Ansel Adams is an icon among both photographers and nature preservationists. A rare exhibit of his prints, a set he made for his daughter, and that he considered the best examples of his artistic achievement, are on display at the Lake County Discovery Museum in Wauconda.
“The photographs have a timeless quality that pulls you in and gives you this moment. They are calming and yet very inspiring. This is something special; this is something beautiful,” said Ann Maine, Lake County Forest Preserve District president.
The exhibition Classic Images: Photography by Ansel Adams consists of 70 photographs hand-printed by Adams, from the collection of Anne Adams Helms.
This is the first time this exhibition has traveled to the Chicago area, said Katherine Hamilton-Smith, director of cultural resources for the Lake County Discovery Museum.
“The Lake County Discovery Museum is constantly striving to bring rich cultural experiences to the residents of Lake County. The Ansel Adams exhibition is a great example of that effort, and we are thrilled to host it — for the first time in the Chicago area,” Hamilton-Smith said.
The photographs represent a range of Adams work. These include many of the wilderness images that Adams is most known for, from national parks including Yosemite, the Grand Tetons and Mt. McKinley (now Denali). The exhibition also features Adams’ close-up images of ferns and flora, portraits of other artists such as Georgia O’Keefe, and architectural images of houses of worship.
As a member of the Sierra Club, Maine said she has appreciated Adams' art for a long time, as it was often featured in the conservation group’s calendars. She described seeing the photographs up close as amazing.
“His involvement with the Sierra Club and this idea of preserving space and wild areas speaks to (the) mission of the forest preserve. They are different landscapes, but the concept is the same as we try to do,” Maine said. The Lake County Discovery Museum is part of the Lake County Forest Preserve District.
Adams is considered an environmental folk hero, according to the Sierra Club website. He was a member of the Sierra Club Board of Directors for 37 years, a defender of Yosemite National Park, and he was instrumental in the designation of Kings Canyon National Park.
Photographic images are easy to come by now, but in the 1920s and ’30s, Adams’ work brought the vision of wilderness to the average person, even those who never traveled out West.
“He’s a great example of the cliché that a picture speaks a thousand words. Yosemite and the Tetons, how can you convey the vastness and grandeur? It’s impossible to convey in words; the visual made it real for so many people ... It inspired people to say I want to see that; I want to preserve it,” Maine said.
Adams’ work as a photographer was groundbreaking. He is known for the tonal range in his black-and-white photographs, which was referred to as the Zone System. The Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona provides a detailed explanation of Ansel Adams photographic and printing technique.
Adams, a classically trained pianist, compared making a print to a musical performance, likening the tones and shades of a negative to notes in a musical score.
Adams viewed nature as a source of spiritual renewal and he said he hoped his photographs would serve as reminders that something of the primal world endures, although physically and aesthetically endangered. “What remains of the natural scene can be seen as symbolic of the original bounty of the earth,” he once said, according to the museum exhibit.
The exhibit is on display through Jan. 8. See the Lake County Discovery Museum website for hours, admission prices and discounts.