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Images born of passionate vision, extraordinary patience

``What singest thou?'' Walt Whitman asks. ``I sing America,'' Ansel Adams seems to answer. The works of both the poet and the photographer celebrate life, nature, and country with the same zest and brilliance.

To see the exhibition ``Ansel Adams: Classic Images'' at the San Diego Museum of Art is to view the artist's photographs as he intended them to be viewed. This collection, called the Museum Set, consists of 75 works that were personally selected and printed by Adams during the last years of his life. The set represents his best photographs and spans five decades of work. In 1984, when Ansel Adams died at the age of 82, he had completed six of the 100 sets he had intended to produce for museums and educationally minded institutions and groups. This exhibition, made possible by the Pacific Telesis Group, is on national tour and comes directly from Washington, D.C., where it had its inaugural showing at the National Gallery. It will remain in San Diego through April 27.

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Ansel Adams was an artist whose passionate vision compelled him to climb a mountain wearing hobnailed shoes and lugging a heavy view camera and tripod just because he had ``visualized'' a certain image of Half Dome rock formation in Yosemite National Park. In ``A Personal Credo'' Adams states that a great photograph should express what ``one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense.'' Thus Adams's reverence for nature is discernible in all his work.

Upon reaching the elevation that gave him a spectacular view of Half Dome's great granite wall, Adams felt so emotionally charged by the grandeur of the sight that he realized the yellow filter he had planned to use would not reflect his feelings emphatically enough. He changed to a red filter, which he knew would render the sky black rather than gray. The image that resulted was the powerful ``Monolith, the Face of Half Dome,'' which has the same impact on viewers today as it did in 1927.

It is difficult to imagine that the highly disciplined photographer was so undisciplined as a child that, in 1915, his father took him out of school for the entire year and resorted to an innovative program of home tutoring and daily attendance at the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Thirteen-year-old Ansel responded well to this experimental classroom. It was there that he first saw the prints of California photographer Edward Weston and the paintings of the French Impressionists. Along with the development of his artistic eye, young Ansel was discovering an interest in music. The child who couldn't learn in school was now spending hours at the keyboard.

For a while Ansel Adams considered a career as a concert pianist, but a trip to Yosemite with a Kodak Brownie camera changed that. By the early 1920s he was publishing articles and photographs for the Sierra Club Bulletin, and photography had become his medium for self-expression. He was convinced that a photograph was not an accident, but a concept. For him, ``seeing'' the image as a finished product was the fundamentally important element. To take a certain scene, he sometimes waited patiently for the fog to lift or for a cloud to add drama to a landscape; occasionally he made an unplanned photograph.

While driving through New Mexico once, he passed a scene that made him screech to a stop. Under an immense sky stood a cluster of houses in front of which emerged rows of small white crosses. Even though he had only one plate left, he set up his camera and took his extraordinary ``Moonrise, Hernandez.'' Later, when the time came to label the historic photograph, Adams couldn't remember when or where he had taken it, although he knew the exact f-stop and other technical details. An astrophysicist who studied the face of the moon captured on the print identified the location and calculated that the photograph was taken on Oct. 31, 1941, at 4:05 p.m.

Besides the panoramic landscapes, the exhibition contains several portraits -- George O'Keefe grinning whimsically at Orville Cox; an intense Jos'e Clemente Orozco staring through double-barreled glasses that seem soldered to his nose.

Among the less-often seen nature prints is his ``Surf Sequence,'' made in 1940, long before serial photographs became popular. The sequence consists of four images taken from a height directly above the surfline. the effect is a stunning two-dimensional pattern of white-laced curves. In striving to produce perfect images, Ansel Adams used the best and simplest of equipment and spared no effort, believing that the ``incredibly beautiful revelation of the lens is worthy of the most sympathetic treatment in every respect.''

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The hymnal quality of Ansel Adams's photographs is not incidental. It is an integral part of his work which, like that of Walt Whitman, sings ``of life immense in passion, pulse and power.''

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