Ansel Adams: American Master

“Since June 1916 the Sierra has dominated my mind, art and spirit.”
               -- Ansel Adams, forward to Yosemite and the Range of Light, 1979

NEW YORK, NY -- Some photographers require no introduction. Just the mention of the name Ansel Adams brings to mind expansive vistas in Yosemite or Grand Teton National Park, the moon hovering over the sheer rock face of Half Dome, the meeting of foreboding clouds, sky-reaching mountains and glistening rivers. But the work of certain photographers loses something in the translation to small format printed monographs and poorly produced museum posters. This is particularly true of Adams, the acknowledged darkroom master, whose spellbinding images are best viewed as intended by the artist, in the large format gelatin silver photographs that he printed himself and signed gently in pencil on the mounts below. Among his robust body of work, there is no greater display of Adams’ technical and artistic skills than in the photographs that came to comprise his magnum opus, the 75 image Museum Set.

The Museum Sets were devised by Adams late in his life in order to satisfy intense collector demand and to ensure his photographs would be well represented in museums and institutions. As Mary Street Alinder wrote in her definitive biography Ansel Adams: “What had sent Ansel back to the darkroom at this juncture was the Museum Sets, the most demanding photographic printmaking enterprise of his life…” (p. 271). The sets were sold with the contractual stipulation that a collector could purchase and hold the Set but would eventually be required to gift it to an appropriate institution. The foundation of the Museum Set is ten of Adams’ most iconic works, being Moonrise; Clearing Winter Storm; Aspens, Northern New Mexico; Monolith; Winter Sunrise; Sand Dune, Sunrise; Frozen Lake and Cliffs; Tenaya Creek, Dogwood, Rain; The Tetons and the Snake River; and Mt. Williamson from Manzanar. The buyer then selected images from a list of 60 prints to form Museum Sets of 25 or 50 images; the very few who purchased all 70 images additionally received Adams’ majestic five-image Surf Sequence. The Museum Set on offer by Doyle was purchased by a New York businessman in 1981 for $125,000 and was subsequently gifted upon his death to The College of New Rochelle in New York. This is the first time a complete 75 print Museum Set has been deaccessioned by its recipient institution and represents an unparalleled opportunity to obtain the dozens of images prepared to Adams’ exacting level of quality: “Ansel made his fine, signed photographs by himself. Printmaking is arduous, physical work, and each day spent standing in the darkroom on behalf of the Museum Set was a personal marathon” (p. 284).

The technical achievement of the Museum Set aside, the works are simply stunning when seen in person. In the classics such as The Tetons and Snake River and Mt. McKinley and Wonder Lake the waters reflect a bright silver, the snow a blinding white, and ominous shadows cast darkness over these rugged landscapes. To include images spanning the breadth of his long career, Adams’ also made available in the Museum Sets rarer images which are breathtaking in form and tone, such as Rose and Driftwood; Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley National Monument; and Sequoia Gigante Roots, Yosemite National Park. Also present are images which suggest the personality of the West as it was in this time period, including the powerful portrait Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1937 and St. Francis Church, Rancho de Taos, New Mexico, 1929. Finally, Adams rarely produced series of works, and the five image Surf Sequence depicting the swirling waves on the coastline of San Mateo County from above is particularly beautiful in its repetition on a theme; the five images together are quite rare and desirable and has only appeared at auction twice.

The photographs created by Ansel Adams for the Museum Set represent the artist’s best effort to canonize his works in his final years. In these 75 images, the viewer comes to understand how Adams’ mind, art and spirit was dominated by the rugged beauty of the West.


Featuring an Ansel Adams Museum Set
Auction December 14, 2017 at 10am
Exhibition December 9 - 12

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