There are only a handful of photographers whose names are instantly recognizable, and fewer still whose images are indelibly imprinted in the public mind.
Ansel Adams belongs to that small minority of artists who not only enjoy the highest critical acclaim but whose works are beloved by millions of ordinary people who find reflected in them an image of their own spiritual strivings.
Now Adams is the subject of a luminous retrospective that opens Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. The exhibition reveals him as the Robert Frost of American photography, an artist whose dramatic Western landscapes and poetic still-lifes speak directly to the heart, with no need for interpretation.
The Corcoran show is the first major exhibition of Adams' work in Washington in more than a decade, and it presents about 125 images from throughout the artist's career.
All the works are drawn from the collection of William H. and Saundra B. Lane, who purchased them directly from the artist during a 10-year period in the early 1960s and '70s.
It was a time when the artist was finally beginning to reap the rewards of a long and often frustrating career begun in the 1930s, when he and a few other lonely pioneers -- Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and Willard Van Dyke, among others -- set out to create a new photographic art that eschewed fuzzy, soft-focus effects in favor of unmanipulated "straight" photographs printed on glossy black-and-white paper.
Yet in photographs such as his famous image of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941), Adams also betrayed the powerful romantic strain that would endear him to people the world over.
The landscape, taken a few minutes before dusk from a hill overlooking a sleepy desert town as a full moon rises over the horizon and the sun's last, slanting rays illuminate rows of white crosses in a local cemetery, has the emotional power of a religious image, unconsciously reminding us of the eternal cycle of light and dark, life and death and the unaccountable boundaries separating the two.
No one needs to be told what this image is about. It is about the feelings each of us experiences on being invited to contemplate a fundamental mystery of existence, the essential duality of a world that can never be resolved, only acknowledged.
Adams didn't set out to make philosophical statements with his pictures; his greatest images were all accidents in the sense that they ultimately came to mean more than whatever the artist thought he saw on his ground glass.
The fact that so many of Adams' photographs stemmed from "the evidence of things not seen" suggests his greatness lay not in his technique nor in his habit of previsualizing entire compositions before releasing the shutter, but from his own profoundly emotional response to nature and its moods. In his greatest pictures, Adams photographed not just what he saw, but what he felt.
Ansel Adams runs Saturday through Jan. 27 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. N.W., Washington. Call 202-639-1700 or go to corcoran.org.