Portrait of the Artist as a Human Being: In a Film Airing on PBS in April, Ric Burns Explores the "Quietly Extraordinary" Life of Ansel Adams

By Mcmanus, Reed | Sierra, March-April 2002 | Go to article overview

Portrait of the Artist as a Human Being: In a Film Airing on PBS in April, Ric Burns Explores the "Quietly Extraordinary" Life of Ansel Adams


Mcmanus, Reed, Sierra


Truth be told, nothing really dramatic happened in Ansel Adams's life. And the vaunted Sierra Club leader wasn't all that fiery an activist, either. Even so, filmmaker Ric Burns finds plenty of evidence that the renowned landscape photographer was "heroic" and an "exemplary American."

Burns, writer and director of Ansel Adams, a documentary coproduced with Sierra Club Productions that airs April 21 on PBS, discovered much more than spectacular photographs when he delved into Adams's world. "Ansel believed in beauty," Burns says; the photographer's ceaseless drive to communicate that simple conviction made his life "the most poignant and dramatic in the world." Burns's film explores the meaning of Adams's work through the themes that absorbed him: the fragility of the land, the bond between humans and nature, and the moral obligation we have to future generations.

Ansel Adams's genius was fashioned in an extraordinary time. The American frontier had officially "closed" just a dozen years before his birth in San Francisco in 1902. By then, a growing number of Americans considered the culture of conquest no longer relevant; nature could be revered, not merely dominated. The first of many childhood trips to Yosemite Valley transformed Adams "like Paul on the road to Damascus, Burns says, and his parents serendipitous gift of a Kodak Box Brownie camera gave him the means to record and express his inner experiences of nature.

According to Burns, one of the best distillations of Ansel Adams isn't a photograph, but a letter Adams wrote to fellow photographer Cedric Wright in 1937 after he "saw a big thundercloud moving down over Half Dome ... so big and clear and brilliant that it made me see many things that were drifting around inside of me. Adams articulates a blueprint for his artistry that, Burns says, describes nothing less than "the essence of real living": "Art is the taking and giving of beauty, the turning out to the light the inner folds of the awareness of the spirit. It is the re-creation 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. …

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