Straight Shooter

Ansel Adams goes to town in Building Forms.

The Center for the Visual Arts is celebrating its first anniversary this summer in an expanded space on Wazee Street. The CVA, which operates under the auspices of Metropolitan State College of Denver, was originally located around the corner on 17th Street, in the building that is now occupied by the Common Grounds coffee shop. Marking the gallery's milestone is a major solo show that features one of the most important figures in the history of photography -- the legendary Ansel Adams. Building Form: Ansel Adams and Architecture is a comprehensive look at the late photographer's images of buildings. It is an unexpected approach, since Adams is best known for his famous and beloved shots of the natural environment.

It's also the first time the CVA has presented a solo show by a photographer, though others are planned. Building Form was put together by CVA director Sally Perisho, who borrowed more than fifty photos from the Ansel Adams Archive at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography; staffers at the archive made the specific selections. "I asked for a body of work on architecture," says Perisho. Additional photos were loaned by the Denver Art Museum and the Camera Obscura Gallery.

Adams is one of the most famous and highly regarded photographers in history. "I'm amazed at how many people are familiar with Adams's work in depth," says Perisho. But people know the most about his landscapes, "which have been shown and shown," she adds. "That's why I decided to focus on his less well-known architectural photographs." Perisho also notes that the photographer's considerable popularity has led to heavier-than-usual foot traffic in the CVA's galleries.

"The RCA Building From the Roof of the Museum of Modern Art," by Ansel Adams, gelatin silver print.
photos courtesy of the Center for Creative Photogr
"The RCA Building From the Roof of the Museum of Modern Art," by Ansel Adams, gelatin silver print.
"Saint Francis Church, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico," gelatin silver print.
"Saint Francis Church, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico," gelatin silver print.

But it was Adams's influence on the course of American photography, rather than his popularity, that led Perisho to organize this show. "Here are the originals by Adams that led to thousands of copies," Perisho says. "In many ways, he was really the first. He's the reason museums collect photography today. He talked and wrote about photography, addressing the public, museum directors, dealers and other artists."

Born in 1902 in San Francisco, Adams was only fourteen when he was given his first camera, a No. 1 Brownie box camera. Photography was just a hobby for him at first; his real ambition was to be a professional pianist, a course that he seriously pursued. In 1920, Adams took a summer job as a custodian at the Sierra Club's headquarters in the Yellowstone Valley. It was here that his naturalist and environmental views were forged and he began his lifelong association with the Sierra Club. Adams often lent his images to the organization, which used them for promotional purposes, most notably those ubiquitous posters from the 1970s and '80s, which were a big moneymaker for the group.

In the 1920s, Adams became more serious about photography and took some of his most famous images, including those at Yosemite National Park and those of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Working with author Mary Austin, he went to Taos Pueblo in 1929 to photograph the architecture and the residents. Still in New Mexico the following year, he met New York photographer Paul Strand; it was Strand who convinced him to give up the piano once and for all and to pursue a career as a professional photographer.

Back in San Francisco in 1932, Adams became a founder of f64, an informal group of photographers that included Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston. The name of the group referred to the small aperture setting of the large stand cameras that used glass negatives preferred by f64 members. The group advocated "straight" photography, in which scenes were recorded in an unaltered condition as opposed to the staged scenes and darkroom manipulations that pictorialists and others were using at the time. Adams and the other members of f64 felt that the composition of a photograph was a pre-existing condition, and the photographer's job was to find it in nature. This direct approach came to dominate fine-art photography, so much so that by the 1970s, artists searching for a fresh vision rejected it and reintroduced photographic manipulations and alterations.

Adams became widely known in the 1930s. In 1934 he got a big break when he met Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and dealer who is considered to be the father of twentieth-century fine-art photography. Stieglitz gave Adams a one-man show at his New York gallery, An American Place. In fact, Adams's work was exhibited in prestigious galleries throughout the United States and Europe, but his fame was also the result of his influential books. In 1935 Adams wrote Making a Photograph, in which he laid out his ideas about the value of unretouched, untoned photographs. He went on to publish more than twenty other books over the next fifty years.

The CVA show is set up so that visitors first see Adams's classic and familiar landscapes. These photos, which are in the entry, are the ones on loan from the DAM and other local sources. They give us a grounding in Adams's signature style. The less well-known architectural shots, on loan from the University of Arizona, fill the rest of the multi-space CVA. All of the photos in the show are gelatin silver prints.

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