Ansel Adams formed an early, instinctive attachment to the camera and quickly established himself as a master of the medium. While securing his reputation as the foremost American landscape photographer of the 20th Century, Adams was simultaneously influential as an environmentalist, educator, curator, professional advisor, and friend to a wide-ranging, now renowned, group of American artists and patrons championing the medium at the time. Adams is a peerless figure in the history of photography and Aspens, Northern New Mexico, one of his most iconic and evocative images.
By the time this image was taken in 1958, Adams had achieved such international acclaim - having long secured his renowned reputation and expertise - that his work was focused primarily on photographic commissions, article and book publishing. Simultaneously, he strengthened his commitment to the Sierra Club and, more specifically, their conservation initiatives. While Adams is revered for his unrivaled photographic and printing skill, his lifelong environmental and political activism is rarely honored equally. Much of his work from the 1940s and 1950s was grounded in a foundation of activism, however, with the intention of educating the public about conservation. Seeing Adams’ work within this context provides additional layers of depth and nuance to what is already an arresting viewing experience.
The late 1950s were significant for Adams, as he collaborated with Nancy Newhall during this time to publish one of his most poignant books whose environmental message became known as ‘a wake-up call for the nation’ (Andrea G. Stillman [ed.], Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs, Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 2007, p. 322). This Is the American Earth, originally conceived as an exhibition, stirred simultaneous concern and revere for our fragile earth. As Beaumont Newhall summarized, the 1959 book ‘embraced and bridged several usually separate fields: photography and literature, ecology, environmentalism and education’ (Ansel Adams, This Is the American Earth, Sierra Club, San Francisco, xxiv). The cover of this powerful publication featured the horizontal version of Adams’ Aspens, Northern New Mexico. As a result, the aspens became synonymous with the Sierra Club and the environmental movement (Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs, p. 322).
Adams happened upon the grove of aspens while on a color photography assignment for Kodak a year prior. ‘We were in the shadow of the mountains… the light was cool and quiet and no wind was stirring. The aspen trunks were slightly greenish and the leaves were a vibrant yellow… I made the horizontal image first, then moved to the left and made the vertical image at about the same distance… The majority of viewers of the horizontal image think it was a sunlit scene’ (Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs, p. 427). While the hauntingly luminous tree trunks do indeed radiate against the darkened forest, the source of their illumination is unclear, as is the time of day. This is because the light quality was dictated by Adams in the darkroom, who masterfully enhanced the scene’s highlights and shadows to create a timeless, still scene. The haunting results of his skillful, careful manipulation are dramatic and mesmerizing - a testament to the artist’s instinctive visual sense and unrivaled printing skill. This is one of Adams’ more modern and abstract compositions, with light and form being the dominant focus.
Measuring 33 x 24 inches, this mural print is among the largest prints of Aspens, Northern New Mexico to ever come up for auction, and with a print date of early to mid-1960s, is among the earliest. One indication of its early print date is the presence of a bright leaf in the lower right foreground; this leaf was eventually spotted and is not visible on later prints. It is notable that the artist was still able to capture such precise, meticulous detail when enlarging an 8 x 10 inch negative to this size. This large format lends a weight and presence to the image, providing viewers with an unusual opportunity to observe all of the carefully considered details within.
Aspen, Northern New Mexico embodies Adams’s aesthetic and faithful, lifelong dedication to environmental preservation.