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Transmission Lines in Mojave Desert by Ansel Adams
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"Manmade" isn't exactly the first thing that comes to mind when considering Ansel Adams' oeuvre. After all, he built his reputation as one of the most accomplished documentarians of the natural world via his rugged American landscapes, capturing mountain ranges, desert dunes, and thick forests in rich black and white tones. What makes Transmission Lines in Mojave Desert striking, however, is how Adams took what was an unusual subject for him and created an image still so clearly in his style.
In 1941 the National Park Service commissioned Adams to create a photo mural for the Department of the Interior Building in Washington, DC. The theme was nature, as exemplified and protected in the U.S. National Parks, of which there were nearly thirty at the time. The project was cut short due to World War II, but while working on the assignment Adams traveled in the American Southwest, landing him in the Mojave Desert.
How odd it must have been to come across this scene. We imagine the towers seemed like alien structures in comparison to the surrounding sand and low-lying scrub. In reality, the power lines connected to the Hoover (then Boulder) Dam at least fifty miles away. Built to provide irrigation water, control flooding, and produce hydroelectric power, the dam was still fairly new, having only opened in 1936. A controversial construction project, Boulder Dam utilized several new and some untested building techniques. To many people at the time, the dam was an alien structure.
What draws us to this image is Ansel Adams' ability to treat these unnatural machines as though they were part of the natural landscape. Transmission towers were less than thirty years old, but by using his signature landscape photography techniques—contrasting filters to capture a dramatic sky, shooting with a small aperture to achieve the crispest details—he made these manmade structures seem, well, land-made. The three main towers are transformed into three peaks of a mountain range, rising from the dirt in strange symmetrical formation.
Through the incongruousness of Transmission Lines in Mojave Desert, Adams revealed his iconic style that much more clearly. This contrast is at once surprising and profound, but above all, there's no denying that this image is classic Ansel Adams—deserving of some prime real estate on your wall.
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