Great art, even good art, can be revisited for a lifetime. See it once and you haven't seen it all.
Which is why I never tire of Ansel Adams' photographs though some have been known to me since childhood.
Fifty-three of them crowd the walls of the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, all but one from a portfolio Adams (1902-1984) printed for his daughter, Anne, in the 1970s. They were his choices, out of the thousands of images he made during his lifetime, for those he thought were his best.
I'm not arguing; no favorite of mine has been omitted.
Adams also seemed to want a broad representation chronologically and thematically. His preferred subjects were those without faces (unless you count a rock face), yet this collection is dotted with a few sensitive and telling portraits of people.
He included Lodgepole Pines, Lyell Fork of the Mercer River (1921) not because it was one of his most memorable shots but because it was one of his earliest as a professional photographer. It is unlike the Adams we know, he of the crisp delineations, taken instead with a soft focus popularized by Alfred Stieglitz, who was trying to elevate photography to an art form.
It's one of his earliest professional works, though he hadn't committed himself to photography as a career. He was an excellent pianist and believed his future was with the concert circuit. Adams' love of music was muted slightly in 1916 during a family trip to Yosemite National Park, several hours east of his home in San Francisco, which was a transformative event for him.
"It was glorious," he later wrote, "One wonder after another. . . . There was light everywhere. A new era began for me."
On that trip he recorded the park with a Kodak Brownie. He returned the next year with a better camera, and every year thereafter, learning mountaineering, becoming a member of the Sierra Club and, from 1920 to 1924, acting as the caretaker of its summer visitor center.
Yosemite remained a touchstone for him for the rest of his life, and photography at first seemed more a vehicle to record his passion for it than a commitment to the craft itself.
We see from three examples in this show that by 1927, Adams was hitting his stride visually. Monolith, the Face of Half Dome is one of his greatest works, shot when he was 25. The giant granite slab rises from the snow, and on top of the dome, a dusting of more snow creates a slim line that separates its silhouette from the sky, which Adams knew would print darker if he used a red filter, adding drama.
It's an example of what he called visualization, in which he was able to see exactly what the final image would look like, mentally calculating the exposure time, processing the negative and creating the print in his head before he clicked the shutter. The result was a breakthrough in which Adams merged his emotional and spiritual response to beauty with an intellectual, scientific control of its representation.
In this digital era in which we can record hundreds of shots in minutes, almost guaranteeing that at least one of them will be good, we need to remember that nothing about making a photograph in Adams' era was quick or automatic. Equipment was cumbersome and darkroom prowess was as important as the field work, as well as being expensive to set up.
Fortunately for the history of photography, as he was becoming more adept behind the lens and in the darkroom, he was coming to terms with the probability that he wasn't talented enough as a musician to reach the upper tier of soloists.
We know the rest of the story, at least the parts that are important to us: the works. He, more than anyone else, etched the beauty of our greatest national parks on the public's collective mind, spurring both major conservation efforts and (perhaps at cross purposes) a booming tourism industry.
He began branching out, finding other sites to love in other parts of the United States, but nothing compared to the grandeur of his West. Its topographic drama was suited to the cerebral process that yielded such exquisite tonal variations — another mental calculation done on the fly dealing with exposure times that he called the Zone System — in later prints such as Sand Dunes, Oceano (ca. 1950), which reads visually as a study in abstract planes going from black to white.
Another reminder about the difference between then and now: For most of Adams' career, photography was not viewed as high-level art. Even by the 1960s, when Adams was a respected and successful photographer, few galleries not dedicated exclusively to the medium would mix it with paintings. By 1974, a shift in attitude was clear when the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a large retrospective of Adams' work.
Some biographers suggest that Adams' most creative period was between 1930 and 1950. Those were rich decades indeed as this exhibition demonstrates: Rose and Driftwood (1932), a composed still life with three-dimensional texture . . . Surf Sequence (1940), an innovative group of 40 photos of surf and sand taken consecutively that has drawn comparisons to a musical sequence . . . Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941), his masterpiece that captures the moment hovering between day and night.
The final 10 years of his life were certainly not especially creative. They were spent reaping the rewards of his now-acknowledged talent. The demand for his prints was so great that he stopped taking new orders for them in 1975 and needed three years to fill the backlog. He received honorary doctorates from Yale and Harvard. He wrote an autobiography. His work entered major museum collections. President Jimmy Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.
Since the question of his greatness is now rhetorical and the best arguments for it already made, I find other questions to ask.
Consider Moon and Half Dome (1960), taken 37 years after the first Half Dome portrait. I would say that the early one is more interesting in the way it compresses the formation. The later one is a truer version of how we would describe its shape and the way we would probably remember it, with both sun and shadow. But he resurrects that hovering moon, nothing new, so points off there.
Yet he's just so good, even when he is, perhaps, bereft of inspiration. We know he continued to visit his beloved Yosemite even after he put his camera down. Maybe it was time to start seeing it again as he first saw it, recorded on the unfiltered lens of his eyes and imprinted only on his memory.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.