Ansel Adams' B-Sides

A discovery of 226 Ansel Adams photographs from the National Archives vault.
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Mar 22, 2014 | By Matthew Ankeny

In 1941 the National Park Service commissioned noted photographer Ansel Adams to create a photo mural for the Department of the Interior Building in Washington, DC. The theme was to be nature as exemplified and protected in the U.S. National Parks. The project was halted because of World War II and never resumed.  -

Since freshman year of college I’ve had three photographs of Ansel Adams hanging in my room: The Mount McKinley Range—veiled in gauzy clouds with stark white glaciers running down black rocks, The Face of Half Dome—sheer, sweeping, with a dramatic dark to light contrast from top to bottom, and a Think Different ad, by Apple, of Adams on the California coast, standing behind his large frame camera.

They’ve been a source of quiet inspiration over the years, and they made an early and high mark for an austere aesthetic in landscape photography. The images of Adams always landed, for me, as “regal.”

Then, a few weeks back, I stumbled on a gallery of Ansel’s work in the National Archives. They were raw pictures (and poor scans), and while some of the 226 photographs were captivating, others were, a little—if I can say it—monotonous. They fell flat. They were heavy in gray. They didn’t have the dramatic contrasts and sharp composures I expect from Adams highly curated work.

I felt I had found the B-sides.

We know that for every canonized artist there’s a body of work buried in the back rooms—all the negatives and prints that didn’t make the cut. But, we almost never see them, and so the big names live on in an untouchable realm of perfection. We don’t see the development, the progression, and the missteps along the way.

This collection of photographs brought Ansel Adams down a notch, to a level where I was able to connect with the master. These are works in progress, and they depict an outdoorsman with a penchant for great pictures. They’re not devoid of Ansel’s classic eye for composition and light, but they’re not yet perfect. 

They place him on a human level. They bring him down to someone I can understand: a man obsessed with protecting our national treasures, and doing so by being out there, in the midst of these great places, and taking pictures to preserve—sometimes majestically, sometimes monotonously—what he loves.

Images via: 1. Retronaut; 2-11. National Archives.