ANSEL ADAMS spent decades taking photographs of America's wild places. A new exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts captures the power of that wildness.
There are the trademark Adams images of canyons, mountains, and a stirring New Mexico moonrise. But there are also portraits of writers and artists, like painter Georgia O'Keeffe, whose work seems to spring from internal wild places. And even a photograph of New York City skyscrapers seems like a dramatic landscape that's different but equal to the canyons in its play of grand shapes, shadows, and patterns.
Adams worked for the Sierra Club, documenting the American wilderness to better protect it. He lobbied Congress to create a national park. In 1968 he won the Conservation Service Award, the Interior Department's highest civilian honor. But with pictures like ''Monolith -- The Face of Half Dome," a daunting image of a 4,800-foot-tall granite rock monument in Yosemite National Park, Adams was out not to show how Half Dome appeared but rather how it felt.
One cannot talk about Adams without talking about the majestic visual eloquence of his black-and-white photography. Adams's use of black, white, and what seems like a million tones of gray are so defined, warm, and varied that they show more than today's color images and special effects, more about the veins of roses, the faces of cliffs, the weathering of wood, and the curve of snowbanks. It is a standard of physical and emotional clarity echoed by black-and-white movies, a way of seeing that has lost ground among video gamers and those who blindly insist on colorizing classic black-and-white films.
Adams could see the richness of single moments. He knew to shoot quickly, before the light changed, before the setting sun could slip off the pale crosses in a graveyard.
To city dweller, suburbanite, and rural resident, the pictures send the same message: This is America, and all of it belongs to you.
This legacy of capturing both the fact and the great emotional value of the American wilderness is well worth protecting, especially when Congress is casting about for more places to sink oil drills and when environmental protections are seen as pesky impediments to commercial growth.
Americans have not only a right to their wild places but a spiritual kinship with them. These landscapes are stages for challenge and adventure, for striking out and overcoming, and for learning how to steward great natural wealth. They are needed so that the canyons and woods witnessed by one generation can be seen by future generations, so that children might feel about wild America what their ancestors felt.