Ansel’s Public Works

Ansel Adams’ images on assignment as the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Photographic Muralist are an enduring record of the great American landscape that we all share
Ansel’s Public Works
Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1942.

In the summer of 1941, Ansel Adams was recruited for employment by the United States government. His assignment was simple: For no more than 180 days of the coming year, he would travel the country making photographs of national parks and notable American landscapes at a rate of $20 per day. The government would provide film, paper and darkroom chemicals. In return, Adams’ negatives would be used to create photographic murals for display in the halls of the Department of the Interior.

It all started when Interior Secretary Harold Ickes—who had previously met Adams and purchased a decorative screen from the young photographer—began commissioning painted murals for the halls of the Interior building. Ickes wanted to augment the painted murals with images “made by the photographic process.”

In June 1941, Adams received a rather cryptic letter from the First Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, E.K. Burlew, requesting a meeting the next time Adams was “in the East.” After a bit of back and forth, it was explained that Secretary Ickes would like to commission Adams to produce 36 murals. Adams arranged the meeting and, soon thereafter, on October 14, 1941, he accepted the appointment to his post—Photographic Muralist, Grade FCS-19.

Adams and Burlew ironed out the details of the project by postal service and telegram. That correspondence—which outlined the nuts and bolts of materials, costs and timelines, as well as Adams’ aesthetic and creative concerns—is contained in the same file at the National Archives and Records Administration as the images Adams produced for the project.

Ansel’s Public Works
McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana, 1942.

In an October letter to Burlew, Adams detailed his travel plans for the coming weeks, explaining that although he would be working for two other clients, he would seize every opportunity to make photographs relating to the mural project on a trip through the Southwest. In an effort to continue their correspondence, Adams went on to explain that he could be reached by general postal delivery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on or around October 29. He didn’t know it yet, but he was describing the time and place in which he would produce one of the most iconic photographs of all time.

On November 1, 1941, after spending the day fruitlessly photographing outside of Santa Fe, Adams was returning to his hotel in the late afternoon when a glow in the fading light caught his eye. He quickly pulled his car to the shoulder of Route 84 and hurried to capture an image in the twilight. He was only able to make a single exposure of the scene, but it was enough. It depicted the moon rising over Hernandez, New Mexico.

Ansel’s Public Works
Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1941.

Though he was traveling on assignment for two commercial clients, as well as the U.S. government, the iconic moonrise image was made for Adams himself. In correspondence with Burlew, Adams made clear not only that he would use government film for the mural project and his own film for personal work, but also that he took no issue with the government’s outright ownership of the negatives created for its mural project.

“I am quite certain that no problem will arise about government ownership of the negatives,” he wrote to Burlew. “The pictures will be made for an especial purpose—the Murals—and, while they may have some publicity value to your department, they should not be used otherwise. If I come across exciting material that I would want for personal use I will photograph it on my personal film. It will be a simple matter to keep material accounts straight. Conversely, when I am on personal excursions, I will not neglect opportunities to make negatives for the project.”

Adams went on to write, “…in these matters I shall be reasonable; the details will work out as we go along.” The tenor of each of his letters is magnanimous. Time and again, Adams offered to go above and beyond what was required of his assignment, to accommodate any alterations his employers might request, and even to go so far as to work beyond the 180-day contracted maximum without pay in order to complete the project as the artist envisioned it.

Ansel’s Public Works
Tewas in headdress, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico, 1942.

Adams designed the murals project always to have one major subject on which he would concentrate and two secondary subjects. When the assignment began, Adams’ first focus was the national parks, a series he hoped to complete by June 30, 1942. The secondary focus would be Native American arts and crafts, and the Native American lifestyle, in general. In each case, these subjects were near and dear to Adams throughout his life.

Adams made clear in another letter that, although he would be working on assignment for the government, he had no intention of creating the kind of dark, depressing documentary images that came out of Depression-era Works Progress Administration assignments.

“The treatment I propose for the above subjects would in no way be reminiscent of the documentary photography of the 1930s,” he wrote, “in which a more or less negative aspect of our civilization was stressed for purposes of social improvement and reform. I would stress the positive aspects; the advancement of civilization and the grandeur of our natural environment.”

Just two months after the commission began, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War II. Just three weeks later, the 39-year-old Adams wrote to Assistant Secretary Burlew to offer his services to the war effort in any way the bureaucrat saw fit.

Ansel’s Public Works
Taos Pueblo National Historic Landmark, New Mexico, 1941.

“May I assure you of my eagerness to be of service in every possible way at this time,” Adams wrote. “I trust you will not hesitate to request my services in any way consistent with my abilities. I believe my work relates most efficiently to an emotional presentation of ‘what we are fighting for,’ but if the need should arise I will gladly undertake any type of work required.”

Fully expecting to join the Army or Navy in a photographic capacity by the end of 1942, Adams grew increasingly eager to complete his mural project as soon as possible. He had photographed nearly a dozen national parks and monuments, and eventually he’d deliver 221 gelatin silver prints to the Department of the Interior. With the focus on the war, however, Adams’ appointment was terminated in July 1942 and the murals project was stalled—until 68 years later, when in spring 2010, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar commissioned 26 mural prints of Adams’ images from the original project to be displayed on the first and second floors of the main Interior building. It took a lifetime, and Adams himself never got to see it, but his government mural project was finally complete.

See The Archive & Correspondence
In addition to the complete archive of images Adams produced for the Department of the Interior, several contemporaneous documents including personal correspondence from Adams provide a fascinating insight into the project. View these documents and the digital archive of images.

Accessing the Long-Dormant Archive of Images
For the seven decades in between, those 221 prints largely sat untouched in a series of boxes on a series of shelves at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. At some point during Adams’ lifetime, according to records, it appears a set of copy negatives was made of the submitted prints for archival reasons, though it’s unclear if those were made from the original prints or negatives.

Because Adams produced the photographs as a government employee, he didn’t retain copyright for the images. The U.S. government had full rights to the images (though Adams himself did keep the original negatives), and under the direction of NARA, the images were in the public domain—free to use by the American people, howsoever we may see fit.

Even though the photographs were long available to the public, before the digital era there weren’t many citizens who knew about Adams’ government images or had access to them. But in the late 1990s, NARA made a push to digitize as much of its archive as possible. As a fairly high-profile portfolio of images, the mural project prints were scanned and made available online (in low-resolution form at no charge, with high-res files available for a nominal fee). A Flickr page even was created. Still, Americans, as a whole, weren’t making use of this unique archive of images. They may have been free, but they weren’t freely accessible.

That all changed in 2011, when NARA appointed archivist Dominic Byrd-McDevitt as its first “Wikipedian in Residence.” Byrd-McDevitt’s mission was to make valuable historical information easily available to the American public, and the Adams portfolio was a high priority.

Ansel’s Public Works
Castle Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 1941.

“As a high-value collection,” says Byrd-McDevitt, “the Ansel Adams photographs from the Department of the Interior’s records were part of the agency’s early digitization efforts in the late 1990s and have been publicly available in our catalog since then. NARA has been working together with the Wikipedia community for several years now, because NARA’s mission is to make public records accessible to the public. Wikipedia, one of the most viewed resources on the web, is an important part of our digital access strategy. NARA’s records on Wikipedia, including the Ansel Adams photos, now receive over a billion views annually, which is more than all other digital platforms, including the catalog, websites and social media, combined.

“While our actions in making these scans available for Wikipedia was not the first time they were seen by the public,” Byrd-McDevitt continues, “it represented a proactive effort to put our cultural heritage where the public would get the most access and use out of it. Since these images are free and in the public domain, putting them in Wikipedia means it is much more likely that people will find and use them for any number of other purposes—which is what we are about as an archives, not just preserving records, but innovating to maximize reuse and sharing of them, even outside our research rooms and websites.”

Notes Byrd-McDevitt, “We care about this not for self-promotional reasons or for any political agenda, but because it is rooted in our role as a profession, and the National Archives’ role within our society. In the words of David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, ‘At the Archives, the concepts of openness and access are embedded in our mission. And the work we do every day is rooted in the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine and learn from the records that guarantee citizens’ rights, document government actions and tell the story of the nation.’”

During his relatively brief tenure as an employee of the U.S. government, Ansel Adams made more than 200 photographs that clearly and succinctly added to our national story. And, thanks to the diligent efforts of archivists like Dominic Byrd-McDevitt, gaining access to that story is easier and more efficient than ever.

William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age 10. He earned a bachelor’s degree in photography from Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, then a master’s degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. He is a working commercial photographer specializing in editorial, advertising and corporate assignments, and an adjunct photography faculty member at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. He has been writing about photography for an audience of advanced amateurs and professionals since 1998.

2 Comments

    One of the other government commissions Ansel Adams carried out was photographing the living conditions under which Japanese/Americans were subjected to, at the War Relocation Centre at Manzanar. Many people just associate Adams with his famous landscapes, when indeed there was a lot more to this man than that. Ansel Adams, also (by all accounts) also vigorously promoted the use of much better quality paper and printing methods in things like magazines.

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