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Ansel Adams is remembered most for his bold, sensitive photographs of Western landscapes - snowy white mountains, dark skies and silvery clouds, all the details in focus deep in the field of vision.

He saw it all as an artist, working with paper and film instead of canvas and paint, and out of the shapes and shadows of nature he created beauty and drama in black and white and shades of gray.The Ansel Adams Center, opened recently by The Friends of Photography, properly honors Adams with one of its five galleries devoted to changing displays of his work.

These original prints show Adams not merely as a visual artist but as a master of the darkroom, a perfectionist and experimenter who invented the zone system of exposure to achieve the range of light he wanted for each photograph.

More significantly, though, the Ansel Adams Center pays tribute to his belief in creativity as one of the essentials of art. Adams might not have liked all the photographs in the opening show, which include blurry montages and photo-sculptures. But he would have been a strong supporter of giving creative photographers a space to show their work, says Ron Egherman, executive director of The Friends of Photography.

"We'd like to take chances," Egherman says. "We'd like to be able to fail occasionally as we really explore the field as well as always providing the community with exhibitions of traditional forms of creative photography."

Adams, who died five years ago at 82, was deeply interested in science. He liked to talk about the technical possibilities of photography in the future - three-dimensional images, powerful new lenses, digital technology. He was an insomniac who spent nights reading magazines and books about science and the environment.

He also welcomed young photographers to his home in Carmel Highlands, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, sitting with them and discussing their work and his.

Beaumont Newhall, the pre-eminent photography historian, says Adams played a significant role - as co-founder of The Friends of Photography 22 years ago and, earlier, Group f-64 - in establishing photography as art throughout the world.

The new center, Newhall says, "is a tremendous memorial to a man who meant so much to us. I think it's remarkable that almost every museum in the country of size is now showing photography, whereas they weren't showing it when Ansel Adams was beginning."

The Ansel Adams Center, Newhall says, is certain to take its place among the world's leading photography museums.

The center has 11,000 square feet of exhibition space, plus a bookstore and space for workshops. In the course of a year, the center plans to present over 15 exhibitions. The inaugural exhibition offers a display of creative photography, ranging from major figures of the 19th and 20th centuries to young, emerging artists.

"It's very exciting to see this kind of attention being paid to photography as an art form," says Don Worth, a professor at San Francisco State University and a photographer whose work is represented in the Adams Center's opening show. "It's gratifying to see such an elegant space."

Among the exhibitions in the center's opening show is a group of about 80 pieces by more than 45 artists exploring the relationship between nature and culture. It includes large and small images in both black and white and color, as well as unconventional media, photographically related sculpture and three-dimensional pieces. Works are by both established and younger artists, such as Richard Misrach, Mac Adams, Linda Connor, Stuart Klipper and Mary Frey.

Another exhibition focuses on Northern California's photographic heritage and includes works by Eadweard Muybridge, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Ruth Bernhard, Minor White and Adams.