Ansel’s Art


This morning I’m being naughty, and instead of diligently cleaning up the chaotic debris of my over-scheduled past, I’m watching an old American Experience program I’d taped about Ansel Adams.

As is often the case, I found I was completely unaware of the rich historical complexity that created this particular human expression. I learned that Adams was also a pianist who abandoned his musical aspirations for what was to be, as we all know, a meteorific career as a photographer. Apparently, he felt that the life of a successful musician required a more commercially minded and competitive psyche than his was inclined to be. I’ve always admired his luminous images, but watching this documentary about his life and work gave me a much deeper understanding of his personal philosophy & motivation. This is an excerpt from his 1923 journal written in early summer, long before he was famous:

"I was climbing a long ridge west of Mt. Clark. It was one of those mornings when the sunlight is burnished with a keen wind and long feathers of cloud move in the lofty sky.

The silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendor. There was nothing however small, that did not clash in the bright wind, that did not send arrows of light through the glassy air. I was suddenly arrested, in the long crunching path of the ridge, by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light.

The moment I paused, the full impact of the mood was upon me. I saw more clearly than I’ve ever seen before or since the minute details of the grasses, the small flotsam of the forest,  the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks. I dreamed that for a moment time stood quiet and the vision became but the shadow of an infinitely greater world and I had within the grasp of consciousness a transcendental experience."

Eight years later, in 1931, he was to say "Photography is really perception" describing his craft as "an austere and blazing poetry of the real".

This fellow had some painful personal knots to unravel between love and passion and loyalty and security, and his journey sent him to the dark night of the soul and back. This excerpt from a letter to his best friend Cedric Wright shares the profound conclusions he came to at the end of that journey – about love, friendship, and most powerfully – art:

"A strange thing happened to me today. I saw a big thundercloud move
down over Half Dome, and it was so big and clear and brilliant that it
made me see many things that were drifting around inside of me; things
that relate to those who are loved and those who are real friends.

the first time I know what love is; what friends are; and what art
should be. Love is a seeking for a way of life; the way that cannot be
followed alone; the resonance of all spiritual and physical

Friendship is another form of love — more passive perhaps,
but full of the transmitting and acceptances of things like
thunderclouds and grass and the clean granite of reality.

Art is both
love and friendship and understanding: the desire to give. It is not
charity, which is the giving of things. It is more than kindness, which
is the giving of self. It is both the taking and giving of beauty, the
turning out to the light of the inner folds of the awareness of the
spirit. It is a recreation on another plane of the realities of the
world; the tragic and wonderful realities of earth and men, and of all
the interrelations of these."

To my ears, that one line is one of the most insightful statements about art I’ve ever heard; "It (Art) is both the taking and giving of beauty, the
turning out to the light of the inner folds of the awareness of the



  1. Went to Yosemite after we were in SanFran a couple of weeks ago, and of course it’s impossible to see that landscape without Ansel Adams on your eyes a little.

    Photos here

    What a rich thing to learn about him as an artist.

  2. i’m so glad this sharing won out over cleaning the debris! On this end too, my own pile awaits me, thinking that’s where I was going to go first thing this morning . . . instead, I am meandering here, getting a deeper drink from the well. Art, taking and giving of beauty, gives me the sense of an (art) that breathes, is literally alive . . . thank you Amy!

  3. As far as being naughty, I would expect it of you. But what could be a better way (I can think of a few), of being bad, than watching a documentary of an American icon. Ansel Adams was truly one of our great American artists. I loved the lines, “Art is both love and friendship and understanding: the desire to give. It is not charity, which is the giving of things. It is more than kindness, which is the giving of self.”

    I watched a docudrama recently on the life of Tina Modotti, a great woman, who was a lesser known photographer, whose wonderful work in Mexico in the 1920’s is remarkable and touching. She was a contemporary of, and lover of, Edward Weston. Because of her politics she left Mexico and was not allowed to return. However, under a false name, she returned to Mexico, and gave up photography to work on her Communist politics

  4. I’m thrilled by so many great responses to this post!

    Chris, thanks so much for the link to your Yosemite photos! They’re gorgeous!

    And thanks to Laurie and Darin (and Fletcher) for your appreciation of Adam’s prose. You picked out my favorites, too. (Laurie – Your new site looks like it’s going to be fantastic! I love your work)

    Fletcher, you rascal – I’d appreciate your NOT sharing thoughts of better ways to be bad 🙂 but I’d love a link to that docudrama on Tina Modotti – I love her work!

  5. I had latched onto that quote you pulled out as I was reading the excerpt. I have only just recently been able to regain my trust in art as a taking and a giving. I didn’t trust my taking and was unsure of what I could be giving. I’m growing more in my confidence of these tiny steps I take towards expression. The taking and giving is not one sided: Beauty takes my breath, my attention. It gives me back a fulfilled moment.

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