Group f/64 and scenes of Sand Dunes

Ansel Adams Original Photographs, Story Behind the Image

Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley

Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley National Park, Original Photograph by Ansel Adams

Surreal is not a word that people tend to associate with Ansel Adams’ work. After all, his most famous photographs are best known for capturing the splendor of the natural world as we know it—the peaks and valleys of Yosemite, or the vast deserts of New Mexico. Yet, when it comes to Ansel’s arresting photographs of sand dunes, they have an otherworldly, dreamlike quality that is unmistakably surreal.

Works like “Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley National Park, California”, “Dunes, Hazy Sun, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico” and “Dunes, Oceano, California” are idiosyncratic, rendered with either a nearly square aspect ratio or a vertical presentation—quite unlike Adams’ usual landscape compositions. And yet, these unique images also convey the qualities of subtlety and clarity that define all of Ansel’s masterworks. Crisply defined and richly detailed, these photographs display Ansel’s virtuosic ability to capture the kinetic aspects of the desert landscape. Through each detail in the negative, he reveals untold subtleties of tone, light and texture—each blade of grass casting its own shadow, each tiny line in the sand rendered as a single wave upon a vast, open ocean.

The unparalleled clarity and crispness of these images is not merely a testament to Adams’ skill as a photographer. It’s also exemplary of the photographic philosophy of Group f/64, a group of Bay Area photographers in the 1930s that included Ansel, as well as his lifelong friends and frequent collaborators Edward and Brett Weston and Imogene Cunningham, among others. In the Group’s manifesto, they defined photography as an art form characterized by “simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods.” At the time, this would have been immediately recognizable as a bold challenge to Pictorialism, the dominant school of thought, which sought to create images more akin to impressionist paintings than documentary photographs.

Dunes, Oceano (V), original photograph by Ansel Adams

Sand Dunes, Oceano (c. 1950), Original Photograph by Ansel Adams

Dunes, Hazy Sun, White Sands National Monument

Dunes, Hazy Sun, White Sands National Monument (1941), Original Photograph by Ansel Adams

Instead, Ansel and his cohort established a new school of West Coast photography, defined by a more modern, or “pure,” photographic approach. Their chosen name, ”f/64”, referred to the smallest aperture available in large-format view cameras at the time, signaling the group’s conviction that photographers should celebrate their medium’s ability to capture the details of the world we live in. In other words, their art sought to present things “as they are.” By showing viewers a true picture of a photographic subject, they captured not just its appearance, but its emotional reality: how it feels to experience a dune—or a magnolia blossom, or the sublime curve of a cabbage leaf.

“The photographers’ meticulous concern for transcribing the exact features of what was before the camera bound them together and rendered the emotional experience of form the primary feature of their photographic art.”

Lisa Hostetler, Curator of Photography at the George Eastman House / Smithsonian American Art Museum

It’s ironic, then, that all this clarity—this realness—would end up creating a surreal effect. The dunes themselves—barren, curvaceous, almost extraterrestrial—almost approach something out of a Salvador Dalí painting. “Dunes, Oceano, California” (1963), with its detailed foreground and foreboding, shadowy background, looks more Martian than Californian. The sharp diagonal line dividing the composition gives the photograph an almost abstract, collage-like quality, accentuated by the uncommon square format. When you compare Adams’ dunes with Brett Weston’s “Dune, Oceano” (1967) or his “Sand Dune 6” at the MoMA, it is clear that these lifelong friends were in deep dialogue, influencing and even precipitating one another’s art.  

Dunes, Oceano (1963), Original Photograph by Ansel Adams

Dunes, Oceano (1963), Original Photograph by Ansel Adams

Just like Ansel, Edward and Brett shared a fascination with dunes, particularly those at Oceano, to which they would return many, many times over their respective careers. Their works attest to their enduring fascination with the seemingly limitless number of subjects the ever-shifting sands offered. Indeed, the Westons’ dune photographs exhibit a similar interest in the fine lines left by the wind blowing over the sand—as seen in Edward’s 1936 photograph “Dunes, Oceano” or Brett’s “Texture and Line, Dunes, Oceano” (1936). Although far from abstract, there is an otherworldly beauty seen in their contrasting lines and patterns, with flowing diagonals and undulating waves.

Deeply modern and as groundbreaking today as it was in 1930, the Group f/64 philosophy works equally as well on a small sand dune as it does capturing the New Mexican desert or the valleys of Yosemite. By using purely photographic techniques to depict the world around us, Ansel and his cohort capture the paradoxical coexistence of the real and surreal—not just in photography, but in everyday life. As the old adage goes, the truth is stranger than fiction, and in Adams’ and the Westons’ dunes, we see that idea exemplified. These arresting photographs are at once both fact and fantasy, utterly fact, yet rendered in a deeply fantastical and vividly emotional way.