There is a small bridge on Sentinel Drive in Yosemite National Park that, on any given summer evening, will be crowded with photographers.
The ones on the front row staked out their position midday, willing to wait hours until the late-afternoon light washes over the majestic granite slab of Half Dome, the object of everyone’s focus. The photographers line up two and three deep; latecomers will have to stand on the river banks or in the water, and they willingly do so. They are all after the same photograph, a clear shot at Half Dome.
Never mind that the herd of photographers is standing on a bridge built in 2000 or that the shutterbugs are using digital cameras or camera phones, not the Hasselblad that Ansel Adams used in December 1960 to get his famous Moon and Half Dome.
They are there in homage to the great American photographer to get their own, poor facsimile of the monolith Adams photographed for decades. This is Adams’ legacy — crowds of photographers wanting to emulate him, millions of tourists visiting the wilderness areas he held dear and a portfolio of the greatest landscape photographs of the 20th century.
He championed photography as an art form throughout his life. His efforts on behalf of the environment and preservation of the national parks and wilderness areas were tireless. After his death, a wilderness area near Yosemite and a mountain were named for him. But it is his spectacular black-and-white photographs that are his most indelible legacy.
A selection of what he considered his very best are on view in “Ansel Adams: Masterworks” at the Arlington Museum of Art through Aug. 3. Shortly before his death in 1984, he chose 75 photographs that spanned his output from 1923 to 1968, printed them, and offered them for sale to collectors for $30,000 (now valued at $2.5 million) with the stipulation that they could never be sold, only donated to museums.
About 10 “Museum Sets” were made before his death; two are owned by his children. The group on display in Arlington, edited to 48 for exhibition, is owned by Turtle Bay Exploration Park of Redding, Calif.
All of his most famous images are here — Moonrise, Clearing Winter Storm, Half Dome — as well as ones with titles that aren’t as familiar but with images that are just as well known and unmistakably the work of Adams.
What set Adams’ photographs apart was his ability to evoke the experience of viewing aspen trees as their white bark shimmered against a background of dark pines, or the overwhelming size of Yosemite’s Half Dome. Too often, photographs record with visual accuracy but lack emotional wallop. Not Adams’.
In a small upstairs room at the museum that seems more like a chapel than a gallery, a photograph of grass as it pokes through the surface of a pond, could, without the gallery label Grass and Pool, be mistaken for fireworks, or meteorites as they blaze across a night sky. His ability to see the infinite in a square foot of pond water was astonishing.
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In the same room is a landscape, Frozen Lake and Cliffs (1935). It could just as well be an abstract painting, as the cliffs, ice and the tumbling scree seem to dissolve into a textural interplay that is more interesting than the reality of landscape components, unlike his 1944 photograph Clearing Winter Storm, which is considered one of his most majestic and heavily laden with detail and depth. It is a panorama of valley and distant mountains shrouded in clouds with a riot of detail in the foreground that trills up and down the gray scale.
Adams thought of his photographic compositions as musical scores. “I think of the negative as the score and the print as the performance of that score which conveys the emotional and aesthetic ideas of the photographer at the time of making the exposure,” he said.
This exhibition, organized by Chris Hightower and Robin Wood, is a symphony of Adams’ greatest compositions.