Warner Bros. // 1990 // 100 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Dezhda Mountz (Retired) // March 17th, 2003
Ansel Adams's prints of America's grandest landscapes are now universally recognized. The dark edges, startling clarity, and depth conveyed in these pictures are uniquely Adams, and his contribution to American photography and environmental movements has long been admired, even now, 101 years after his birth. PBS and Warner Brothers have released Ansel Adams, a documentary from PBS's American Experience series, on DVD.
Ansel Adams was born in San Francisco in 1902 to a wealthy family. However, shortly after the great earthquake of 1906, the family's timber fortune collapsed. His mother sank into lifelong depression, and his father became his greatest support, making sure he had the best education despite financial hardship. At first, Ansel was obsessed with the piano and had prodigy-like skills. But a trip to Yosemite changed the direction of his life, and soon he researched and practiced the art of photography. The road to becoming one of the country's most beloved photographers was a long one, filled with vast landscapes and emotional entanglements.
Ansel Adams's life is a dichotomy of hard work and poetic visions. Indeed, there are the usual difficulties that plague us all, especially artists: a romantic interlude with an assistant that almost leads to divorce; the struggle to be recognized by peers and audiences; the struggle even to make money. Yes, for as talented as he was, and for being one of America's top photographers by 1935, it was difficult to make big bucks off of it; his wife's family money paved the way for his artistic success. (Speaking of, if there are any wealthy capitalist pigs/old-money heirs out there that like pretty writer types, please email me, 'kay? Ahem. Moving on...)
Adams worked hard, drank hard (occasionally), and rarely took a day off. The work paid off; first, he got a rare one-man showing in New York in the late '30s; then, as his reputation solidified, he received commissions from wealthy patrons and collaborated on books benefiting his pet cause: the preservation of the American landscape. The film has several stunning birds-eye views of the mountains that Adams and his crew regularly hiked.
In his last decade or two, Ansel Adams not only became a rich man, after finding a decent business manager, but he was widely awarded. He had a mountain peak named after him; he received national awards. He wanted to live longer than his 82 years, but the effects of cancer quietly stole him away.
This documentary is extremely thorough. Pictures of his home, movies of his wife Virginia, behind-the-scenes shots of Adams at work, and especially films of the young Adams appear to be rare looks at his life. We get more than the typical still photos of baby pictures, and that is most welcome, as to give a fascinating biography of a photographer, moving image evidence of his life and times add interest to the static shots of his work.
Adams's former colleagues are equally interesting at offering tidbits of information, such as his near affair with a model-turned-assistant (he sure knew how to pick 'em, huh?), his hardcore work ethic, and the historical perspective of his career. The bio moves along nicely.
The picture here is perfect for showcasing Adams's work. Refreshing, considering this is a television documentary, the film is shown in a "matted" widescreen format that preserves its television ratio and yet is compatible with widescreen televisions. Such thoughtfulness is rare and is most welcome. Plus, the colors are sharp, even when we are shown a negative image of Adams's work before it transitions to positive black and white. The shadings of black and white are specific and crisp. I was surprised at the high definition of this transfer and relative lack of pink buzz in the black and white motif. The color interview segments are equally well done.
Sound wise, nothing much needed, and nothing much to speak of. Perfectly adequate for my tastes, the two-channel Dolby Digital Surround was a typical mix, with clear tones and no hiss at all. A very nice, clean transfer, which is all you can expect of a quiet documentary about a photographer.
There are no extras, sadly enough, but there are indulgent, lingering views of nearly all of Adams's most famous photographs in the actual feature; I didn't feel like I missed out too much. This disc stands up just fine on its own, though Adams fanatics will feel gypped.
Adams's landscape portraits changed the way Americans viewed their homeland, and even changed the way they treated it too, paving the way for environmental preservation with his association with the Sierra Club. Lavish attention to his work, archival footage, and showcasing experts who knew Adams personally, I felt like I knew the man intimately (well, not as intimately as his model-turned-assistant) by the end of the disc.
Extras are nonexistent, but definitely a PBS documentary that won't put you to sleep. Free to go!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Ansel Adams in Yosemite