Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Photographer as Environmentalist

“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.”
Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams who is universally recognized as one of America’s greatest photographer’s was also a committed environmentalist.

Through his involvement the Sierra Club, of which he was a director for 37 years, he was instrumental in the creation of the Kings Canyon National Park. Utilizing his photographic skills, the 36 year old Adams produced the 1938 limited-edition book, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail which influenced both United States Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and President Franklin Roosevelt to embrace the idea and two years later proclaim the park.

Adams was 14 when he first visited the Yosemite National Park and took his first photographs with a Kodak Brownie Box Camera of "the splendor of Yosemite [that] burst upon us and it was glorious.” Every year for the rest of his life Adams was to visit and photograph the park that became synonymous with his name.

Whilst the photographs Adam’s took there such as his 1927 image Monolith, The Face of Half Dome were to build his fame none were taken to espouse his environmental awareness. As he lamented in a 1984 interview with Milton Esterow “I wish I had gotten into the environmental work earlier because I think that's a citizen's fundamental responsibility. The channeling of creative arts in that direction has been very difficult… I never made a picture with a direct environmental objective, but if they can be used for that, that's fine.

One such picture did achieve that objective. As he recalled “I made a photograph in 1939 of a cemetery statue and oil derricks in Long Beach, California. At that time we'd all been bitten by the Surrealist bug, and we were finding incongruous juxtapositions everywhere. I was out near Long Beach and drove by a cemetery, and here was this white marble angel of death behind some oil derricks. Well, it was a very strange juxtaposition, so I made the picture. Years later I showed it to an environmentalist. "Oh, my gosh," he said, "Where’s that photograph been? That's the whole symbol of pollution." So that photograph has been used on many occasions as a symbolic illustration: the angel of death before the polluters.

And about Ronald Regan’s presidency Adam’s was particularly disappointed, stating “Well, it boils down to the fact that the world is in a state of potential destruction. There's no use worrying about anything else. The evidence of the destruction is in the pollution of the natural resources. With the Reagan Administration, especially when James Watt was secretary of the interior, the attitude has been terrible, completely exploitative.

An attitude that goes against that he learned from his father, who he said instilled “A kind of conscience. I hate to use this funny word, but a "service" conscience, I guess, would describe it. Being useful and contributing. That's why I've had this continuous interest in the environment and in the advance of photography.

The retrospective exhibition Ansel Adams: Masterworks from Seven Decades, 1928–1982 is currently on show at Aspen’s Quintenz Gallery until the 8th of September.

No comments: