Austin + Adams: A Rare Book of the West
Each image printed on rag paper by Ansel Adams himself.
An essay on culture and landscape by a great writer of the Southwest.
One of only 108 copies of a fine letterpress binding by preeminent artisans of the era.
To understand the rarity and historical import of a first edition of the 1930 Taos Pueblo, one must gather and understand the many pieces of its story. This book is an artifact of the history of photography in America. It is evidence of the early career of arguably the most important landscape photographer of the 20th century. It is also a unique example of fine bookbinding for its era, only one of 108 copies. Its text is by Mary Austin, whose work belongs to the canon of 20th century literature of the West. Perhaps most importantly, this book portrays the residents of the pueblo of Taos, New Mexico, providing two contrasting perspectives--in text and in photography--of their home at that moment in time.
In the late 1920s, a young Ansel Adams gave up his plans to become a concert pianist and pursued photography full time, traveling the west in search of opportunity with his still-developing skills. While many of his peers in the 1920s arts scene were flocking to Europe, Adams took in the landscape, architecture and cultures of the American Southwest between summer trips to Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada.
From his home base in San Francisco and during travels in Santa Fe and Taos, Adams planned a collaborative effort with regional writer Mary Austin to create a fine book of writing and photography about the landscape and people of the pueblo of Taos. By the time the 108 copies were printed and bound, Adams would have already secured sales of each.
The photography in Taos Pueblo captures a unique moment in the development of Adams’s distinct photographic style and of popular photography in America: The 1930s saw Pictorialism, favored by photographers since the turn of the century, displaced by Modernism. The rare photographs that make up Taos Pueblo, which was Adams’s first bound book, show evidence of both his earlier Pictorialist style and the sharp-focus style he would employ for the rest of his career (sharp focus, clean lines, and realism). As Rebecca Senf writes in Ansel Adams's “Practical Modernism”: The Development of a Commercial Photographer, 1916–1936, ”The photographs exhibit modern design qualities in their spare, graphic, and bold characteristics, focusing on the shapes created by dark and light areas of tone. They are printed, however, on uncoated matte papers whose textured surfaces give the photographs a distinctly soft and Pictorialist feel” (168).
Critics and academics place Mary Austin’s prolific bibliography, particularly her essays about the land, in the canon of Southwestern literature and, indeed, literature of the greater West, alongside Willa Cather and John Muir. Her body of work ranges from essays to poetry, novels to a single play. She translated Native American music and wrote an autobiography. At the time considered an authority on the history and culture of the American Indian, Austin is today little known outside of her adopted homelands of southern California and New Mexico. Yet given the variety and scope of her writing, it is unsurprising that she is a hallmark in an unusual variety of western literature bibliographies, ranging from environmentalism to poetry to fiction. Writing about history and ecology as well as Native American poetics, culture and philosophy, it is possible that her only enduring theme was the land around her and people’s relationship with it. Austin wrote the essay “Taos” especially for this collaborative project with Ansel Adams, whom she had met several years earlier. Her lyrical prose fills fourteen pages (accompanying his twelve photographs) with a reflection on the history, ethnography, and landscape of the pueblo’s inhabitants.
Production of a Fine Binding
Adams, 28 years old in 1930, published, marketed, and oversaw all aspects of the production of the book. He developed and printed each of the books’ photographic prints himself in the basement darkroom of his parents' San Francisco home. Bound in original quarter tan morocco over orange buckram, signed by Ansel Adams and Mary Austin on the statement of limitation, the edition featured here by Foxtail Books is a fine copy of a book as unique in form as it is in content.
"For this limited edition, Adams again engaged the Grabhorn Press, who printed just 108 letterpress copies in rich black and orange ink....Valenti Angelo, who was the chief illustrator for the Grabhorn brothers, designed the book, using a stylized thunderbird image as a decorative element throughout the text. Hazel Dreis, who had worked privately with Adams on two Sierra Club portfolios, was responsible for all aspects of the binding, including dying the linen, ordering the specially imported leather, making the marbled end papers, folding the sheets, and assembling the leaves.
Unlike most photographically illustrated books of the time, which featured tipped-in photographs or photomechanical reproductions (such as gravures, halftones, or lithographs), part of the paper stock from Crane and Company was specially coated with photographic emulsion by Adams's friend the San Francisco photographer and papermaker William Dassonville. Adams printed the photographic illustrations, one image per page, on the same high-quality paper as the letterpress text, and they were then bound directly into the book. In an incredibly time-sensitive process, Adams made nearly 1,300 individual photographic prints for the book, using a sunlight enlarger....The time, labor, and expense of this method were prohibitive for most book projects, which mean that Adams's Taos Pueblo remains a rare example of this process in twentieth-century bookmaking (180)."
Having recently immersed himself in San Francisco’s vibrant circle of collectors and patrons of fine bindings and letterpress prints, Adams’s vision for this luxurious special edition was that of an artist but also of a businessman approaching an audience with a passion for fine bookbinding.
The pueblo at Taos is arguably the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America. In the photographs and text of Adams and Austin’s masterpiece, the creators show two distinct perspectives on the landscape and, particularly, the people of the pueblo. Bound together in this slim volume, the two artists speak to American atittudes at the time towards Native people groups, their culture, and the land that they inhabit. Senf writes, "Austin wrote her text and Adams photographed at the pueblo separately. They did not discuss their concerns with each other and each features different aspects of their subjects in their work." While text and photography in Taos Pueblo certainly partner well, they also in a way present a juxtaposition of ideas. Whereas Mary Austin was concerned with ethnological record, preservation of culture, and personal understanding of the Taos culture, Ansel Adams's photos show a romanticizing of Native relationship with the land. Austin’s goals in her work were philosophical, political, and a labor of love for place. Adams’s priorities--the Pictorialist pursuit of beauty and photography as a fine art, as well as the marketability of the work--took priority over representation or record. Rather than a simple union of expression by two artists, the work is more a conversation of changing ideas about art and ethnography in the changing West.
Mary Austin continued to write and publish until her death in 1934, only a few years after the publication of Taos Pueblo. It is her first book, The Land of Little Rain, published in 1903, that she is best known for today. Her nature essays are often listed among the foundational literature on which the environmental movement of the 1970s was built. Ansel Adams’s star rose rapidly just after the publication of Taos Pueblo. The early 1930s saw his first one-man museum show in San Francisco, his first gallery show in New York City, and his first widely distributed book of photography. It was in that era that Adams established a reputation for the photography he is known for today: detailed, large-frame landscapes of America’s National Parks.
Together these two icons--one at the end of her career, the other just beginning--created an emblem of the Southwest in Taos Pueblo. To hold this book, a “legendary rarity,” in one’s hands is to consider Austin’s eyes on adobe walls and to imagine Adams’s careful development of each print after he returned home. It is the story of the residents of the pueblo in 1929. It is also the tale of how words and images journeyed from Taos to a San Francisco darkroom, the printer’s press, the bookbinder’s desk, and many decades later, to these shelves.
A fine copy, signed by Ansel Adams and Mary Austin on the statement of limitation. $80,000
Contact Foxtail Books for information on Taos Pueblo and other rare books that tell the story of the West.
Sources & Additional Reading
Adams, Ansel. Photographs of the Southwest. New York Graphic Society, Boston, 1976.
Heller, Elinor Raas and David Magee, Bibliography of the Grabhorn Press 1915-1940. Grabhorn Press, San Francisco, No. 137, 1940.
Roth, Andrew, et. al. The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century. PPP Editions, 2001.
Senf, Rebecca A. Ansel Adams's “Practical Modernism”: The Development of a Commercial Photographer, 1916–1936. University of Boston, 2008.
Taylor, J. Golden and Thomas J. Lyon, eds. A Literary History of the American West. Texas Christian Univ Press, 1987.
Worden, Daniel. "Landscape culture: Ansel Adams and Mary Austin's Taos Pueblo." Criticism, vol. 55, no. 1, 2013, p. 69+.