Forgotten Ansel Adams Murals Brought Back To Light At Interior Department 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.
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Forgotten Ansel Adams Murals Brought Back To Light

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Forgotten Ansel Adams Murals Brought Back To Light

Forgotten Ansel Adams Murals Brought Back To Light

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Behind the imposing facades of Washington, D.C.'s many federal buildings are some hidden gems of art. A new exhibit on the walls of the Interior Department features a series of photographs taken by Ansel Adams. The murals were commissioned at the last century but never before display. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: First, a bit of the back story. The Department of the Interior's headquarters was built in 1936 during the Roosevelt administration. FDR's Interior secretary was his close adviser Harold Ickes, who stipulated that one 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.

Mr. KIRK DEITZ (Curator, Interior Department Collection): The two hit it off. They both had very similar views regarding the preservation of wilderness.

NAYLOR: That's Kirk Deitz. He's the curator of the Interior Department's collection and the man largely responsible for rediscovering the Adams photographs.

Adams had been 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.

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

Mr. DEITZ: This is an image of a cornfield in Indian country. Specifically, it's just outside of Tuba City. It would be Moencopi wash. Moencopi is a Hopi settlement off of the third mesa and it's a depiction of a cornfield after a fresh rain. You can see the earth is kind of moving and washed.

NAYLOR: 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. My favorite is a dark picture of the Grand Tetons with the Snake River curving in the foreground, a storm looming overhead.

Mr. DEITZ: He had 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.

NAYLOR: While Adams's 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 the steps in front of a pueblo.

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

NAYLOR: The National Parks are well represented in the 26 Adams pictures. There are several views of Old Faithful, 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 took us up to the top floor.

Mr. DEITZ: We're standing in the south penthouse of the main Interior building. This space was originally designated as the employee soda fountain.

NAYLOR: And while there is a magnificent view out of Washington's monuments, the walls inside are equally compelling, decorated with murals of Indian scenes painted by Native American artists. We stop at a mural by Velino Herrera.

Mr. DEITZ: And so what Velino Herrera actually painted here is a scene of a ceremonial dance. You've got a woman with child on-looking to a kilted dancer. Here you have a koshare figure, a drummer. On this side, another dancer here and then this is actually a cucina dancer. He's not masked but his body is completely painted.

NAYLOR: Other scenes show buffalo hunts, a woman carrying a baby in a papoose, a man beating a drum.

There are other works of art adorning the Interior Department's walls. Deitz shows us to the end of one hallway where a group of working men are posed in a heroic scene.

Mr. DEITZ: This is the work of William Gropper, and it's called Construction of a Dam. There was actually a push during the McCarthy era to get this ripped down. You're looking at a construction of a dam. It's actually as a triptych format.

NAYLOR: 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. Oh, and the side panel, showing curved metal and a hammer poised just so, which some saw as a little too symbolic of a Soviet hammer and sickle for comfort.

The Ansel Adams murals and other art in the Interior Department can be viewed by appointment.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

SIMON: But if you can't quite get an appointment, you can see the Ansel Adams murals - or at least some of them - on our Web site, NPR.org.

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