In terms of artistic icons, Ansel Adams was the closest America would ever come to producing a Claude Monet.
Old, all-American Ansel, with his funny hat and beard wandered the nation’s hinterlands seeking photographs to define what was natural, beautiful and worth preserving in an age in which nature-inspired Romanticism had disappeared amongst the great clashes of 20th Century civilization. His goal was no less than to save the American landscape through photographs — no small endeavor — and his efforts eclipsed those of 1,000 Al Gores.
But in 1943, when he waded into deeper political waters to document Japanese-American internment, he was out of his element, disconnected from his true passions, and produced art that looked suspiciously like US Government propaganda.
To say Adams had technical photographic chops would be an enormous understatement. A master printmaker, inventor of the still-relevant zone system of exposure, and author of many must-read texts on photography, he epitomizes what a well-trained, thinking photographer can do when he is “in the zone.”
Moonrise, New Mexico, taken in 1941, may be the most sought-after landscape photograph in the history of the genre. Prints have been sold for well over $100,000. When Adams printed it, he sold enough copies that he was able to stop doing commercial work.
Ansel Adams, Moonrise, New Mexico, 1941
It is a technical tour de force, with a deep black sky in the background pierced by a tiny, off-center moon, which rises above a swash of creamy, undulating clouds, sharp mountains, adobe and more modern structures, and the white, piercing crosses and headstones of a small Southwestern cemetery. The range of tones in good prints of the image rivals what’s possible today, with all our digital technology. It is, for landscape photography enthusiasts, a Holy Grail, and rightfully so.
But like Monet, who continued with his Impressionistic, garden-inspired, idealistic paintings of flowers and water-lillies well into the 20th Century, Adams was quickly falling behind the times.
During the Second World War, America was changing drastically, and arguably, for the worse. Adams was becoming a cliché, a romantic in an era in which the world was at war, the Nazi’s were putting the finishing touches on the “final solution,” and thousands of American boys were coming home in body bags.
“Adams flunked when it came time to document a great crime against members of a specific ethnic group, many of whom were natural-born US Citizens.”
Worse, other legendary photographers were calling Adams out for not addressing the critical issues of the day.
During World War II, equally legendary French photographer Henri Carter-Bresson famously lashed out at the San Francisco-born nature lover, saying that the world was falling to pieces but that Adams was only interested in photographing rocks.
One suspects that such remarks led Adams to what was probably an ill-advised attempt to document an internment camp for Japanese-Americans, opened by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1942 in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Some 120,000 innocent Japanese-Americans were relocated to barbed-wire-enclosed camps in places such as Manzanar, California, where the photographer did his work. It would soon become clear that Adams was no social documentary photographer.
It must be said, Manzanar was neither Guantanamo, nor Abu Ghraib. But forced imprisonment is the same the world over. Adams flunked when it came time to document a great crime against members of a specific ethnic group, many of whom were natural-born US Citizens. In this, the Camp X-Ray era, photographs such as Richard Kaboyashi, farmer with cabbages (1943), showing a smiling, Japanese-American with recently harvested cabbage heads under his arm, almost deserve scorn.
Adams was clearly not in his element. The master landscape photographer made unremarkable snapshots of the people he met at Manzanar and the things he saw before him. When the photographs are not passionless, they are happy. Content, grinning, well-dressed rice-eaters populate the collection of images, making Manzanar look more like Japanese Heritage Day at a California University campus than a concentration camp.
Moreover, not one of the photographs Adams took at Manzanar comes close — technically, emotionally, or artistically — to his landscapes. The body of work he created at Manzanar was about as convincing as Michael Jordan’s brief foray into AA professional baseball but less successful. The records show that Jordan, at least, hit a few homeruns.
In Adams’ defense, the technical master had next to no interest in the subject he was photographing, which is evidenced by the photographs themselves. He was politically ambiguous, saying he’d work for any government, left or right, but would not produce propaganda for anyone. Ironically, he did just that and the Manzanar photographs don’t even make for very convincing historical documents.
But Adams’ life mission was to save the wilderness through photography, and he was passionate and successful in his work on that front. He was on the board of the Sierra Club for nearly 40 years and his advocacy and photography helped expand the National Park System. Thus we have a well-founded argument that artists should stick to their guns. Adams merely left his comfort zone, and failed, as if Monet had tried his hand at Cubism or Dada, which flourished even as he painted the Water Lilies.
Russell Lee, Baggage, 1942
All of that said, it is hard to get around the fact that a year before Adams went to work at Manzanar, Russell Lee, an American photographer of far less technical skill than Adams, was producing haunting images of internment, a policy that represented an eerie foreshadowing of what was to come in the early 21st Century, and reflecting what had already happened in Germany, Poland and Austria.
John Sevigny is a photographer and writer who was born in Miami and lives and works in Mexico. He is a former correspondent for the Associated Press, and for EFE News, the official information agency of the Spanish government. He has published photographs and articles in the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, the Dallas Morning News, and many other newspapers and magazines. As a fine art photographer, he has participated in solo and group exhibitions in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota and Illinois in the United States, and in Monterrey, Saltillo, and Zacatecas in Mexico. He has a blog called Gone City.
Copyright 2009 John Sevigny