It’s hard to say what makes a piece of art iconic. History, opinion and technique all certainly play a role, as does the piece’s popularity with collectors and the general public.
But for some pieces, like the 31-by-41-inch print of Ansel Adams’ photograph, “Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming,” which is hanging at Heather James Fine Art until it sells, all that really matters is the story.
“He almost saw the photograph as a stand-in for the experience that people could have in the park,” said Becky Senf, an Ansel Adams scholar who serves as the chief curator at the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography. The Center was established in part by Ansel Adams and houses a number of his archives.
After Adams’ photos of Kings Canyon in California helped preserve the region as a national park in 1940, Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes hired Adams to shoot “one or more” photographic murals of the country to decorate the Department of the Interior building in Washington, D.C.
But Adams wasn’t content with taking one or two photos.
“He envisioned a much more expansive, much more fully developed survey of the U.S. national parks,” Senf said. “He felt like some of the pictures could be used as murals, but that he felt he could make a whole set of pictures of the parks that could be used for other purposes as well.”
So, rather than stopping in a few places across the country, Adams embarked on two national road trips in 1941 and 1942.
He shot land managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the Southwest and grabbed a few photos of the Hoover Dam, which, at that point, was named the “Boulder Dam.” By the time he arrived in Jackson Hole to shoot the Tetons in 1942, he had already shot what became one of his most famous photographs, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941).
What emerged from Adams’ session on the east side of the Snake River was an image that became emblematic of the photographer’s style and also the style of nature photographers who followed in his footsteps.
Senf, who wrote a section of her forthcoming book, “Making a Photographer: The Early Work of Ansel Adams,” about “Tetons and the Snake River,” said it embodies “certain characteristics” shared by many of Adams’ landmark photos, including “Moonrise” and “Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park” (1927).
Senf called the clouds in the background “weather effects” that create the photo’s “operatic quality.” The sweeping panorama emphasizes Adam’s “omniscient viewpoint” and “godlike perspective,” and the “spectrum” of grays gives the photo its “bold and muscular” qualities.
“He comes up with a whole stylistic language that we now associate with taking pictures of the natural landscape,” Senf said, “He gave those photographic qualities, stylistic qualities to the subject in a way that has persisted long after his lifetime.”
Though “Tetons and the Snake” is something of an “icon,” the mural-size print didn’t make its way onto the walls of the Department of the Interior until 2010.
President Barack Obama’s secretary of the interior, Ken Salazar, decided to hang the results of Adams’ project, which had been cut short by the 1942 bombing of Pearl Harbor, after which interest in decorating the department was superseded by World War II.
Still, “Tetons and the Snake” is one of a number of Adams’ prints that are in the public domain. It also may be one of only 10 or so that exist in the 31-by-41-inch mural size, Heather James Fine Art Gallery Manager Sarah Fischel said. That might explain why the photograph is estimated to be worth three-quarters of a million dollars.
But the number of mural prints is hard to know exactly, Senf said. Adams experimented with printing large-scale images from film starting in the ’30s. Unlike many of his peers — for whom an 11-by-14-inch or 16-by-20-inch images would be considered a big print — Adams printed in a range of sizes.
“The print size doesn’t necessarily tell us what year the print was made or how rare a print is,” Senf said.
Adams also didn’t keep track of how many prints he made, regardless of size. His most printed piece, “Moonrise,” is estimated to have been printed between 800 and 1,200 times. Senf said the number of prints of “Tetons and the Snake” was hard to pin down.
“It could be anywhere from several hundred to 500, 600 or 700,” Senf said, “but that is really just a very broad estimate.”
One thing is for certain. Much like his photographs, which he hoped would educate the public about the national parks, Adams hoped his negatives could be used to teach other students of photography how to print.
And though the Center for Creative Photography has veered away from allowing negatives to be used in that way — Senf said the center is focused on preserving the original negatives — it speaks to Adams’ integrity and mission as an artist.
“He was very much an outwardly focused person and was very concerned with making photographs that found a broad audience and that were comprehensible to a broad audience,” Senf said. “He wasn’t interested in a small art museum audience. He really wanted to talk to the American people through his pictures in a very inclusive way.” ￼