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'Ansel Adams: The Masterworks' a Collection of Images the Artist Selected Himself

The Columbus Museum has a collection of Ansel Adams' greatest works on display through December.

If you're still reading, it means you're not already in your car headed to the museum, which must mean a bit more information is needed to elucidate the appropriate reaction after receiving this news.

Ansel Adams was an American photographer and environmentalist who changed the photography medium forever by photographing images of the American West. Or so we thought. It turns out he actually photographed much, much more than the West, and he created his images in such a way that his work continues to capture the attention of viewers across the globe nearly one hundred years later.

To better understand the impact of Adams' work and the importance of this new exhibit, we met with Dr. Jonathan Walz, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of American Art at The Columbus Museum. Walz gave us a personal tour of the exhibit and shared his approach to curating an experience that goes above and beyond expectations for experts and the average visitor alike.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Due to copyright laws regarding the images specifically in this collection, photographs of the works themselves could not be shared. To see the images discussed in this exhibit, visit The Columbus Museum located at 1251 Wynnton Road.

Q: What can you tell us about this collection of Adams' Masterworks?

A: This is a selection of 30 photographs from a private selection. The collector is actually the artist's granddaughter. At the end of his life, Adams made what he called "museum sets" for friends and family. That is what this show is- one of those museum sets. Every single one of these images were hand-printed. They were all images that he felt strongly about. We are seeing some of his selection process and what he thought was important from his body of work."

The project was organized by the Booth Museum in Cartersville. This is only the second time this collection has been shown in the state. We're proud to have this semi-exclusive opportunity to show the work.

Adams is really known for images of Yosemite and broader than that, the West. This show is different. While he's known for those classic images of the West, there are many images of other places in this collection. We see images of Utah and Arizona, Massachusetts, California. So it's not what one might expect when coming to see the work of Adams. It's very interesting to think about the fact that he chose this collection of work himself.

Q: Fascinating. Now, when you say "museum set" what exactly are you referring to when using that term? 

A: A museum set is kind of like a portfolio chosen by the artist and passed down. I would imagine that these sets were all the same. He used his original negatives to create these portfolios for his friends and family. 

Q: What a special part of his legacy. Is that a common thing for artists to do?

A: They may exist in other examples, but I've only really ever heard of it in terms of Alfred Stieglitz who sort of when he was thinking about his legacy, he went through his body of work and made the definitive print for each of his images. What we see here is similar, but as he made these sets, I think Adams was thinking about the people who had supported him the most during his career.

Q: What types of images did he choose for this collection?

A: Adams is not just an artist, but he is also an environmentalist. Those two things really come together in this collection. Often times, the places he was traveling to were very remote. The only way you would be able to get to them was by camping out. He was lugging all of his equipment to all of these really remote places to get these images. 

He first visited Yosemite for the first time when he was 16, and visited almost every year for the rest of his life. He is very knowledgable about what the sun is going to do and when the trees are going to turn. He knew so much about the natural rhythms of these landscapes because he was so invested in them.

On top of just knowing the natural rhythms of the places he visited, he also took notes about going at particular times to get particular effects.

He's known as a proponent of what's now called "straight photography" which means that you take the image and that's it. You don't play with the negative, you don't play with the print. You're not retouching it at all. You're grabbing the image and that's it. If you don't get the shot, you just don't get it.

It's really remarkable when we look at this show and try to envision all of these things coming together at the perfect moment to get the image we're seeing. Adams was an innovator in terms of photography. He certainly was someone who helped photography as a medium to become an art form in the 20th century.

Q: What else can we learn about Adams from these images he chose?

A: I think it's helpful for visitors to know that he took on commercial work at times. This is important because of the limitations of that commercial work, and how they helped him to hone his style and technique. There are a few portraits in this show, which is very unusual for him. His work photographing portraits, architecture, and still life images for commercial purposes really taught him valuable lessons. I think we really see those lessons bearing fruit in the portraits from this series.

Q: Interesting. How so?

A: There is a portrait of children in a trailer park. It's just haunting. Without that commercial experience, I don't know that he would have been able to capture the spirit that present in that image. He certainly didn't "lose" anything when taking commercial work. He thought of it as taking time away from his craft, but in this series of images we can see the way it benefited him.

Q: I am amazed at the variety of the images represented in this collection. I expected landscapes, but there is so much more included.

A: Yes. I'm hoping that when people view this collection they will not just think about the subject matter, but the fact that he really is someone who codifies how to take a professional photograph and how to develop it. He came up with the zone system which has to do with how to develop contrast. He was never really a formal teacher, but he did mentor people and through that he created reproducible and understandable ways of working in the dark room. They are a part of his legacy that are illustrated in these images.

Q: Interesting. How can we "see" it?

A: Well, by looking at the images and noticing that there is every single shade between black and white present in the image. That is partly because he developed them using the zone system. Things get darker the longer you keep the image in the bath, so he's got this method kind of figured out about exactly what the right moment is to pull it out of the bath. He's not just capturing the negative, he's working hard in the dark room to achieve the desired level of development as well.

Q: How have you curated the show to illustrate the influences represented in this collection?

A: What I've tried to do with the labels is to compliment the work. The images are so powerful, so I didn't want to distract from that. There are four or five that I did want to try to contextualize things a bit further for our visitors.

This is a great example. Here we have Adams' image of Saint Francis Church, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, c. 1929.  It's iconic. In 1929, Adams and O'Keefe were both invited to Taos by Mabel Dodge Luhan, and they meet there for the first time. While they're there, they both made the pilgrimage to this site (Ranchos de Taos), so there's a real dialogue going on here between them. 

This building has become an icon of American Modernism both because it's native in a sense, but it also reflects that 20's streamlined, Art Deco, paired down silhouette that we associate with that time. Both Adams and O'Keefe are interpreting this iconic building through their own lenses of American Modernism - Adams in this image, and O'Keefe in this painting we've included here. It's really fascinating. I really wanted to emphasize that Adams was not this lone wolf. While he was on the West Coast and more isolated than the New York photographers, he still had very deep connections with other important artists for the rest of his life. We see this first with O'Keefe here, but then also with Alfred Sieglitz who he idolized as a photographer and went on to develop a close friendship with not long after this in 1936. That meeting in '36 led to him being given a show at Sieglitz' art gallery in New York. 

Q: All of this context is so fascinating. 

A: It might seem odd that I've included all of this for one photograph, but if we scratch past the surface we can find so much.

If folks are showing up and thinking they're going to see images of the Sierra Nevadas and other natural landscapes, this offers them something just a bit different. I think this collection of images and the network of connections they often represent, are very important to understanding who Adams was as an artist and a person. ◼︎

A Tip for Parents of Small Children:

This is the perfect exhibit to introduce your child to excellent photography. The Columbus Museum has put together a children's guide to the exhibit. Simply take a copy at the beginning of the exhibit and work through it together with your child.  Copies of the guide can be found at the top of the stairs to the right of the exhibit entrance. Don't forget to bring a pencil!


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