Ric Burns’s Ansel Adams documentary

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I’ve seen film documentaries of a number of photographers from the heroic age (between the world wars), including Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-BressonDorothea Lange, and Rondal Partridge. The 2002 “American Masters” one about Ansel Adams (1902-84), directed by Ric Burns, is the most revealing one, detailing an unusual childhood on the northwestern edge of the San Francisco peninsula, being injured in the 1906 earthquake, being what was not yet labeled “hyperactive,” spending a year at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, and throwing himself into playing the piano before taking up photography. His courtship was prolonged and the documentary delves into a major marital crisis involving a darkroom assistant. And lots of self-doubts, ending in years in which he stopped taking photographs, but was a Sierra Club activist, especially involved in getting King’s Canyon set aside as a National Park.

There is footage of him playing the piano. I recall only one video interview of him, though there are ones of his son and daughter (and Carl Pope, longtime head of the Sierra Club).

There are also a lot of striking Adams photographs. My unease is that a whole photograph is rarely on display. The Burns brothers (Ken and Ric) style of panning in and out and back and forth means that the composition Adams made (often as much in the darkroom as choosing a shot) are pretty much not available in the documentary. (I have seen prints on museum and other walls, and reproductions in books, but…).

The narration is pessimistic about the preservation of wilderness. Some of the access to the Yosemite Valley has been rolled back and I think there are still remote, quite wild areas in Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks (if not in Sequoia).

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The standard Burns mix of interviews and actors reading letters (plus some home movies) also typifies this documentary. With even less criticism by anyone of the person considered (there is mention of criticisms of Adams and Weston during the Depression for not making socially “relevant” photos, and, oddly, no mention of the photographs Adams took of the Japanese-American concentration camp a Manzanar, east of Mount Whitney, that Adams took).

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(1947 photograph of Adams, probably taken by J. Malcolm Greany that first appeared in the 1950 Yosemite Field School yearbook and is in the public domain)

Also, other than chronicling encouragement from Alfred Stieglitz, there is little about other photographers (mention of advice from Strand and the apolitical rap made of Weston and Adams), though Adams was involved (founded) a group, f64 (named for sharp focus).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

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