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Interior Department Offers Ansel Adams in Large Print

Though America is celebrated for its colorful abundance, a new exhibition at the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum depicts the country’s sprawling natural resources in shades of black and white.

On display are eight mural-sized landscape portraits by American photography master Ansel Adams, who draws on his typical contrasts of brooding shadows and blazing white to offer up some striking images of national parks.

In 1941, the Interior Department commissioned numerous artists to create landscape murals that would decorate the walls of the department’s newly constructed headquarters. Adams was among them.

Although the onset of World War II eventually diverted funding and killed the project, the National Archives retains copies of Adams’ work, and the photographer was eventually awarded the Interior Department’s highest honor, the Conservation Service Award. These eight photos are part of that project.

Most of the photographs are set in the Southwest, a region where the government had already set aside large swaths of land for national parks. Yellowstone and Grand Teton also make an appearance.

The result is a series of haunting landscapes, the desolate grandeur of the natural features sullied by only traces of human life. Towering rock edifices and vast stretches of sky dominate.

In one image, a few sparse rows of dusty crops give way to a towering outcropping of ridges; in another, a partially intact storehouse — one side gleaming white in the sunlight — surmounts a cliff, the rocky plains of First Mesa, Ariz., below stretching to the horizon.

Alongside the large prints, which are about 4 feet by 4 feet, are a few smaller photos, among them portraits of Southwestern Native Americans. Despite the varying sizes of portraits on display, all of the more than 100 images from which the exhibition curators chose were shot with grand dimensions in mind.

“The exhibit is special because this is one of the first times that [Adams] did really large-scale portrait work, so he captured the images, intending them to be mural-sized,— said Diana Zeigler, coordinator of outreach and public programs.

The exhibition also offers some brief glimpses into Adams’ working methods, including a letter from the artist describing a “spectacular and dangerous trip— through yawning gorges, heavy rains and mud in Mesa Verde, Colo.

The exhibition runs until Nov. 30.

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