2020 has been a year of standstill, resistance, and change. Much of the unacknowledged unfairness has become highly pronounced – the frictions compelling political powers to act and respond. The world of art has also gone through immense changes. Many museums and cultural organizations have kept their doors shut throughout the year. While the direct-artist-to-collector sales have seen a record increase, a majority of the galleries have faced a hard time. Some were forced to dissolve, a few others merged or had to drop cream collections and the rest grappled with the unchartered online world. This is especially so in countries like India since online markets demand a certain degree of openness and transparency, and art trade here has so far been evasive of fair regulations. Even then, there has been a good share of sales, including that of photographs.
For those who have been following the emerging market trends, the year 2020 hasn’t been a disappointing one. Sotheby has made record sales of Ansel Adams prints giving a rather ceremonious end to the challenging year. ‘A Grand Vision: The David H. Arrington Collection of Ansel Adams Masterworks’ comprised 123 prints by Ansel Adams, and the complete set was put up for auction this December 14. Interestingly, 94 percent of the collection was successfully sold to buyers both in person at Sotheby’s New York and online. A mural-sized print, ‘The Grand Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming’, was sold for a record-high for an Ansel Adams print, closing at $988,000.
Ansel Adams photographed the record-setting print in 1942. The image was commissioned by the Department of the Interior. The mural-sized print of Jackson Hole is one of the fewer than 10 that are thought to exist. David H. Arrington acquired it directly from a descendant of Ansel Adams. David H. Arrington was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, and currently serves as the President of Arrington Oil & Gas Operating LLC. He became interested in photography as a teenager and began collecting Adams’ work in his twenties. His collection ultimately developed into one of the largest and most comprehensive private collections of Adams’ photography. Pieces from the collection have been part of many exhibits over the years, including in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Hayward Gallery, the Kunstbibliothek in Berlin, and the Museum of Modern Art.
American photographer Ansel Adams (1902 – 1984) was the most important landscape photographer of the 20th century. He is also perhaps the most widely known and beloved photographer in the history of the United States; the popularity of his work has only increased since his death. While photography and piano shared his attention during early adulthood, at the beginning of 1930’s Adams decided to devote his life to photography. By 1935 Adams was famous in the photographic community, largely on the strength of a series of articles written for the popular photography press, especially Camera Craft. The importance of Adams’s work was recognized in 1936 by Alfred Stieglitz, who awarded him the first one-artist show in his gallery, An American Place. However, many of Adams’s contemporaries thought that photographers—and even painters—should be making pictures that relate more directly to the huge economic and political issues of the day. This argument sounds familiar in the Indian context. Even today our celebrated masters like Raghu Rai publicly condemn experimental and conceptual photographic works as nonsense. Ansel Adams increasingly used his prominent position in the field to increase the public acceptance of photography as fine art. In 1940 he helped found the first curatorial department devoted to photography as an art form at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In 1946 he established at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute) the first academic department to teach photography as a profession. He also revived the idea of the original (chemical) photographic print as an artifact, something that might be sold as an art object.
His Portfolio I of 1948 offered 12 original prints of extraordinary quality for $100. Eventually, Adams produced seven such portfolios, the last in 1976. Fast forward to 2020. Ansel Adam’s life-long efforts did pay off. The total sales by Sotheby crossed 6.4 million USD. ‘The Grand Tetons and the Snake River’ was sold for the highest price. The picture was taken from an elevated point of view and it depicts the Snake River in a mountainous valley.
There is an interesting anecdote – the dramatically-lit black-and-white photograph is one of the images chosen by NASA and Carl Sagan to be carried on the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts in 1977. NASA has placed an ambitious message aboard Voyager 1 and 2, a kind of time capsule, intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials. The Voyager message is carried by a phonograph record, a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth. The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University, et. al. Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind, and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this, they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from President Carter and U.N. Secretary-General Waldheim.
Well, Ansel Adam’s photo captured the landscape so well that it would be ideal for showing extraterrestrial life what Earth’s environment was like. It will be 40,000 years before they make a close approach to any other planetary system. And, the spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But, a little hope for that chance encounter is not too much to ask for…
 Raghu Rai in conversation with Sebastia Salgado, Inaugural Speech of Indian Photography Festival – Hyderbad, 2020