How glorious would the British countryside have looked through the lens of Ansel Adams? The Glenfinnan viaduct swooping through the Highlands, the ancient crags of Dorset’s Jurassic coast, the rocky valleys of Snowdonia, the volcanic patchwork of the Giant’s Causeway - oh for exposures of them to have passed through the darkroom of the world’s greatest landscape photographer.
As it is, Ansel Adams remains famed for a single-minded devotion to capture the American wilderness on film right until his death in 1984. He visited the UK just once, in 1976, and never made it beyond the capital. Of his British holiday snaps, the most interesting images are of coats of armour in a museum somewhere.
His son, Michael Adams, suspects the British outdoors was not dramatic enough to lure his father away from the Yosemite waterfalls in California and the Grand Teton mountains in Wyoming. “I think he would have liked the British landscape,” says the 79-year-old diplomatically, but what really excited his father was “high mountains with glaciers and very rugged areas of the world”.
Nevertheless, Ansel Adams’ images of his native landscape are just as revered by photography enthusiasts on this side of the Atlantic. On the evening of Thursday 14 March his British fans will have the rare chance to hear a personal insight into Ansel’s great techniques, motivations and thoughts from his son during a talk at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, south London.
Speaking to The Independent from his father’s Californian darkroom in Carmel ahead of his visit to the UK, Michael Adams recalls his childhood trips up the mountains with his father. “My first trip was aged seven in 1941, the year that he took ‘Moonrise, Hernandez’, his most famous picture in New Mexico - I was with him for that,” he recalls.
“He’d wait if there were clouds, he’d wait for the conditions that he liked the best. We sat around for a number of hours sometimes waiting for the light that he wanted. We would talk, but I would usually have a book or be looking at a magazine - or just looking at the view, as some of the places we went were pretty exciting.”
The tiny community living in the Yosemite Valley was not a second home to Michael - it was his first. He was born there, he went to school there, he was married there, and his childhood was every bit as dreamy as his father’s photography. “We had skiing, we had climbing, hiking, we used to swim in the rivers and the lakes. It was an idyllic life.”
Perhaps it was these adrenaline-laden pursuits that led Michael to become an air force pilot flying Sabre, Super Sabre and Phantom jets in Korea and Germany, before training as a doctor. He did not share his father’s love of capturing nature on film.
“We had fun but it wasn’t the typical childhood. My father was very different to my compatriots’ fathers. We never played ball or anything like that together. He wasn’t a fisherman, he wasn’t a hunter, he didn’t do a lot of physical activities other than the hiking.”
He adds: “Sometimes I was embarrassed about what he wanted to do - he was rather outspoken about the environment, and he didn’t mind telling the national park service what he thought about how they were taking care of Yosemite.”
Indeed, along with the ethereal beauty of Adams’ photographs, it was his work to ensure the protection of his beloved national parks that made the photographer one of the biggest names in the nascent post-war environmental movement. Most notably he helped rejuvenate the Sierra Club, an organisation campaigning for the American wilderness to remain unspoilt but still allowing the public to enjoy it.
Yet while Michael trusts his father would have been concerned by the scientific warnings of global warming, he believes the stunts and militarism of some green groups would have upset him.
“I think he would have been appalled at the extreme activities and views that some environmental people have,” he says. “I think he was a more moderate person who could work through a problem with give and take, not all or nothing.”
Michael stresses his father’s primary motivation for being a photographer was artistic, not political. “He always said he never took a picture for an environmental programme, but he always welcomed the environmental people to use his pictures.”
Ansel Adams’ photos were revolutionary in how they picked out the sharpest possible details, as well as manipulating light and shadow to make for strikingly high-contrast scenes. Much of the “magic” of these images came from his masterful techniques in the darkroom, a place that holds yet more mysticism today among a generation of photographers who have grown up with digital cameras and PhotoShop.
All the same, Michael says his father would have been “delighted” by digital photography. “I don’t think he would have left the darkroom, but I think he would have been excited by what digital offers.”
Part of Michael’s seminar is a demonstration of how his father could create prints from negative that at first looked ordinary, by exposing certain parts to high amounts of light while obscuring others with a wand of card fitted with a paper circle at one end.
“I have a straight print where there is no manipulation in the dark room, and it’s not very attractive - and then the final one that he’s manipulated where the sky is much darker and the clouds are somewhat obliterated, and it’s a much more dramatic photograph,” he says. “I occasionally helped in the darkroom. He was always full of energy, and he always offered to let me see what he was doing. I might stir pictures around in the water, but I didn’t do anything technically.”
Michael is now retired, allowing him to devote plenty of time to maintaining his father’s legacy along with this sister, his wife and their two children. He still visits Yosemite several times a year to oversee his gallery there. He is wedded to his father’s work- quite literally in some ways, as Ansel only first bothered printing his famous “Moon and Half Dome” picture for Michael’s engagement announcement cards.
He believes American people too are wedded to his father’s work. “The black and white is stunning. People recognise these images as America, this is what people think of as our national parks - they think of them in black and white.”
Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea is at the National Maritime Museum until 28 April. For details of events including Michael Adams’s talk visit www.rmg.co.uk/anseladams.