New 'Ansel Adams: Compositions in Nature' exhibit at VMFA explores 'the greatest photographer of our time' – Richmond Times-Dispatch

You know an Ansel Adams photograph when you see it.
The sun on the Half Dome at Yosemite, sand dunes at sunrise in Death Valley, striking images of nature, drawn by sharp contrast between black and white. His photographs are ingrained in the American psyche.
“Ansel Adams: Compositions in Nature” is a new exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, bringing 70 photographs from Adams’ career, many selected and printed by Adams himself, to represent his life’s work.
Ansel Adams is “revered as one of the greatest photographers of our time,” said Alex Nyerges, director and CEO of the VMFA, during a media preview of the exhibit.
Alex Nyerges, VFMA Director and CEO, talks about how he found the exact location during a trip to New Mexico in the 90’s, where Ansel Adams made one of his most famous photos, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, Oct. 31, 1941. The photo is part of the new Ansel Adams, Compositions in Nature exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. The exhibit runs from Sept. 25, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022 and features 70 of his photos.
“No other artist of the 20th century so vividly influenced Americans’ imagination of their own landscape” read placards at the new exhibit.
“The perception of the American West, in particular, is shaped through the work of Ansel Adams,” said Christopher Oliver, curator for the show.
Born in 1902, Adams grew up in California and was forever changed by a family trip to Yosemite National Park, where he took his first photographs with a Kodak Brownie camera his father gave him.
A portrait of Ansel Adams, left, is near the entrance to the new Ansel Adams, Compositions in Nature exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. The exhibit runs from Sept. 25, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022 and features 70 of his photos.
Two years later, in 1918, Adams contracted the Spanish flu during the influenza epidemic and spent much of his time convalescing, reading the works of the conservationist John Muir, “begging his father to go back to Yosemite to find the healing part of nature and of course … as a place to make art,” Oliver said.
Adams was blown away by the beauty of nature, but at the same time, he was drawn to music and wanted to become a concert pianist from a young age. He was torn between the two dueling passions for many years, pursuing a professional life as a concert pianist in San Francisco and spending his summers photographing Yosemite.
But eventually, photography won the battle.
“Music is wonderful but the musical world is bunk — so much petty doings, so much pose and insincerity and distorted values,” Adams wrote to his wife, Virginia, in 1927. “I find myself looking back on the Golden Days in Yosemite with supreme envy. I think I came closer to really living then than at any other time of my life, because I was closer to elemental things.”
The very title of the exhibition — “Ansel Adams: Compositions in Nature” — is a play on his dueling passions, as a photographer with his keen eye for visual composition, as well as his interest in the composition of music.
The exhibit explores three main themes: Ansel Adams as a technical photographer, as a musician and as a landscape conservationist.
To get an idea of Adams’ growth in technique, visitors will see photographs Adams printed in the 1930s and then returned to in the 1970s and 1980s, which he reprinted larger and with more contrast.
Most people who will come to this exhibit may have never seen an original Ansel Adams photograph printed by the artist, Nyerges said.
“If there was anyone meticulous about printing his own work, Adams was it,” he said.
“Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley National Monument, CA,” 1948, Ansel Adams (American, 1902-1984), gelatin silver print, printed 1974. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Andrea Gray Stillman, 2018.584 . Photograph by Ansel Adams © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.
Over the course of his career, Adams discovered “if you do things with more contrast, people will like it better. And if you make it bigger, it sells for more money,” Nyerges said. The juxtaposition of his early work versus the photographs printed later in his career shows the process and transformation of Adams’ art throughout his 50-year career.
For a glimpse behind the camera, visitors will hear music performed by Adams on the piano as they walk through the exhibit. In 1945, Adams cut his own record and distributed it to family and friends. Three of those recordings — featuring Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Arioso, and Alexander Scriabin’s Prelude performed by Adams himself — can be heard throughout the exhibit.
Adams once said, “I can look at a fine photograph and sometimes I can hear music not in a sentimental sense, but structurally.” Likewise, Adams carried his musical understanding into his photographic work, where he strove for a sharper focus, deeper tone and more contrast.
During a preview of the “Compositions in Nature” exhibit at the VMFA on Thursday, a woman paused near an Ansel Adams photograph taken in Hernandez, N.M., in 1941.
The exhibit also focuses on Adams as a conservationist. He was the official photographer for the Sierra Club. His photographs made such an impact on the general public that they fueled interest in protecting these landscapes.
“His prints especially in the postwar period, in the late ’40s and ’50s, became so much about celebrating the American landscape that they appeared in fine art museums and in very popular books. We’re now several generations deep of people thinking of Yosemite through the lens of Ansel in so many ways,” said Oliver, the curator of the exhibit.
The photographs in the exhibit come from the museum’s own permanent collection, as well as some of Adams’ most beloved images.
The exhibit kicks off Friday at 6 p.m. with a performance of “Ansel Adams: America,” composed by Chris and Dave Brubeck and performed by pianist/composer Michael Jefry Stevens, as a tribute to Adams. Before the concert, Oliver will speak about Adams’ lifelong connection to music. This opening event is sold out but can be livestreamed at www.vmfa.museum.
The entrance to the new Ansel Adams, Compositions in Nature exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. The exhibit runs from Sept. 25, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022 and features 70 of his photos.
“Ansel Adams: Compositions in Nature” was originally scheduled to be exhibited in 2020, but due to the pandemic, the museum briefly closed its doors and shuffled its calendar.
Now, over a year and a half after the pandemic took hold in Virginia, the exhibit itself offers the restorative power of nature, like Adams himself dreaming of the Sierra Nevada as he convalesced from the Spanish flu.
“We’re suffering yet again from the pandemic,” Nyerges said at the media opening. “But if there’s anything that’s going to make us feel good in life, it’s the work of Ansel Adams.”
“Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California,” 1944, Ansel Adams (American, 1902-1984), gelatin silver print, printed 1973-1975 Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund, 75.29.2 . Photograph by Ansel Adams © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.
“Dogwood Blossoms, Yosemite Valley,” 1938, Ansel Adams (American, 1902 – 1984), gelatin silver print, printed 1960.  Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Bernard J. Sabaroff, 85.1538. Photograph by Ansel Adams, The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.
“Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley National Monument, CA,” 1948, Ansel Adams (American, 1902-1984), gelatin silver print, printed 1974. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Andrea Gray Stillman, 2018.584 . Photograph by Ansel Adams © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.
Ansel Adams is known for his black-and-white nature photography, which helped fuel interest in protecting landscapes. Adams captured this image of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park in California in 1935.
“Untitled (Skier Ascending Mountain with Ski Tracks),” ca. 1930, Ansel Adams (American, 1902-1984), gelatin silver print Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Andrea Gray Stillman, 2018.597 Photograph by Ansel Adams © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.
During a preview of the “Compositions in Nature” exhibit at the VMFA on Thursday, a woman paused near an Ansel Adams photograph taken in Hernandez, N.M., in 1941.
At left is one of the more than 70 Ansel Adams photos featured in the “Compositions in Nature” exhibit that opens at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Saturday. “Trailer Camp Children” was taken in Richmond, Calif., in 1944.
Alex Nyerges, VFMA Director and CEO, talks about how he found the exact location during a trip to New Mexico in the 90’s, where Ansel Adams made one of his most famous photos, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, Oct. 31, 1941. The photo is part of the new Ansel Adams, Compositions in Nature exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. The exhibit runs from Sept. 25, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022 and features 70 of his photos.
A photo titled “Alfred Steiglitz and Painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, An American Place, New York City, 1944”, left, is one of the ones on display inside the new Ansel Adams, Compositions in Nature exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. The exhibit runs from Sept. 25, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022 and features 70 of his photos.
The entrance to the new Ansel Adams, Compositions in Nature exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. The exhibit runs from Sept. 25, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022 and features 70 of his photos.
A portrait of Ansel Adams, left, is near the entrance to the new Ansel Adams, Compositions in Nature exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. The exhibit runs from Sept. 25, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022 and features 70 of his photos.
Ansel Adams’ signature on one of the photos inside the new Ansel Adams, Compositions in Nature exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. The exhibit runs from Sept. 25, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022 and features 70 of his photos.
Alex Nyerges, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts director and CEO, spoke Thursday about the exhibit, calling Ansel Adams “one of the greatest photographers of our time.”
A sign at the entrance to the new Ansel Adams, Compositions in Nature exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. The exhibit runs from Sept. 25, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022 and features 70 of his photos.
[email protected]
(804) 649-6151
Twitter: @collcurran
When: Saturday through Jan. 2
Where: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 200 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd.
Tickets: $10 adults; $8 for seniors, youths age 7-17 and college students with ID; free for members
Contact: (804) 340-1400 or vmfa.museum
Colleen Curran covers arts and entertainment for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. She writes the weekly column Top Five Weekend Events.
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“Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley National Monument, CA,” 1948, Ansel Adams (American, 1902-1984), gelatin silver print, printed 1974. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Andrea Gray Stillman, 2018.584 . Photograph by Ansel Adams © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.
Ansel Adams is known for his black-and-white nature photography, which helped fuel interest in protecting landscapes. Adams captured this image of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park in California in 1935.
During a preview of the “Compositions in Nature” exhibit at the VMFA on Thursday, a woman paused near an Ansel Adams photograph taken in Hernandez, N.M., in 1941.
Alex Nyerges, VFMA Director and CEO, talks about how he found the exact location during a trip to New Mexico in the 90’s, where Ansel Adams made one of his most famous photos, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, Oct. 31, 1941. The photo is part of the new Ansel Adams, Compositions in Nature exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. The exhibit runs from Sept. 25, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022 and features 70 of his photos.
The entrance to the new Ansel Adams, Compositions in Nature exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. The exhibit runs from Sept. 25, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022 and features 70 of his photos.
A portrait of Ansel Adams, left, is near the entrance to the new Ansel Adams, Compositions in Nature exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, VA Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. The exhibit runs from Sept. 25, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022 and features 70 of his photos.
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