Andreas Feininger’s seashells complement Ansel Adams’ work at the Berkshire Museum.
Andreas Feininger’s seashells complement Ansel Adams’ work at the Berkshire Museum. (Andreas Feininger / Courtesy of Berkshire Museum)

PITTSFIELD -- Ansel Adams climbed Yosemite's ridges with a large-format camera and sat in darkness, waiting for the sunrise.

Andreas Feininger recorded book stalls on 4th Avenue, kosher poultry shops on the Lower East Side, Harlem street vendors with horse-drawn carts -- and chambered nautilus shells.

Adams was a West-Coast outdoorsman fighting to preserve the Redwoods. Feininger was a cosmopolitan world traveler from the Bauhaus architectural school.

But they had a close connection.

In 1939, Adams became editor of U.S. Camera magazine, one of the nation's most popular photography journals, as Feininger escaped the chaos of Europe and arrived in New York City as a freelance photographer. And in 1940, Adams assembled a travel issue including Feininger's work. They worked together in the modern movement of photography, alongside innovators like Alfred Stieglitz, turning photography into an artform.

Seventy years later, the Berkshire Museum has re-connected Adams and Feininger in a pair of linked exhibibits. 'Nature Magnified: Photographs by Andreas Feininger' has just opened, and 'Ansel Adams, Masterworks' will open Saturday. A photographer uses light as a medium, and these two used light and shadow to show the structure of a slope or a shell or a city. While the country launched itself into World War II, and won by out-manufacturing the competition, two photographers from opposite coasts showed the freedoms and costs in the way we lived.

The Feininger photographs in 'Nature Magnified' belong to the Berkshire Museum, explained Maria Mingalone, director of interpretation. When Feininger died, his wife, Vissa, invited the museum to come to New York to select them.

He is best known for his work from two decades with Life magazine, especially images of skyscrapers and street scenes in New York and Chicago. But he also has a body of work from the natural world.

’Monolith’ by Ansel Adams
'Monolith' by Ansel Adams (Ansel Adams / Courtesy of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust)

Mingalone has paired images to show 'how intense and intently he observes nature using the same precision' he brings to architecture.

Reflections on glass, window beams, or the inset lines of apartment balconies echo the structures of seashells. Two columns look from a distance like the leaning tower -- and from an inch away resolve themselves into delicate vertebrae.

The buildings and the shells take on the same scale, Mingalone said, giving each an other-worldly quality.

She turned from the microcosm of Feininger's work to the macrocosm of Adams', from a conch to a cliff face. The contrasts, she said, showed her more in each artist's work.

Adams' 'Masterworks' come from a series he chose himself, aspens and snow fields, river bends and sand dunes an adobe, and they have traveled here from Turtle Bay Exploration Park in Redding, Calif.

'Ansel Adams pulls out the monumental scale and detail you wouldn't appreciate' by looking at the cliffs or the waterfalls, she said. 'The eye of the camera lens captures an image in a way we don't see with our eyes.'

Adams would wait for the exact moment of light he wanted, she said. He might climb in the dark and sit quietly watching for the dawn glow on the peaks while night still lay on the hills.

He came to Yosemite on a family trip when he was 14, and at 18 he began working for the Sierra Club in the summers. In his 20s he climbed the high sierras and led backpacking trips as a guide. On these trips he took his earliest wilderness photographs.

By the 1930s, he had a reputation on both coasts; mentors incluing Stieglitz 'gave him the encouragement, guts and guile to say 'I can do this as a career,' ' Mingalone said.

He and Feininger worked at the forefront of a new movement in photography, she said, at a time when the form was new and finding its feet. In the 1920s, a pictoral style had evolved to make photography an artform and to argue that a photograph can have emotional intent, as a painting can. These earlier photographs have a dreamlike, fuzzy look. In the 1930s, the movement of the modernist style had, in contrast, crisp detail and clarity.

Adams and Feininger worked in different areas -- Mingalone traced a muscular quality among photographers on the West Coast and minimalist quality on the East Coast -- but they shared a movement and an eye for the practical, clear and beautiful.

While Feininger worked as a photojournalist, covering America during the war, the aftermath of the Depression and the approach of Vietnam, Adams made his photography a tool to fight for legislation to protect California's wild lands and Sequoias. He testified before Congress in 1940.

'He's an activist,' Mingalone said. 'He use his work to save what he loved.'

He also had a gallery in San Fransisco, where he was born. And while Feininger had an eye for sunlight on skyscrapers, he too walked in the hills. His family lived in Roxbury, in Litchfield County, Conn., said Leanne Hayden, collections manager at the museum -- they lived beside Alexander Calder's studio. Feininger's son, Tomas, has given the museum Feininger's photographs of Calder at work.

When Feininger came home to rest, he could walk in the Berkshire hills and photograph spider webs in the early morning, before the dew dried.

If you go ...

What: 'Ansel Adams: Masterworks' opens beside Andreas Feininger show

When: Saturday, 5 to 7 p.m.

Where: Berkshire Museum, 39 South St., Pittsfield

Admission: Free

Infomation: (413) 443-7171, www.berkshiremuseum.org