Ansel Adams’ Vistas Unveiled

Posted March 12, 2010 at 4:15pm

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar takes his mission to keep America beautiful seriously, and it starts in his own building.

Last week Salazar held a reception to unveil a new permanent exhibit displayed on the Department of the Interior’s walls.

The exhibit, “Ansel Adams: The Mural Project 1941-1942,” is the long-overdue fulfillment of a project commissioned by former Interior Secretary Harold Ickes in 1936 and stalled during World War II.

Photographs were the starting point of Ickes and Adams’ relationship. The photographer brought his pictures to Washington, D.C., in early 1936 as part of a Sierra Club effort to lobby for California’s Kings Canyon to become a national park. The effort was a success, and Ickes bought one of Adams’ pictures to hang in his office. Later, he asked Ansel to take photographs that the DOI could use. Fittingly, stunning photographs of the peaks around Kings Canyon now hang as part of the Adams exhibit.

Since Adams’ task was to take photographs that depict the full range of the agency’s roles, he shot mountains, canyons, leaves and Native Americans, all in his signature black and white. More than 200 of his photographs have been stored at the National Archives since then, and 26 are now on display on the first and second floors of the Department of the Interior.

Six of the large photographs show Old Faithful, the geyser at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, as it erupts, the surging water a contrast against the bright sky. Only a couple feature people, and both are of young Native American girls. A photo of the Snake River shows how it may have gotten its name, as it winds through mountain peaks and forests. Each photograph shows what at first appears to be a stationary scene, but frames and lines imply movement and direct the viewer toward highlights of the photographs.

Ickes’ emphasis on beautifying the building extended beyond Adams’ photographs, according to the DOI’s Web site.

“The art in the building was considered integral to its design. One percent of the total cost of the building was set aside for art (approximately $127,000 in Depression era dollars),” the DOI Web site explains.

What could be a stale marble environment gets life and beauty from works of art. Thanks to the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts, which commissioned murals from artists around the country in the late 1930s, more than 25 murals are showcased around the building. Some are painted directly on the walls, including on the hallways where the Adams exhibit is displayed, and sculptures and frescoes are also on display.

Seeing those works of art requires a tour, though, since members of the public aren’t allowed to wander through the building. Visitors are encouraged to line up tours by calling 202-208-4743. Keep in mind, though, that the Interior Museum, normally the anchor of the tour, is under renovation until 2011.

In addition to the new Adams exhibit at the DOI, photography lovers will find a lot to be happy about in the District lately. The Smithsonian’s American Art Museum opened an exhibit of Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s photography of the western United States. Photographer Jason Horowitz’s exhibit “DRAG” is on display at Curator’s Office near Dupont Circle. Winners of the Smithsonian magazine photography contest are being shown at Smithsonian Castle, and finalists in the 9th Annual International Photography Competition are being shown at Fraser Gallery in Bethesda, Md. Amateur local photography is being showcased for the fourth year as part of the “DCist Exposed Photography Show” at Long View Gallery near Mount Vernon Square.

Adams aficionados can order reproductions of the photographs that Ickes commissioned through the National Archives. More information is available at archives.gov/research/ansel-adams.