I think we’re all at some time struck by correspondences between what we see and what we read. I happen to be rereading the Odyssey. When Odysseus returns home after years of warfare and other troubles, Athena throws a mist over Ithaca so that he won’t yet know he’s actually home. I doubt Adams had any of this in mind when in 1968 he made El Capitan, Sunrise, Winter, where glacial rock wears a skirt of nearly diaphanous mist, but the image arrested me because it recovers an ancient fact, that the old gods possessed powers to manipulate fate and create chaos or magically strange beauty. Adams, I expect, would speak not of gods but of the physical world, yet his most mysterious images suggest they’re virtually the same. In his way, Adams worshipped nature, and photography was his spiritual practice. His most astute critic, John Szarkowski, wrote, “Adams did not photograph the landscape as a matter of social service, but as a form of private worship. It was his own soul he was trying to save.”
Adams didn’t restrict his range to the natural world. He did regular commercial work to support himself and took on assignments that involved human subjects. By the mid-1920s, the Curry Company concessions in Yosemite launched an ad campaign to lure tourists. Adams signed on as promotional photographer, to show the fun in winter sports and frolics. He could certainly shoot figures in motion. A picture illustrating a wobbly skier trying not to wipe out is hogged, however, by a huge gleaming sweep of snow shaped like a whale’s tailfin, and Adams’s treatment of winter pleasure-seekers tobogganing or ice-skating is at best perfunctory. He wants to honor his commercial task but something else instinctively takes over: his desire to express his feeling not for people but for the scene. He also worked on assignment to document conditions at the Manzanar Relocation Center in California where over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II. Adams declared he wanted to depict the decency and work ethic of the internees. But in his photo of a farmer showing off his squash harvest, we practically have to look for the farmer, so recessive and shrunken he is in a frame brimming with the delicately inflected light given off by vegetables stacked like cordwood. And harvesters chopping cabbage in another picture look like mere soil creases among the furrows; he turned human beings into landscape. These pictures have a documentary use but aren’t the ones he’s remembered by. His pictures treating human energy may be inert, but he, the most grounded of men, had a mystical feeling for the energies he saw in nature, whether it was the jetting force of Old Faithful in Yellowstone, the slow circuit of the moon rising, or the eternal stillness — as close as nature gets to what’s eternal — in the face of El Capitan.