The Far-Away Look In Her Eyes

The Independent looks at the work of Ansel Adams and discovers that there is indeed, some there there.

Often criticized because his work seemed to be simply pretty without content, Adams was (and still is) unmatched in his technical skill. His invention of the Zone System revolutionized black and white photography at the time. Photographers today still refer to him, half-jokingly, as "St. Ansel". It's not an exaggeration to say that he has influenced every serious photographer to follow him. He's certainly the most popular photographer ever.

A great deal of the criticism that he took during his lifetime had to do with the fact that he was not a 'socially engaged' photographer, and that he didn't address the crises and changes that America was going through at the time (unlike, say, Dorthea Lange or Walker Evans).

But Adams did have a social agenda -- to document and preserve the open spaces of the American West, before it fell prey to the encroachments of man. I suspect that as a native Californian of the early 20th century, Adams instinctively understood that the mountains and scenescapes that he loved would eventually succumb to the pressures of development and the United States' inevitable western migration.

In 1943, perhaps in part to answer his critics, Adams did something incredibly brave: he went to Manzanar.

Manzanar was one of the Japanese-American internment camps set up in central California.

The following year he published the Manzanar photographs in a book he titled Born Free and Equal.

The photographs are something of a departure from his idiom, and I don't think that anyone would call them exemplars of his art. But they have an arresting simplicity and straightforwardness that serves his purpose well. These are Americans, he's saying, yet their American dream has been denied.

To the best of my knowledge, Adams was the only American artist of any sort to ever visit an internment camp. That, I think, says more about the artist and the man than 10,000 volumes of art criticism ever could.