Los Altos resident Kay Payne, art history lecturer in charge of the Community Speakers’ Program for San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums, presented a retrospective of famed photographer Ansel Adams’ work for members of the Rotary Club of Los Altos Dec. 12.
“I knew my destiny when I first visited Yosemite,” said Adams, who became the unofficial champion of America’s national parks.
According to Payne, in 1916, the 14-year-old Adams received his first Kodak Brownie Box Camera. From his perch atop a crumbling tree stump in Yosemite, he unexpectedly tumbled while snapping a shot of the forest upside down – a new way of looking at nature. Every year thereafter, he returned to Yosemite, eventually composing a visual diary of its wilderness.
With his early 1921 “Lodgepole Pines” shot, Adams felt “a photo should look like a watercolor,” Payne said. Later he sought clarity, so he used a standard K2 yellow filter on Half Dome, gleaming in the sun and partly obscured in shadow. In his 1927 “Monolith,” he progressed to a red filter and reduced the exposure by a factor of 14 to enhance the tonal values, thus intensifying its emotional impact.
Adams traveled 1,200 miles through New Mexico in 1927, taking black-and-white photos. Payne said he urged his students to keep accurate records of their photographs and evaluate their compositions with large cardboard frames before wasting film. At that time, his photos sold for approximately $10, the equivalent of $160 today, Payne noted. Today his prints sell for thousands of dollars.
The father of Peter Starr, Stanford University’s famed but fallen mountain climber, asked Adams to photograph the majesty and danger of the High Sierra’s Minarets, Payne said. Adams produced a series of half-tone photographs using continuous tones from white to black to emphasize his emotional response to the wilderness. The photographer gradually developed a “zone system,” she added, to control the tonal range of his prints: technical excellence with a strong emotional interpretation. He sought a predictable result typified by radiant light. His Cadillac’s license plate touted “Zone 5,” according to Payne.
Although Adams produced approximately 3,000 color images, he felt that working in color was “like playing an untuned piano,” Payne said, for he preferred the abstract element of working in black and white. Some of his finest works, such as “El Capitan,” were shot on Polaroid Land cameras of the 1940s.
From the 1920s until his death in 1984, Adams was respected as a fervent champion of the national parks, Payne said, adding that he preferred calling them “reserves” rather than “parks,” for he felt that everyone should touch “the living rock.” He would walk for days without seeing people, cooking over a campfire and recording his impressions of untouched nature.
Mount Ansel Adams near the southeast entry to Yosemite National Park awaited its name until 1985, the first anniversary of Adams’ death.
Marlene Cowan is a member of the Rotary Club of Los Altos.