15anseladams photo mga
By Betsy Taylor
ST. LOUIS — Ansel Adams’ photos of the American West, with their majestic sweep and wondrous use of light, have so captured the public’s attention that they’ve crossed over from being celebrated pictures to iconic images.
But what if you were an 8-year-old boy who had been along for the ride while the pictures were being shot?
Adams’ son, Michael, lugged gear and hiked with his father when the legendary photographer took some of his famous works. He recently walked through a new gallery show opening at Washington University in St. Louis, called "Ansel Adams: Reverence for Life," to talk about his memories of his father, who died in 1984 at age 82, and his work.
Michael Adams, 73, is a mostly retired doctor of internal medicine who lives in Carmel Highlands, Calif. He graduated from the Washington University School of Medicine in 1967, and his ties to the school were instrumental in developing the new exhibition. The show, which draws on photos from the family’s own collections and was curated by Michael Adams’ wife, Jeanne Falk Adams, will be on view at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum through July 15.
The roughly 60 photos are divided into two sections, with works on the main floor providing an overview of the photographer’s life and pictures. A second-floor gallery includes images related to water, from desert to ocean photos.
But walk through with Michael Adams, and he’ll share the back stories to some of his father’s most highly regarded works. He pauses by "Monolith, the Face of Half Dome" from 1927, of the granite formation that rises more than 4,000 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley. Michael Adams wasn’t with his dad when Ansel Adams photographed this one, but he knows its significance.
"It pretty much changed his idea of what he was going to do for the rest of his life," Michael Adams said.
Born in 1902, Ansel Adams didn’t have much success with formal schooling, but excelled at the piano and considered a career as a professional pianist. A bad cold in 1916 helped to change everything. The bedridden boy’s aunt gave him a copy of James M. Hutchings’ "In the Heart of the Sierras," a travel account of California’s Yosemite Valley. Later that year, his family vacationed in Yosemite National Park and his parents gave him a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie camera.
Ansel Adams would return to Yosemite every year for the rest of his life. Michael Adams said his father considered this famous photo of Half Dome his first successful visualization, a term he used to describe the process where a photographer thinks through his decisions from exposure of the negative to the final print to interpret the scene.
Ansel Adams waited for just the right light and first used a yellow filter on his lens for the picture. But because he wanted "the looming cliff outlined against a dark sky" and "the snow-covered Tenaya Peak sharply etched in the distance," he switched to a deep-red filter for a more dramatic interpretation and calculated an increase in exposure, wrote author Jonathan Spaulding in the book "Ansel Adams and the American Landscape."
He didn’t want to duplicate reality, but depart from it to create, using the art of photography, Spaulding wrote.
Michael Adams said his dad was frequently away for work, but on some trips the boy came along and observed his father’s method.
"He was very concentrated on the project," Michael Adams said. "This wasn’t a snapshot-like performance. He knew what he wanted, often before he got there — the prepared mind, in a sense."
Michael Adams and one of his father’s friends were there when Adams shot "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," a photo featuring crosses from the town’s church and graveyard illuminated by the setting sun as the moon rises over a band of clouds and the Sangre de Cristo mountain range.
"He saw this image and swerved across the road," Michael Adams said. "I remember the rush, rush, rush." They jumped out of the car and Adams couldn’t find his light meter, but gauged the luminance of the moon, and adjusted accordingly. He captured just one shot with the light the way he wanted it. It truly is one-of-a-kind."