‘Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film’ Explores Genius Photographer’s Life and Work

Ansel Adams captured the sights of the Sierras with his camera, and his majestic photos have stolen his audience’s collective breath for more than seven decades. Yet, interestingly enough, Adams almost pursued a career as a concert pianist.

Ric Burns’s Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film chronicles the photographer’s life from his hyperactive youth to his early career struggles and from his maturing art to his contemporary impact. Though a rather conventional style, the film details Adams’s father’s influence on his genius son, Adams’s tough decision between the concert piano and photography, his marriage to Virginia Best, his relationship with famed contemporary Alfred Stieglitz, his eventual successes in photography exhibition and book printing, and finally his activism in the environmental movement. It also commemorates the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth.

With a famed photographer as a subject, the filmmakers had two sets of file footage to work with: archival and artistic. The archival photos are fairly standard, including still shots of family members and a youthful Adams, and motion shots of Adams walking in the woods and playing the piano.

The film also uses Adams’s photographs. To showcase their power, the film opens with a montage: majestic mountains, charred forest, a lake, cloud formations, and ferns. Instead of a steady gaze on these masterworks, the camera moves slowly over the images — panning up, zooming out, and zooming in — at various angles. It never shows the entire photograph with the first frame but instead reveals a portion of it at a time. The camera movement guides our gaze around the picture for us to see the photo as it sees — slowly, deliberately.

Almost all of these photos are black and white, so color shots stand out even more. All of the interviews are shot in color, but mixed in are other nature shots, also in full color. Instead of remaining still, the camera again flows over trees and green hills, as if trying to imitate how Adam might have seen them. These shots also provide a breathtaking views to fill the time.

More than a dozen different voices contribute their words to Adams’s life story. About ten different interviewees include such people as William A. Turnage of the Ansel Adams Trust; Andrea Gary Stilman, an editor; Jonathan Spaulding, biographer; Carol Pope of the Sierra Club; Jonathan Szarkowski, photographer and curator; and Mary Street Alinder, also a biographer. Adams’s children, Michael Adams and Ann Adams Helms, share memories of their father, though they appear much less often than the others. Photographers Alan Ross and John Sexton also add their thoughts on Adams’s work.

For the most part we hear the talking heads before we ever see them. During the initial montage of Adams’s work, Szarkowski delivers the opening comments anonymously until a cut to him reveals the person who is talking. This pattern continues throughout the entire film and gets somewhat distracting after a while.

In addition to all the interviews the film employs an omniscient narrator, voiced by David Odgen Stiers. His words provide the introduction and chronological transitions within the film. For example, he opens the film with, “His whole life would be a journey and an explanation; a search for meaning and order, for beauty and redemption; for contact with something larger and more lasting: for community, connection, and home.” Other grand statements punctuate the film: “Though he had abandoned music for photography, for the rest of hi life, the love of making beauty through precisely ordered chords of sound and precisely ordered chords of gray would perform an intricate ballet in his sensibility.” For the most part, however, Stiers’s comments provide information and link the interview statements together. Additional voices read Adams’s letters and journals in attempt to give the artists his own voice in the cacophony.

The images and voices work to tell the typical artist-genius story, including the struggles for recognition and in personal relationships, the early success and temptation of an affair, and the accolades late in life and after his death. The film tries to be poetic in its homage to Ansel Adams, but those familiar with many PBS documentaries will recognize the style. It is the same one used by Ken Burns and Ric Burns in the opus The Civil War, with the migrating camera, the plethora of voices, and the aural dramatizations. Combine this style with a heavy music score, and the end result is a pretty standard treatment of an amazing subject in a pretty standard film. Despite this, though, those interested in learning more about Adams and his work will find the film highly informative.

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