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A collection of brightnesses

How many photographers can really say they've made a difference? Ansel Adams could.

Ninety years ago an adolescent boy with a new Box Brownie looked down into the Yosemite Valley in California's Sierra Nevada mountains. He took a photo, he ran, he fell, he took more photos. "From that day," he later wrote, "my life has been coloured and modulated by the great earth-gesture of the Sierra."

We know the work of Ansel Adams. Through books and posters, the gaunt cliffs, the big skies, the granite skylines and desert architecture have shaped our imaginings of the American wilderness. "Anyone who has studied photography has had some input, directly or indirectly, from Ansel Adams," says Ken Hall from the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu. "We've all seen the iconic images, the calendars and the prints. But he was a pioneer. His sense of the vastness of nature and his commitment - he carried this quite singular vision all the way through his work. It's very hard not to be impressed."

One of the smallest works in the Christchurch Art Gallery's Ansel Adams: Photographic Frontiers shows a grinning man in a sleeveless jacket and cowboy hat. He looks like a rancher, a woodsman, the archetypal Marlboro man. But he was none of these. Adams was a commercial photographer, an artist, an environmentalist, a teacher, a publisher, an explorer. He was a musician (he trained as a concert pianist) and a poet. "Yes, all of those things," says Ann Adams Helms, daughter of Adams and owner of this set of prints selected by Adams before his death in 1984. "He was very social, he loved people, but he didn't want that to interfere with his work. When he got an idea, he went like a bulldog to fulfil that idea."

Born in San Francisco in 1902 in a lonely house perched on the sand dunes, Adams was a curious, restless, seemingly unteachable child. When he was 12, his father took him out of school. He taught him his lessons and left him to wander the wild sand dunes of Golden Gate. One day when he was ill, so the story goes, his aunt gave him a book, James Hutching's In the Heart of the Sierras.

"He was so taken with those pictures that he convinced his parents to go there for their summer vacation," explains Ansel's son Dr Michael Adams. "As a result, he spent some time of every year for the rest of his life in Yosemite."

As a teenager he worked as a part-time caretaker for a Yosemite lodge, later becoming director of the Sierra Club, America's oldest environmental organisation. He met his future wife there, carved out a studio and a business, raised a family. And, progressing to a large 8" x 10" camera, he took thousands of photographs. In "Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada", a single horse stands spotlit by the sun, dwarfed by the black foothills and the startling whiteness of the mountain behind. The detail is extraordinary, the light intense. This is a primal world, stark, beautiful, humbling. "Brilliant and bleak beyond words - pow," wrote Jack Kerouac of this same landscape, and through Adams's lens this bleak brilliance became legendary.

Over his career, Adams published more than 35 books and portfolios. He ran workshops and seminars ("a picture," he once said, "is only a collection of brightnesses"). He taught photographers his famous Zone system of black and white film development; he famously compared the values of a negative to the notes of a musical score. He helped found a photo-graphy department at the Museum of Modern Art. He exhibited around the globe. His photographic work won him doctorates and accolades (in 1980 he was awarded the Medal of Freedom alongside Rachel Carson, author of The Silent Spring). Although his advocacy for national parks began after he had created a substantial body of work, he became the voice for environmental preservation and human values hard to find in political or religious manifestos.

"Being somewhere no one has ever been," explains Adams Helms. "Getting off the trail, back to where you don't hear people, where you don't hear cars, where you hear only the wind in the trees and the sound of waterfalls - those are the values he spoke for."

In 1937, his book Sierra Nevada: the John Muir Trail became influential in the creation of King's Canyon National Park. Because of his work, says Hall, much of the US is saved today. "We have the envy of the world in our national parks, and they're pristine." Criticised for ignoring the social crisis of the 1930s, Adams remained focused on the natural environment, regarding it as a refuge from the modern world and sustenance for the human spirit. Too old to enlist in World War II, he used his photographic skills to create an increasingly dramatic grandiosity in the stark beauty of the American west, clarifying, says his son, "national values of an untrammelled environment".

An environment that was majestic, sublime, worth fighting for. This patriotism was aligned to a strong sense of human rights. In 1944, he photographed the Japanese-Americans relocated to Owens Valley in California following Pearl Harbour.

"He wanted to demonstrate what these Japanese-Americans were going through," says Adams Helms. "About their being dislocated from their home and incarcerated as American citizens. He shows how these people created a community, that they were good citizens."

As one of the founding members of the highly regarded Group f/64 (named after the aperture size that exposed an image at its most detailed), Adams argued against the soft-focus pictorialist tradition of impressionistic photography, calling for a more precise rendition of the natural world. Yet he was also driven by a more personal, aesthetic response to the wilderness. Ignoring mere "visual diaries", he searched for an almost mystical engagement with the land.

"His was an emotionally aesthetic response to a landscape," says Hall. "There's quite a strong connection with what 19th-century landscape painters were doing, recapturing this very pristine environment. There is an intuitive feeling in these works."

Adams worked feverishly. Spending days, weeks in the mountains (tennis shoes, no ropes) or in New Mexico, Wyoming or Alaska, he sought those moments of sudden clarity, when the final image made itself apparent in the scene laid out before him.

Hall recalls the making of "Moonrise, Hernandez" in 1941, one of his father's most famous works. "We were driving back to Santa Fe when Ansel suddenly pulled over to the side of the road and said, 'Oh-oh, hurry, get the cameras, the tripods, set it up.' He couldn't find his light meter, but he knew the illuminance of the moon was 250 candles per square foot and from that he could figure out the exposure he wanted. He took one image and by the time he could turn the photo-graphic plate over, the sun was gone from the foreground of crosses and headstones."

What was achieved through filters, small apertures and long exposures was further manipulated in the darkroom. In this image the foreground was brightened, the sky darkened, the emotion of that brief moment in New Mexico reinstated.

The result is yet another Ansel Adams landscape, another great earth-gesture in which human presence is miniaturised by an older, more enduring geography. A world that is both brilliant and bleak.

ANSEL ADAMS: PHOTOGRAPHIC FRONTIERS, Christchurch Art Gallery (until January 29).