A lifetime capturing landscapes in light

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IF YOU feel you know the towering granite peaks, the steep forests and the improbably tall waterfalls of Yosemite National Park in California, even though you have never been there, it is because of the photographs of Ansel Adams. His pictures have made that landscape a universal property and with them his name has become familiar in a way true of no other photographer. That is not because of any celebrity cult, or dealer manipulation of his reputation, but quite simply because his pictures really are mesmerisingly beautiful. They speak to us, too, about nature and landscape and our relationship to it in a way that puts him alongside the great landscape painters.

One hundred and fifty of his photographs are included in an exhibition at Edinburgh City Art Centre. The only British showing of this exhibition, it has come to Edinburgh largely through the agency of Scottish photographer Lindsay Robertson, a disciple of Adams whose own photographs are also on show. He works closely in Adams' style, following his mentor to the Californian wilderness that he made familiar, and looking at the Scottish wilderness as though Adams' eyes.

These are magnificent pictures, but Adams is the main thing, as I am sure Lindsay Robertson would agree. Not all his pictures here are landscapes. There are also still-lifes, portraits and photographs of buildings. Nevertheless, landscape was at the heart of his work, mountains, of course, not only in the Sierra Nevada, but Mount McKinley in Alaska, Monument Valley and elsewhere in the American West. There are rivers and waterfalls, too, and trees looking magical in mysterious light, but almost always his subject is wilderness. It was central to his whole life, and although some of his pictures here of flowers, strange pieces of driftwood, or the cubist simplicity of a village church in New Mexico, are very beautiful, his best landscapes have a different quality. They are major works of art.

Born in 1902 in San Francisco, Adams was to be a concert pianist but, fed up with the superficiality of the music world, he preferred the mountains. They were more elemental, he said. He had first visited Yosemite at the age of 14. His father gave him a little Kodak and he used it on that visit to make his first pictures of the landscape that was to take over his life. He joined the Sierra Club when he was only 17. Dedicated to the preservation of the wilderness, its first president had been John Muir, the Scottish pioneer ecologist who had been instrumental in having Yosemite made a National Park. As a campaigner Adams was to become Muir's heir. It was on his advocacy, but above all on the mute but compelling testimony of his pictures, that in 1940 the Yosemite National Park was extended.

Posthumously, a further extension of the protected wilderness was named after Adams himself. So was a mountain in the Sierra Nevada, an extraordinary tribute to the photographer, but no less to the power of his pictures. He was prescient too and more topical than ever, for he remarked long ago: "It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment."

It was not until the mid-1920s that Adams turned decisively to photography. He made himself expert technically and about 1927, the date of the earliest pictures here, started to achieve what he sought, which was, he said, not just to capture the appearance of the mountain, but "to make it look how it feels". The picture that marked the moment of Adams' epiphany was of the sheer vertical face of a granite monolith in Yosemite called Half Dome. It was a scene he returned to many times and finally, in 1960, for one of his last great pictures, Moon and Half Dome. On that first occasion, Adams realised that what he saw on the ground-glass screen of his plate camera was not the emotionally charged image he was aiming for, but that with a red filter he could make the mountain lighter than the sky behind and so capture the drama of its towering presence. It worked. The drama is there in his pictures.

His camera was not a passive reflector. It was an instrument in his hand just like the piano he had abandoned in its favour. He took the musical analogy further, too. The negative was the musical score, he said. Developing the print was the orchestral performance and, working in the dark room, he was the conductor. That is why it is important to see his pictures in the original. Not that he wasn't ready to seize a chance opportunity when it arose. One of his most famous pictures, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico – the moon rises above distant mountains while the light of the setting sun catches a village church and the white crosses of a graveyard in the foreground – was snatched on the instant after Adams had stopped the family car and leapt out to capture the scene with his last glass plate. It was, he said, chance favouring the prepared mind.

The extraordinary clarity of his pictures, made possible by carrying a large plate camera into the highest and most inaccessible places, is part of his vision, too. In the early 1920s, on a camping trip in the High Sierra, he had a transcendental experience of a near mystical beauty that he worked to capture ever after: "The silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendor. I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks." The wholeness of that vision as it encompasses everything from the minute detail to the vast spaces of the wilderness and the sky above is what we see in his finest photographs.

And there are a great many to choose from. Take Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, for instance, a picture taken in 1944. The sunrise is catching a rocky ridge of mountains against a dark sky. Unseen hills behind us cast an inky shadow right across the picture, but in a pool of dim light reflected from the sky, deer are grazing against ghostly trees; or, in a picture looking up the wide Yosemite Valley among the tattered clouds of a receding storm, the mountains are dusted with snow. The picture has a sense of scale and grandeur that even Turner would have marvelled at.

But if Adams makes you think of Turner, the frequent verticality and bold compositional simplicity of his art are even more reminiscent of Chinese landscape painting, or of Japanese prints; those dark skies are like the luminous deep blue of the skies of Hiroshige for instance. But none of those comparisons with other art forms really holds, for these pictures distil the very essence of photography itself, even the metaphysical truth that belongs to it alone. Within the stillness and the huge permanence of the landscapes Adams records, there is always movement, movement of clouds, of light, of water, or even in the mountains themselves whose shapes reflect the immeasurable movements of geology. Thus he captures, as only photography can do, and with the same supreme clarity with which he records all these things, the continuous tension that somehow we have constantly to resolve; the tension between the transience we know and the permanence we feel; between time and eternity.

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