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New Ansel Adams exhibit shines new light on legendary images

“Ansel Adams in Our Time,” the title of the new exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, suggests that his outdoor photographs, with ionic images of Yosemite, speak to us in some new way.

In fact, he began photographing Yosemite in 1927, when he was 14, and his crystal-clear prints look as modern today as they did decades ago.

Adams (1902-1984) was a champion of national parks and wilderness preservation, and his photographs could be persuasive. The new exhibit, which originated at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston five years ago, is naturally dominated by Adams’ prints, more than 100 of them.

In addition, recent images by more than 20 photographers are interspersed with Adams’ works. Most of them do not depict the environment as the magical place, the pristine wilderness Adams did. One photographer, in fact, set out to “de-cliché” Yosemite.

Adams’ famous, and still breathtaking, images of Yosemite are here. Among them are the majestic “Monolith — the Face of El Capitan” (1927); the misty “Clearing Winter Storm” (circa 1937); “Rain, Yosemite Valley” (1940) with El Capitan on the left; and Bridalveil Falls on the right; and the mystical “Moon and Half Dome” (1960).

Along with “Thunderstorm, Ghost Ranch, Chama River Valley” (1937) and “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941), most of Adams’ iconic images are on display, still commanding attention beyond the familiar reproductions on calendars and cards.

But Adams, born in San Francisco at the beginning of the 20th century, was a restless, adventurous photographer whose art (and freelance commercial work) took him far beyond Yosemite.

He photographed Baker Beach in San Francisco and Mount McKinley in Alaska, Fisherman’s Wharf and Death Valley, ferns near Kilauea volcano crater in Hawaii and a freeway interchange in Los Angeles.  They’re all here.

The exhibit’s extensive captions for these photographs help convey Adams’ awe at his subjects and the sometimes spontaneous, sometimes ultra-methodical way he worked. His own words help tell the story.

One of the most dramatic photographs was made not far from his house in San Francisco’s Sea Cliff neighborhood, which faced the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate. The image of the Golden Gate in 1932 — before the bridge was built — seems confounding at first without that landmark.

“One beautiful storm-clearing morning,” Adams later recalled, “I looked out the window of our San Francisco home and saw magnificent clouds rolling from the north over the Golden Gate. I grabbed the equipment and drove to the end of 32nd Avenue, at the edge of Sea Cliff. I dashed along the old Cliff House railroad bed for a distance, then down to the crest of a promontory. From there a grand view of the Golden Gate commanded me to set up the heavy tripod, attach the camera and lens, and focus on the wonderful evolving landscape of clouds.”

Note that Adams said the view “commanded” him where to set up the camera.

“Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California,” came 12 years later, capturing a scene that eluded him in other seasons. He set up his equipment in total darkness and waited for the sun to rise, a sliver of light barely illuminated the town.

“Sometimes,” he later reflected, “I think I do get to places just when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter!”

The Sierra Nevada, Yosemite Valley, the Golden Gate — magnificent subjects, but Adams also made photographs of the less grandiose.  A stack of anchors at Fisherman’s Wharf in 1931 — when there were more fishermen than tourists — drew his attention. The image was included in his 1936 one-man show at the prestigious Stieglitz Gallery in New York.

Also in San Francisco, around 1936, he explored the ruins of Laurel Hill Cemetery, focusing on two headstones that had collected rain, one “To Little Emma,” the other honoring Samuel Pincott. The remains were being moved to a cemetery in Colma; the site is now a nondescript neighborhood in the Richmond District. Adams preserved the past in precise detail.

His “environmental” statements also include a marble statue of a mournful woman at Sunnyside Cemetery in Long Beach, against a backdrop of what could be church steeples or tree tops — but turn out to be oil derricks.

In the mid-1960s he photographed, from a distance, the new subdivisions that were snaking across San Bruno Mountain south of San Francisco.

The exhibit’s curators, Lauren Palmor of the de Young and Karen Haas of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, have chosen images by more recent photographers to act “in conversation” with Adams’ work. Sometimes they continue his type of pictorialism, sometimes they counteract it.

Among the notable recent additions are four of Richard Misrach’s images of the Golden Gate and the sky above it, photographed at various times from the porch of his home in the Berkeley hills in 1999-2000.

Another standout is Mitch Epstein’s 2007 “Altamont Pass Wind Farm,” with parched grassland in the background contrasting with the bright green golf course up front. Somehow, the four golfers depicted look like plastic figures set down in a developer’s model of the future.


‘ANSEL ADAMS IN OUR TIME’

Through: July 23

Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

Hours: 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday

Admission: $17-$32; 415-750-3600, famsf.org

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