Legendary photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) produced seven limited-edition portfolios over the course of his long and storied career. He published the first portfolio in 1948 and the last in 1976, referring to the 90 photographs all told as “an excellent cross section of my work.” Thanks to a recent gift from George Melvin Byrne and Barbara S. Barrett-Byrne, The Huntington has acquired all seven in one fell swoop.
Each of the portfolios contains between 10 and 15 pictures selected and printed by the artist himself. There are personal favorites and iconic early career images, such as Monolith, the Face of Half Dome. Adams often referred to making Monolith as a creative epiphany, a moment when he first began to envision the finished print’s look.
The portfolios also showcase less well-known but equally stunning works, such as Cemetery Statue and Oil Derricks, Long Beach, 1939. Adams told one interviewer that he approached the composition of these seemingly incongruous subjects as a “quasi-surrealistic thing.”
The donor, Dr. George Byrne, who sadly passed away not long after making the gift, had been a passionate amateur photographer for many years. A hiker and avid environmentalist, he purchased Portfolio III (1960) and Portfolio IV (1963) from the Sierra Club, the publisher of those particular sets. Dr. Byrne acquired other portfolios directly from Adams, the two having become acquainted when Byrne attended one of the photographer’s famed Yosemite workshops. The portfolios remained packed away in storage for decades; as a result, the photographs look fresh and new.
A second major gift of 420 works by William R. Current (1923-1986) should help insure the Pasadena-born artist’s rightful place on the photo-historical map. Known by a few people today for his in-depth visual investigation of the Arts & Crafts architecture of Charles and Henry Greene, Current’s career highlights included groundbreaking group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as major fellowship awards, such as a 1964 Guggenheim grant. The output of Current’s Guggenheim year—luminous black and white photographs of prehistoric Pueblo architecture—forms the donation’s core.
Current also explored photography’s capacity for producing serial imagery or sequences of pictures to tease out larger ideas. A skilled technician and superb printer, he served as an early mentor to Lewis Baltz (1945-2014), who went on to become one of the medium’s most important conceptual artists. In reflecting on the differences between Current and himself, Baltz told an oral historian: “Bill [Current] photographed the things—trees, rivers, the sea coast, prehistoric architecture in the Southwest—that he loved and admired and used his photography to better understand and bring himself closer to it.”
The gift, which came from the artist’s estate, forms one of the largest groups of Current’s work in an institution and includes personal correspondence and archival material as well.
With these two seminal acquisitions, The Huntington’s photography collections related to California and the American West continue to deepen and grow.
In Huntington Frontiers, you can read an article by Jennifer A. Watts about two versions of Monolith by Ansel Adams and an article by Ann Scheid about William Current’s photographs, which are part of the University of Southern California’s Greene and Greene archives housed at The Huntington.
Jennifer A. Watts is curator of photography at The Huntington.