Letters From Ansel

Among the great landscape photographers, Ansel Adams is perhaps the most widely recognized, but what you may not know about Adams is that he was, in the early 1940s, employed by the U.S. Department of the Interior as a “Photographic Muralist,” commissioned to capture images of the country’s national parks and indigenous peoples. The intent was to display the images in the Department’s Washington, D.C. headquarters. Adams delivered more than 200 prints, but as America’s entry in to World War II became the national focus, his assignment was ended and the prints sat largely forgotten for nearly seventy years, until in 2010, when then Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar commissioned mural prints to be made for display, finally bringing completion to the project. In his feature “Ansel’s Public Works” William Sawalich shares this fascinating story, which culminates in the appointment of Dominic Byrd-McDevitt by the National Archives & Records Administration to digitize the collection and make them publicly available.

Of the archive of images, which you can view at Wikimedia Commons, Sawalich notes: "Adams is known for his beautiful black and white prints, but many of the images from the 1942 Mural Project lack some of the drama for which the photographer’s work is known. This is likely because these 220 8x10 prints (plus one image he made years earlier but included in the selection submitted) are essentially proof prints—straight prints of negatives that were all along intended for more darkroom attention—for simple reference purposes. When reprinted in 2010 under the guidance of Interior Secretary Salazar, museum specialists not only rephotographed and retouched those original prints, but applied a bit of creative reinterpretation to bring the images more inline with the dramatic style that is now so closely associated with Adams prints."

In the process of writing his article, Sawalich also came across contemporaneous correspondence and other supporting documents that offer a uniquely personal window into the collaboration.

RG 146 Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams
RG 146
Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission
Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams

“I think that the fact that you find works like this in the official records of the Interior Department,” Dominic Byrd-McDevitt says, “alongside mundane-seeming memos and correspondence, helps to humanize Adams and sheds light on the many varied and sometimes unexpected valuable records produced in the course of our government’s operations over the years.”

RG 146 Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams
RG 146
Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission
Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams

First Assistant Secretary of the Interior E. K. Burlew writes Adams to propose the assignment. Ansel responds outlining the details of the project as he envisions it.

RG 146 Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams
RG 146
Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission
Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams
RG 146 Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams
RG 146
Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission
Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams
RG 146 Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams
RG 146
Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission
Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams

According to this memorandum, Adams’ pay rate during his government employment was $20 per day, plus $5 per diem, and he was not to exceed 180 working days per year. A higher pay rate, or longer contract duration, would have required congressional approval.

RG 146 Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams
RG 146
Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission
Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II, Adams seeks guidance from Assistant Secretary Burlew.

RG 146 Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams
RG 146
Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission
Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams
RG 146 Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams
RG 146
Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission
Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams

Adams reveals an inclination toward public service and a willingness to produce work without charge to see a project through to completion. “I realize there will be, perhaps, no funds for this work, but I naturally feel obligated to complete it, and am happy to do so. However, if there is any chance of applying some of that remaining $700 to this, I would appreciate it.”

RG 146 Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams
RG 146
Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission
Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams

“With the material I now have,” Ansel wrote in the summer of 1942, “I could make up a stunning exhibit of National Park subjects. The Parks are certainly one of the fine things ‘we are fighting for.’”

Aware that focus on the war effort could potentially suspend or terminate his assignment, Adams was eager to complete the project. “I may be in either the Navy or the Army (in a technical photographic capacity) by Fall", Adams wrote, “so I am anxious to get out as much work along the lines discussed as possible before I get into the War work.”

RG 146 Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams
RG 146
Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission
Personnel Folder of Ansel Adams

On September 10, 1979, Ansel Adams visited the National Archives to view some of the images he produced and printed nearly 40 years earlier.

003 Ansel-Adams-visits-1979-to-view-earlier-work

5 Comments

    Thank you very much for sharing that bit of history with us. I enjoyed reading the documents and to see the spirit in the 40’s. Again, thank you, Bev

    These primary source documents were fascinating to read. In what began as a hobby (my first darkroom) and led to my first career as a still photographer/darkroom technician I was a huge fan of Ansel Adams. I still find his work inspirational and these documents allowed me to see how his business was conducted. I am also a huge fan of our National Parks and hope to explore the very scenes that Mr. Adams photographed. Thanks for the informative post!

    Wes – Thanks much for putting this story out and for the image links. Great material for further study and for the example Ansel Adams set for the business side of our craft. It is inspiring to know that his ethics matched or exceeded the quality of his work.

    Thank you for that bit of refreshment to my soul as I truly miss the spiritual feel of Yosemite’s walls and falls. Although I have been to several wonderful and special National Parks in the past few years from Alaska’s mighty Denali to the Florida keys I await with a quiet excitement for my return to the Sierra Nevada’s and the Yosemite valley. I have promised my daughter that I would not go back there until she received her Masters degree, when we shall make it to the top of the valley. In the vastness we will reflect upon the most important things in our lives, our spirit of adventure and the longing to help protect the things that we love.

    This brings me back to the beginning, thank you for the article on Ansel Adams as his spirit lives on in my life and in the areas in and around the valley as well. His inspiration has touched so many and gives us lofty goals to strive for as humans.

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