Long before the days of digital photography, Ansel Adams would spend hours, even days, trying to get the perfect shot.
He possessed a distinct precision and unwavering desire to capture exactly the image he envisioned, expending vast effort to get himself in just the right place, at just the right angle, at just the right time.
Now, a collection of his work, “Ansel Adams: The Man Who Captured the Earth’s Beauty,” is making its way around the country, with a recent stop at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown.
From the age of 14, when he shot his first photograph with a Kodak 1 Box Brownie in California’s Yosemite Valley, Adams devoted himself to capturing the beauty and detail of America’s natural vistas, winning acclaim as one of the nation’s most accomplished photographers. He was also an ardent conservationist, serving on the Sierra Club’s board of directors and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 from President Carter for his conservation work.
The 25 prints that were on display at the Fenimore were done in 1980 and 1981, just a few years before his death (in 1984) at age 82. The prints, which are also making stops in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Ogunquit, Maine, were made from original negatives signed and approved by Adams himself for the Mint Museum in North Carolina.
The work primarily shows uninhabited scenes, highlighting the mutability of the human presence in contrast to the natural landscape. Among the prints is 1941’s “Moonrise; Hernandez, New Mexico,” the only one showing any sign of human life.
Adams contrasts the relatively minuscule scale of the town’s buildings and residents in contrast to the vastness of the natural surroundings. The town seems almost buried under the expansive sky and moon, with just a jagged range of mountains to separate the dueling forces of human and nature.
Most of Adams’ work was aimed at audiences that very much wanted to see the country. At the time, Americans were just really starting to fully explore their nation, due in part to the growing popularity of the automobile. The artist is often considered the pre-eminent photographer of the West, and his focus on places such as Yosemite and Yellowstone National Park offered people a chance to experience the landscapes like they’d never before encountered.
Paul D’Ambrosio, the Fenimore Museum’s curator, said Adams’ focus on national parks manifested itself as a sort of patriotism, an expression of his love and devotion to the physicality of America.
“Everything Adams features, both large and small, is really given the same reverence,” he said.
Adams’ techniques — specifically his use of distance, perspective and precision — did justice to his subjects, D’Ambrosio said. He was able capture extremely lifelike images, yet at the same time, “the images are sometimes reminiscent of Mars rover photos, because they seem so otherworldly.”
Some works, such as “Sand Dunes, Sunrise” taken at Death Valley National monument in 1948, seem almost like abstract paintings because of the uniqueness of the landscape. With its deep textures, variegated borders and the contrast of blacks, whites and grays, Adams highlights the artwork of nature. Adams is often considered to be the last of the Romantic artists, viewing the great spaces of wilderness as almost a metaphor for freedom and the American dream.