Natural Crusader


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Rare is the artist whose combination of talent, insight and good fortune turns him or her into a household name—Pablo Picasso, for instance, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Claude Monet or—debatably one of the most well known in recent history—Ansel Adams.

A nature lover, environmentalist and crusader who promoted photography as fine art, Adams produced images that have since ended up in posters, calendars and coffee books in countless homes and offices. His legions of fans include millions of people who view his photographs as beacons of inspiration and solace amid their everyday chaotic worlds.

One of his earliest fans though was a manufacturer from Massachusetts who, with his wife, amassed what would be the largest private collection of the photographer’s work. Now, the entire 125-piece collection of William and Saundra Lane can be seen at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in the first exhibit of Adams’s photographs in Washington, D.C., in a decade.

The black-and-white images are a captivating display of what everyday people love best about Ansel Adams: his gift for capturing the most stunningly beautiful expressions of life on earth. Long before the advent of digital manipulation, he found ways to convey the emotional impact of places and settings beyond simply portraying how they actually looked.

This display is also a reminder that Adams’s contributions to society delved much deeper than the handful of well-known photographs for which he is adored. The exhibit includes lesser-known images taken early in his career, when Adams accepted commission work to supplement the meager salary from his freelance sales. Those days brought about some whimsical snapshots, such as the one he took while passing through the storeroom of a museum.

Becoming famous was not something Adams envisioned as he struggled to make ends meet, during a time when paychecks barely covered the expense of new equipment and Sierra Club trips. On the rough road that led to fame, the images he shot were ones he personally loved: dancing Pueblo Indians, ghost towns, and sweeping, puffy clouds contrasting dramatically with towering rock formations.

The passion in Adams’s photographs stems from the deep love of nature experienced by a true environmentalist. His devotion to natural landscapes led him as far as Capitol Hill, where he came armed with testimony in the form of pictures to champion for federal protection of the John Muir Trail at Kings Canyon National Park in California. It was one of his favorite places, and the subject of one of several books he published.

The Corcoran’s chronological display shows how Adams’s work transpired over time, from a soft focus in his early visits to Yosemite and the American Southwest to the type of highly detailed photography that made him famous.

Throughout his development, Adams struggled as he anxiously tried to capture a scene at just the right moment, before shifts in weather or daylight altered the mood. One such moment came when he spotted a tiny desert town on his way to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

As described by the Corcoran: “The small town of Hernandez under the rising moon caught his attention; set by the side of the road with the distant mountains beyond, the town’s adobe church, which he had photographed in the past, absorbed the sun’s rays, and the rows of white crosses in its small graveyard sparkled in the dwindling light.”

Adams quickly pulled his car over to the side of the road in a race to beat the disappearing sun. But in his frantic search for equipment, his light meter was nowhere to be found, so for the first time he decided to use the luminance of the moon as a tool for approximating exposure time.

The resulting image “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” became one of his most renowned and beloved. As Adams turned over his film holder and pulled the slide, the sun slipped away and the town fell into shadow before he could take a second shot. But had he not toiled so instinctively to capture that initial vision, the image would not have struck the millions of admirers today who see it as both a reflection of their own dreams and a reminder of the mysterious beauty that can be found in unexpected places.

Ansel Adams through Jan. 27 Corcoran Gallery of Art 500 17th St., NW For more information, please call (202) 639-1700 or visit

About the Author

Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.