ansel adams photos hawaii
George Lycurgis, Volcano House, Hawaii (1958)

The work of photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) invariably conjures images of majestic mountains and glorious landscapes, a panoply of deserts and canyons, Old Faithful and moonrises, depicted in all their splendor across the American West. (And, of course, the magnificent aspens series that found the beautiful art in trees.)

Yet though nature and sky may have been his preferred artistic habitats, a more personal aspect to the great photographer’s endeavors is also highlighted in The Hawaii Pictures  (at the Honolulu Museum of Art through early next year), an exhibit that brings together some of the lovely pieces created by both Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe during extended stays on the islands.

ansel adams hawaii photos
Gilbert Amaral with wife and son, in the “Dream City” of Kahului, Maui (1958)

Adams was on a commission by a private bank in Honolulu in the late 1950s when he crafted some little-known images far removed from the subject matter he was so renowned for. It would be hard to guess that the photographs shown here came from the same camera that captured such scenic masterpieces as El Capitan, Winter, Sunrise.

“He was at a point in his thinking about photography that he was starting to reincorporate pictures of people in his photographs,” notes curator Theresa Papanikolas, “thinking that you can’t really understand nature and landscape unless you show how people coexist with it or inhabit it. And so he shows the people who inhabited Hawaii at the time.”

I found echoes of the eminent photojournalist, Dorothea Lange, in the picture at top from 1958, along with overtones of another seminal photographer of the Depression era, Walker Evans, in the piece at center left (taken in Kahului, Maui that same year). The composition below is yet another whose human dimension lies in stark stylistic contrast to the Adams of legend.

One senses the innate spirit of exploration that characterizes all great visual artists, whether it’s through a lens or brushstroke, and at whose heart lies the credo: predictability not allowed.

ansel adams hawaii photos
Sanchez Family, Wailuku Plantation, Maui, from 1957
(Photos: Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona)