling reconsideration of this prominent photographer, so central to our understanding of American photography and so great a presence, even today, in any discussion of the Western landscape tradition. Ansel Adams at 100 should give viewers a deeper understanding of Adams as an artist. We are grateful to Hewlett-Packard for their generous support in making this exhibition possible.”
Ansel Adams has become a monumental figure in popular culture. Yet, despite his creation of thousands of photographs and an immense range of publications, Adams’ signal contribution to the development of modern photography has ironically been obscured by his popularity. While Adams is widely recognized for such classic photographs as Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, 1927, and Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, this exhibition—drawn largely from the first part of his career, the ’20s to the ’40s—situates such icons within the context of an unexpected and unfamiliar body of photographs that affirms Adams’ contribution to 20th-century art.
From a centenary vantage point, it is clear that one of Adams’ primary accomplishments was to revise the public’s thinking about landscape. As Szarkowski writes in the companion book, “Adams’ pictures . . . demonstrate that even in the great theatrical diorama of Yosemite, the mountains are no more miraculous than a few blades of grass floating on good water. His pictures have enlarged our visceral knowledge of things that we do not understand.” Although he devoted a lifetime to the cause of wilderness preservation, “Adams did not photograph the landscape as a matter of social service, but as a form of private worship. It was his own soul that he was trying to save. . . . Ansel Adams’ great work was done under the stimulus of a profound and mystical experience of the natural world.” After a camping trip in the High Sierra in the 20s, Adams later recalled, “I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light . . . I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds steaming above the peaks.” Using this moment of vision as a touchstone for understanding Adams’ impetus to capture the American West, Szarkowski argues that, “Adams spent the next quarter century trying to make a photograph that would give objective form to this sense of ineffable knowledge.”
One of San Francisco’s most famous citizens, Ansel Adams was born in the city in 1902, lived there for 60 years and spent the last two decades of his life in Northern California. As a youth he first photographed Yosemite Valley with a Kodak Brownie box camera, and Yosemite became the lifelong subject for which he is best known. In 1932 Adams helped found Group f/64, an affiliation of Bay Area artists—including Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston—committed to promoting photographic expression in a pure, modernist vein. In his later life, Adams became an important educator and proselytizer for the medium of photography, an advocate for the Sierra Club and America’s best-known environmentalist and the author of numerous publications on photographic technique.
Adams was one of the driving forces behind the photography program at SFMOMA from the time of the Museum’s establishment in 1935. He was cofounder of the world’s first museum department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1979, Szarkowski, working closely with the photographer, organized the exhibition Ansel Adams and the West at MoMA. Devoted to preserving the high quality of photographic reproductions in books and other publications throughout his career, Adams established the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust in 1975 in order to ensure that these standards would continue to be applied in the production of books and publications after his death. Ansel Adams at 100 is being organized with the cooperation of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust and the Adams family.
SFMOMA’s Education Department will present extensive interpretive programs, public lectures and events to further enhance the visitor’s experience of the exhibition. The programs will be implemented at SFMOMA, on the Web and at schools throughout the Bay Area. One outstanding feature of the educational effort is a multimedia program—to be accessible at in-gallery kiosks and online at www.sfmoma.org—that will provide an in-depth exploration of key works and ideas represented in Ansel Adams at 100. In addition, Antenna Audio has produced an informative audio tour using the latest MP3 technology. The audio guide is available for $5; SFMOMA members, students and seniors receive the discounted rate of $4.
To mark the 100th anniversary of Adams’ birth and coincide with the opening of the exhibition, Little, Brown and Company—the exclusive publisher of the work of Ansel Adams—will release Ansel Adams at 100. Written and edited by Szarkowski, this definitive volume on the artist and his work features prints that have been meticulously reproduced for the book under the supervision of Richard Benson—dean of the Yale University School of Art, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and a pivotal figure in recent advances in photographic production—and printed on specially made French paper. Bound in natural linen cloth with a matching slipcase, the oversized, 192-page book has been designed by the award-winning J. Abbott Miller of Pentagram Design. Featuring 114 tritone and 23 duotone illustrations and a frameable reproduction print of an Adams photograph, complete with facsimile signature, Ansel Adams at 100 is priced at $150. A paperback version of the catalogue will be available for $50. The catalogue and related Adams publications will be available at the SFMOMA MuseumStore and online at www.sfmoma.org.
The exhibition’s presentation at SFMOMA will be followed by a prestigious international tour; venues include the Art Institute of Chicago (February 20 to June 2, 2002); Hayward Gallery, London (July 4 to September 22, 2002); Kunstbibliothek, Berlin (October 10, 2002, to January 5, 2003); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (February 2 to April 27, 2003); and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (July 9 to November 4, 2003).
Ansel Adams at 100 is made possible by Hewlett-Packard.