Ansel Adams is perhaps the most recognized and influential photographer of the 19th century.
His name evokes imagery of winding rivers, jagged precipices and towering mountain ranges, photographed in his signature crisp, clean method of highlighting the contrast between light and dark.
The N.C. Museum of Art presents "In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West," featuring more than 120 photographs by Adams, his predecessors and contemporaries, including George Fiske, Edward and Brett Weston and Imogen Cunningham.
"In Praise of Nature" examines the role of the Western frontier and nature's spiritual impact on photography and society from 1860 to 1960.
"Nineteenth-century western American photography reflects the ongoing struggle of a fledgling nation in search of itself in the midst of wrenching transformation from a rural into an urban and industrialized society," said John Coffey, curator of modern and American art at the NCMA. "(The exhibit) addresses the widening chasm between humanity and nature."
Always a proponent of nature, Ansel Adams sought to close this chasm. He was deeply involved in the preservation society the Sierra Club, served on its board of directors and successfully promoted the creation of a national park at King's River Canyon in California. He also lobbied presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan for nature conservation.
It was his conservation efforts, as much as his photography, that helped him attain the renown that he achieved. "I do think he was a great photographer; on the other hand, I don't think we was as great a photographer as popular imagination makes him," said Timothy Riggs, assistant director for collections at the Ackland Art Museum.
His career as a photographer was not only art, but also a crusade to save the Western frontier. Adams left his mark on the national park system - after his death in 1984, the Minarets Wilderness in California was renamed the Ansel Adams Wilderness in honor of his faithful dedication to nature conservation and preservation.
Adams recognized that through art, he could bring nature to those who could not experience it firsthand. His photographs brought the Tetons of Wyoming to Ohio, the cacti of Arizona to New York and the sand dunes of California to North Carolina.
He believed that man and nature were forever intertwined. As a photographer he strove to increase awareness of that interrelationship, saying "Today, the artist has an inescapable obligation. The world has been good to him; it has provided great beauty and deep experience . I believe photography has both a challenge and an obligation: to help us see more clearly and more deeply, and to reveal to other grandeurs and the potentials of the one and only world which we inhabit."
Adams and the other photographers featured in the exhibit attracted the nation's attention through their portrayals of the Western wilderness. "When people started moving West, these images were part of what drew them out there," said Art Taylor, assistant director of communications at the NCMA.
Born in San Francisco in 1902, Adams began his career as a photographer at an early age. After reading J.M. Hutchins' "In the Heart of the Sierras" at 14, Adams convinced his family to visit Yosemite National Park. He photographed the landscape with his first camera, a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie, and was so moved by the park's natural beauty he returned almost every year thereafter.
According to the exhibit catalog, Adams later reflected, "Since June 1916 the Sierra dominated my mind, art and spirit. It is quite impossible to explain in words this almost symbiotic relationship. My photographs must serve as the equivalents of my experiences ."
After graduating from secondary school, Adams became custodian of the Sierra Club's headquarters at Yosemite and began to study mountain photography. His early images were soft-focus and almost surreal, a reflection of the Impressionistic style seen in the paintings of Monet and Degas.
Soon Adams departed from this form and adopted the sharp focus that he would later become known for. In 1930, the publication of Adams' Taos Pueblo photos led him to choose photography as a career.
Shortly after his marriage to Virginia Best, Adams became a commercial photographer to make ends meet. He worked for companies such as Eastman-Kodak while pursuing his own interests in black-and-white photography on the side.
At this time, Adams formed the photography movement Group f/64 along with Edward Weston