The very extensive and often revelatory Ansel Adams retrospective that opens today at the Museum of Fine Arts includes 180 photographs taken by Adams, as well as a documentary about him, a home movie, two cameras, numerous rare books and magazines, several menus, three Japanese-style folding screens, and a coffee can. (Menus, screens, and can all bear Adams images.)
Even so, the first photograph that greets visitors inside the Gund Gallery isn't by Adams. It's of Adams, which is as it should be. Not just a larger-than-life figure, he's a larger-than-his-own-art figure.
It's less a portrait, actually, than a contextualization. Imogen Cunningham took it at Yosemite in 1953. Adams, all business, stands in profile, setting up his large-format camera on a tripod. He wears the casual clothes of a Westerner: checked shirt, baggy trousers, Stetson. The hat casts his face in shadow, except for a fringe of beard and hawky nose (that nose points straight to the camera, as if to underscore Adams's intentness). Framing him are granite cliffs in the background. Their gray luster is equivalent to the gold in a Byzantine icon -- and make no mistake, this is very much an iconic image. Note that Adams's equipment case is situated in front of him in such a way as to look like a plinth.
Adams is so rooted in this setting he could be a Ponderosa pine. Yosemite is his place, as Mark Twain's place is on the Mississippi, John Ford's in Monument Valley, or Frank Sinatra's on the Strip. Those aren't idle comparisons. Those men, and Adams not least among them, sprang from deep in the American grain and came to secure an even deeper hold on the American imagination. And each man's work cannot be understood without coming to grips with a persona that enlarges and distorts his achievement.
Ansel Adams (1902-1984) long ago became ''Ansel," totemic and inescapable, one of those rare figures on a first-name basis with America, like ''Elvis" or ''Marilyn." Was Andy Warhol ever tempted to silk-screen Adams, too?
Maybe he was. Money was always Andy's first consideration, and the Adams market is almost as breathtaking in expanse as the West itself. Unfortunately, the overkill represented by countless calendars and posters and postcards has meant Adams's work can be easily mistaken for a kind of ooh-and-ahh nature kitsch, a mistake that does almost as much of a disservice to the natural world as it does to Adams's extraordinary renderings of it.
The enduring popularity of Adams's work has created an aesthetic paradox: The greatest hits are so great they're irresistible, and that irresistibility has made them too ubiquitous for their own good. So often have people seen ''Aspens, Northern New Mexico" or ''Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" they never think to look at them.
One of the many virtues of the MFA show is its juxtaposing of these wondrous, if over-familiar, images with many unexpected ones. Still, ''Ansel Adams" can't help but seem somewhat diffuse and redundant for anyone who saw ''Ansel Adams at 100," the magnificent centennial exhibition John Szarkowski organized for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2002.
''Ansel Adams" consists almost entirely of photographs from the Lane Collection. It follows in the happy tradition of two previous MFA photography shows drawn from the collection, Edward Weston, in 2000, and Charles Sheeler, in 2002. When the late Worcester industrialist William H. Lane and his wife Saundra decided in the '60s to start adding photographs to their hoard of American Modernist paintings, they didn't stint. They acquired nearly 500 Adams photographs, the largest collection in private hands.
Such size allowed for considerable diversity, a fact the show reflects. As one might expect, there are sections devoted to Yosemite, the national parks generally, and the Southwest. That last section has a photograph of Adams's friend Georgia O'Keeffe in which she looks as though she could be Joan Crawford's mother in ''Johnny Guitar." Certainly, this is not the Adams we're accustomed to.
A selection of early photographs shows Adams's Pictorialist roots. The romantic softness of these images offers no hint of the crispness and precision of the classic work to come. The mist burns off in the late '20s. Adams then joins with Weston, Cunningham, and other Bay Area photographers in forming the f/64 movement, dedicated to a sharp-focused, realist approach. The f/64 section holds some of the show's biggest surprises. ''Scissors and Thread," from 1931, could be a Rayogram. Adams's pictures of signs and derelict buildings conjure up a West Coast Walker Evans. An East Coast Evans, too: There are two pictures of old houses from Cape Cod.
Adams, who so intensely loved particularity and solidity, loved light most of all because it was what let him reveal particularity and solidity. He belonged to the party of William Carlos Williams: ''Say it! No ideas but in things." It was always the thing itself, not what it might represent or evoke, that Adams cared about. This was true whether he was shooting poplars in a meadow or plaster casts in a museum basement. For all that he could never get enough of God's handiwork, God Himself held no interest for Adams. Immanence had no place in his photographs. They show what they show, and that's it.
Adams viewed people and their handiwork the way he viewed God and His. Cemeteries, churches, skyscrapers: These drew Adams as their inhabitants did not. The RCA Building (as it then was) is Art Deco at its most photogenic, but few photographers have displayed it more handsomely than Adams does in the two examples here. Conversely, ''Mr. Shepard at His Home, Independence, California" belies its title: It's a portrait of a fence post, not the namesake old man in the background.
Or there's a pair of images from the '60s, which show a large housing subdivision crawling up the San Bruno Mountains, south of San Francisco, and a massive freeway interchange in Los Angeles. Adams presents both with respect, even fascination, rather than the dismay one might expect. Of course, it's structures he's revealing -- houses, automobiles, roadways -- rather than those within them. Dealing with the owners or drivers would be a very different visual proposition.
Adams was famously convivial. His art was otherwise. Even when there are people in his pictures, they're guests rather than residents. Something there was in him that drew sustenance from what Joan Didion, another scrutinizing child of California, calls ''the vast indifference of geology." Remove the thick encrustation of Birkenstock persona, and here emerges the bedrock of Adams's art: a perhaps unsurpassed ability to take us beyond time as experienced on a mere human scale.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.