A major Ansel Adams exhibition arrives in San Francisco
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A major Ansel Adams exhibition arrives in San Francisco
Eadweard J. Muybridge (American, 1830–1904), Valley of the Yosemite from Union Point, No. 33, 1872. Photograph, albumen print. Gift of Charles T. and Alma A. Isaacs. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

by Soumya Karlamangla

NEW YORK, NY.- Ansel Adams’ crisp black-and-white photographs of Yosemite National Park are iconic, inescapable even.

The moon glowing over the sheer face of Half Dome. The gushing cascade of Nevada Fall. The glassy waters of the Merced River reflecting evergreen trees and granite peaks. These images feel inseparable from the history of California and of conservation and national parks in the United States.

But Adams, a native San Franciscan who lived most of his life in the city, photographed far more than the Golden State’s wilderness during his decades-long career as a photographer and environmentalist. He captured the tangled freeways of Los Angeles, Japanese Americans imprisoned at Manzanar during World War II, and the profusion of pump jacks and derricks in Long Beach after oil was discovered there in the early 20th century.

These surprising and stunning images are on display in San Francisco at the de Young’s new exhibition “Ansel Adams in Our Time,” which opens Saturday and runs through July 23. More than 100 images from Adams, a self-described “California photographer,” are juxtaposed alongside photographs of the American West taken by Adams’ predecessors as well as by contemporary artists.

The exhibition, perhaps as expected, begins with Adams’ photographs of Yosemite, where, as a 14-year-old boy on a family vacation, he first picked up a camera, a gift from his father. But the show traces his connection to the natural world even earlier.

Adams was born in San Francisco in 1902 and grew up in what’s now the city’s northern Sea Cliff neighborhood, where his family home was perched above windswept dunes overlooking the Presidio, Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate (before the bridge was built). He felt an almost spiritual connection to these familiar landscapes and to similarly sweeping expanses he would later photograph in Death Valley, Yellowstone, Kings Canyon and more, said Karen Haas, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which organized the show with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Standing in front of a mural-size Adams print of the craggy Sierra Nevada illuminated by a sunrise in the Owens Valley, Haas said: “This was his religion.”

But Adams’ California catalog extended beyond the countryside. He photographed decaying buildings in the state’s abandoned mining towns, the planting of tract housing in the hills of San Bruno and a dilapidated cemetery in Mono Lake.

As a young man in San Francisco, Adams experimented with grittier images. He turned his camera toward political posters pasted on city walls; crumbling classical sculptures in Sutro Heights; and tombstones in the Laurel Hill Cemetery, now demolished, in the Inner Richmond. (In the exhibition, the photographs of old San Francisco are annotated with cross streets so you can envision exactly where in the city Adams stood to take them.)

“It was in San Francisco that Adams became a modernist photographer,” said Sarah Mackay, a curator with the Fine Arts Museums. She called the show’s arrival in the city a “warm welcome home.” Adams’ very first museum exhibition was in 1932 at the de Young.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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