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Majestic collection

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A print of “Vernal Falls, Yosemite Valley, CA,” made by Ansel Adams from his original negative is one of 15 images contained in a folio belonging to the University Library’s special collections

Library treasure hunt turns up Ansel Adams prints


When the daytime sky in a photograph turns nearly black, a frothy waterfall appears to cascade in live motion across the frame, or a small rising moon dominates a mighty mountain in the foreground, the black-and-white images in question can only be the work of Ansel Adams.

After arriving at Cal State East Bay in fall 2008 to assume the job of University librarian, Linda Dobb set out to explore the treasures held in the library’s special collections. Among letters by 20th-century newspaper columnist H.L. Mencken, samples of Beat poetry, a set of 1865 Horatio Alger novels, and a Latin mass from the 1490s, she also found unexpected gems touched by Adams’ own hand.

“When I came here, I saw this piece of paper that said we had an Ansel Adams portfolio,” she says. “The book was sold in copies of 250. Our set happens to be copy No. 113.”

Dobb soon tracked down the folio, What Majestic Word, published in 1963 by the Sierra Club, an organization Adams served as a board member for nearly 40 years. The folio contains 15 18-inch by 14-inch prints made by Adams from his original negatives. The black-and-white prints were originally bound together, but early University librarians wanted library patrons to see the collection more easily.

“Somebody was smart and said, ‘Why have them in a book?’ and took them out and framed them,” Dobb explains. “For a long time they hung in the library.”

While the move may have diminished the monetary value of the folio — a bound set recently sold at auction for approximately $170,000 — it better served the University’s purposes, she says.

“Our whole library is about access,” Dobb says. “We want people to study them as art.”

Today, the prints — stored carefully in five archival boxes — are kept in the oak-paneled Erickson Special Collections Room and are available for students and scholars to study by appointment. During a recent informal tour of the special collections room, which contains about 25,000 items, Dobb pulls the folio boxes down from a high shelf and sets them on a large worktable that dominates the center of the room.

“Let’s just take the ribbon off of these,” she says, before removing the box top and gently pulling a rectangle of linen from the first image, “Northern California Coast Redwoods,” depicting a row of slender, towering evergreens. “We’re trying to keep them for future generations to come and see.”

The prints represent a range of the natural subjects, from a close-up of forest foliage made in Alaska to panoramic Sierra Nevada landscapes, all interpreted in the artist’s trademark high contrast style emphasizing black blacks against pale grays and nearly luminescent whites.

“There are different periods of Ansel Adams’ life in which he made prints of his work,” Dobb says. “Some are considered light and some are dark. I believe 1963 is considered a good period for his work.”

On one of his first visits to Cal State East Bay, Associate Professor of Art Scott Hopkins says he saw the Adams’ prints on display. Hopkins teaches photography, photo history, and multimedia courses and currently is working on an ongoing project making photos along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Given the political nature of his own work, Hopkins appreciates the role Adams played in drawing attention to the importance of preserving natural spaces.

“Ansel Adams was certainly an activist in a way,” Hopkins says. “There’s a long tradition of activism and art — (there’s) the Raft of the Medusa by Géricault and, of course, Goya’s painting of people being killed (by Napoleon’s troops) and Picasso’s Guernica, that’s a very political painting.”

While earlier artists directed public attention to atrocities of the day, Adams focused his lens on beautiful subjects in areas such as Yosemite but not strictly for beauty’s sake, says Hopkins, who characterizes Adams as a “diehard environmentalist.” He notes that Adams first went to work at Yosemite when he was 14 years old and joined the Sierra Club before discovering his passion for making pictures.

“Ansel’s pictures really helped promote the Sierra Club idea ‘in wilderness is preservation of the world,’” Hopkins says. “(He) promoted the beauty of wilderness, and how important it is to protect it.”

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