Ansel Adams: Early Works features 41 original prints, with a focus on the masterful small-scale images Adams made from the 1920s into the 1950s. In the 1920s, Adams printing style was already beginning to evolve from the soft-focus, warm-toned, painterly Parmelian prints of the 1920s to the f/64 school of sharp-focused photography that he would co-found in the 1930s. After World War II, his style continued to move toward a cooler, high-contrast printmaking style. Throughout, Adams is revealed as a poet of light, both in the field and in the darkroom.
Adams was a giant in the field of American landscape photography. His work is often viewed as the end of an arc of American art concerned with capturing the “sublime” in unspoiled Western landscapes, a tradition that included painters Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole and Thomas Moran, as well as photographers Carleton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson.
For much of his early adulthood, Adams was torn between a career as a concert pianist versus one in photography. Later, he famously likened the photographic negative to a musical score, and the print to the performance. Yet most museum-goers are only familiar with the heroic, high-contrast prints on high-gloss paper stock that Adams manufactured to order in the 1970s and 1980s, which coincided with the emergence of the first retail galleries devoted to photography. The later, higher-contrast prints are akin to “brass bands,” whereas the earlier prints – intimate and rich in middle tones – are more like “chamber music.”