Forgotten Ansel Adams Murals Brought Back To Light

This Ansel Adams photograph of Acoma Pueblo, N.M., is among those now on display, decades after being commissioned.
This Ansel Adams photograph of Acoma Pueblo, N.M., is among those now on display, decades after being commissioned. Ansel Adams/National Archives

A new exhibit on the walls of the Interior Department's headquarters displays a series of photographs taken by Ansel Adams — murals commissioned in the last century, but never before displayed.

The many federal buildings of Washington, D.C., house more than just bureaucracy and thousands of federal workers. They are also home to some hidden gems of art.

A new exhibit on the walls of the Interior Department's headquarters displays a series of photographs taken by Ansel Adams — murals commissioned in the last century, but never before displayed.

A bit of back story: The Department of the Interior's headquarters was built in 1936 during the Roosevelt administration. President Franklin Roosevelt's interior secretary was his close adviser Harold Ickes, who stipulated that 1 percent of the funds used for the building be devoted to art.

Enter Ansel Adams. He was already well regarded for his now iconic black-and-white landscapes of the American West and Southwest.

Kirk Deitz, the curator of the Interior Department's collection, is largely responsible for rediscovering the Adams photographs. He says Adams and Ickes, who met at a Washington conference on preserving parklands, "hit it off. They both had very similar views regarding the preservation of wilderness."

Adams was paid $22 a day for his work, but the project was shelved with the advent of World War II and forgotten — the prints stored at the National Archives.

Shades Of Gray

But with the encouragement of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Deitz made copies of Adams' prints on canvas, and installed them on the building's first- and second-floor hallways.

The 26 images on display reflect a range of views from landscapes to portraits of Native American life.

Adams' reputation rests on his acute awareness of light, and the infinite shades of gray that emerge from his pictures of the natural monuments of the West. One of his photographs captures the Grand Tetons with the Snake River curving in the foreground, a storm looming overhead.

Deitz says Adams "developed a sense of visualization where he could look at a scene before he actually took the photograph, and he knew what the final product would look like and he was going for this effect."

While Adams' landscapes are justly famous, he is not so well known for pictures of people. Deitz says one of his favorites is a portrait of two Native American girls who are sitting on steps in front of a pueblo.

"When he shot those works, he shot them with the camera pointing up, and there is some thinking that he didn't want the camera pointing down," Deitz says. "He wanted the shot to really be about dignity, where the viewer would be looking up at Native Americans and not down at them.”

Interior's Other Treasures

The National Parks are well represented in the Adams murals. There are several views of Yellowstone's Old Faithful geyser, the Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Adams murals are the latest addition to the Interior Department's collection, but the building is a trove of American art. Deitz showed off its south penthouse, a space he says "was originally designated as the employee soda fountain."

While there is a magnificent view of Washington's monuments outside, the walls inside are equally compelling, decorated with murals painted by Native American artists.

One mural by Velino Herrera shows a scene of a ceremonial dance, Deitz says. Other scenes show buffalo hunts, a woman carrying a baby in a papoose, a man beating a drum.

Deitz says the paintings were commissioned by Ickes, who personally oversaw the work.

There are other works of art adorning the Interior Department's walls. At the end of one hallway, a group of working men are posed in a heroic scene — the work of social realist painter William Gropper, called Construction of a Dam. The painting, in the form of a triptych, caused some controversy in the 1950s.

"There was actually a push during the McCarthy era to get this ripped down," Deitz says.

The mural was controversial because of the two shirtless men — one black, one white — working side by side, their hands on the same tool handle. In addition, some saw the side panel, showing curved metal and a hammer poised just so, as a little too symbolic of a Soviet hammer and sickle for comfort.

The Adams murals and other art in the Interior Department can be viewed by appointment. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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