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  • Landscape Culture:Ansel Adams and Mary Austin's Taos Pueblo
  • Daniel Worden (bio)

California arts patron Albert Bender introduced Ansel Adams to Mary Hunter Austin in 1927 during a visit to New Mexico. In 1929, Adams returned to Santa Fe and Taos to take the photographs that became his contribution to a collaboration with Austin, the 1930 photobook Taos Pueblo. During his stay in Santa Fe, Adams also took a portrait photograph of Austin. Hoping to use the portrait as a publicity photo for her lecture tours, Austin was disappointed to find that the photograph did not capture "the effect it is still necessary for me to make on my public."1 Looking at the photograph, one can certainly detect the pictorialist approach that defines Adams's early work; the portrait has a soft focus, and the background is hazy (figure 1). Adams was, by 1929, shifting away from pictorialism and towards a "straight" photographic style that privileges clean lines, deep focus, and a realist representation of shadow and light—the style that he would become known for in later decades.2 The reason for Austin's disappointment can be understood by comparing her portrait to another author's portrait published just a year earlier.

In 1928, Adams's portrait of Robinson Jeffers was used as a frontispiece to an art-book edition of Jeffers's poems by the Grabhorn Press. While similar to the Austin portrait in many ways, the Jeffers portrait has a much softer focus and a warmth that seems to connote artistic genius, a quality very important to Austin and a frequent subject of her writing3 (figures 2 and 3). Furthermore, the layout of the Jeffers book, with the frontispiece facing the title page, emphasizes the photograph as a transparent signifier of the poet himself, reminiscent of the frontispiece to Walt Whitman's 1855 Leaves of Grass.4 Adams's portrait of Austin does not have nearly as much shadow as the Jeffers portrait. Austin looks directly at the viewer, and Adams's use of shallow depth-of-field highlights not only the design of her Native American jewelry but also her facial expression, making her look far more severe than sublime. The portrait does not [End Page 69] represent Austin as an American genius in touch with an exotic Southwest, as much as it captures Austin as a stubborn, material being, gazing directly at the viewer.


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Figure 1.

Portrait of Mary Austin, 1929. Photograph by Ansel Adams. Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

© 2012 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

Austin's dissatisfaction with Adams's portrait, then, is a familiar moment in modernism as a younger artist, in this case, Adams, struggles to overcome the stylistic conventions and expectations of a previous generation, represented here by Austin, an established regionalist writer known for her stories about California and New Mexico. Austin might come off as familiarly antimodernist in her initial exchange with Adams, very much in keeping with traditional accounts of regionalist writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.5 However, while modernism has often been thought of as "the antithesis of regionalism," they are better thought of as intertwined and mutually constitutive aesthetics.6 As Scott Herring has argued in his introduction to the "Regional Modernism" special issue of Modern Fiction Studies, "regionalism and modernism have always been compeers in terms of spatiality and in terms of periodization."7 Erika Doss's study of painter Thomas Hart Benton and his famous student Jackson Pollock also emphasizes the ways in which Benton and Pollock, painters known, respectively, for their regionalism and abstract expressionism, share an investment in art as a mode of social reform, an element often recognized in regionalist art but less so in abstract expressionism. Doss argues that this aesthetic of social reform was downplayed, even erased, from accounts of abstract expressionism as modernist aesthetics were codified as apolitical, impersonal, and self-reflexive by the middle of the twentieth century.8

Since modernism and regionalism were so closely intertwined in the early to mid-twentieth century, it makes sense that Adams and Austin's [End Page 70] differences in 1929...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0342
Print ISSN
0011-1589
Pages
pp. 69-94
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-03
Open Access
No
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