I’ve always been fascinated by the early works of world-famous artists, to see the genius in its formative stages.
For the next few months, such an opportunity arrives in Harrisburg with “Ansel Adams: Early Works,” a traveling collection of 41 vintage black-and-white photographs, which opens this month at the Susquehanna Art Museum.
“This is the first time we’re seeing the real thing in Harrisburg, not just in poster or print reproductions,” said Lauren Nye, director of exhibitions. “This collection will show the real development of his photography into the masterworks that are most associated with him as an artist. We wouldn’t ordinarily have that opportunity.”
To fully realize the impact of Adams’ distinctive contributions to art, science and politics, his work should be placed in its 1927 context, when he came on the art scene with his first portfolio with scenes of “the natural world, the state/national parks and rural America,” Nye said.
At that time, both the National Park Service and the Sierra Club were young, founded in 1916 and 1892, respectively. Adams partnered with these organizations and took up their causes, with his talents helping make both organizations more robust. His work allowed people to share his vision through his photographs.
The Sierra Club featured Adams’ photographs on their brochures, giving impact to their environmental lobbying messages.
“He photographed areas around the country that many in Washington, D.C., had never seen before,” Nye said. “Even today, many people have only experienced these places through his photos.”
The photos inspired lawmakers to pass legislation to preserve these areas for future generations.
“[Adams] was among the first to treat the landscape with a painter’s vision,” said SAM Executive Director Alice Anne Schwab. “His work stands out not only for its technical merit, which is astonishing, but also for its groundbreaking originality.”
During his lifetime, Adams went on to serve on the board for the Sierra Club and personally lobby for environmental causes. His main concerns were over-developing, over-building, intrusive billboards and shortsightedness. His iconic images accompanied his letters, becoming points of persuasion all their own.
Just as important as Adams’ contributions to environmental activism were his contributions to arts education. His photography was created, without manipulation, in the dark room. He also served as a technical consultant in photography and delivered workshops to fellow photographers. Nye said,
“He championed photography as an art form,” she said.
Another art form important to Adams’ life was music. In his early life, Adams studied to become a concert pianist. To honor that portion of Adams’ life, SAM will feature a piano recital on a 1920s-era Steinway by local developer and musician Ralph Vartan on Oct. 25. Schwab said that other mini-concerts will follow.
“I am really excited for the exhibit that will showcase his early works from a time when he was considering a career as a concert pianist,” SAM board member Phyllis Mooney said. “Having an exhibit of [his works] in Harrisburg is incredibly special.”
Sharing space in SAM’s main gallery will be “Quartet for America: Neil Anderson,” abstract paintings by retired Bucknell professor Neil Anderson. Anderson’s tutelage inspired many artists in the regional area—Schwab was once his student.
“It feels right to juxtapose these works at a time when our nation is so at odds,” she said. “Maybe art can be that driving, uniting force.”
Nye hopes that visitors leave with a deeper understanding of the nuances offered in Adams’ work that extend beyond simple black-and-white photography.
“We hope to encourage artists to inspire one another, sharing techniques, much in the same way that Ansel Adams shared his passion for photography,” she said.
“Ansel Adams: Early Works,” runs Oct. 7 to Jan. 21 at the Susquehanna Art Museum, 1401 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.susquehannaartmuseum.org. SAM members can enjoy a sneak preview the evening of Oct. 6.
“Ansel Adams: Early Works” is organized by art2art Circulating Exhibitions, LLC. All photographs are from the private collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg.