Documentary filmmaker Ric Burns continues to refine his storytelling abilities while distinguishing his career from that of brother and fellow filmmaker Ken Burns. Although the unwavering attention to detail and unmistakable sense of style obviously runs in the family, this docu is as individual as its topic, premier photographer Ansel Adams.

Documentary filmmaker Ric Burns continues to refine his storytelling abilities while distinguishing his career from that of brother and fellow filmmaker Ken Burns. Although the unwavering attention to detail and unmistakable sense of style obviously runs in the family, this docu is as individual as its topic, premier photographer Ansel Adams.

By incorporating Adams’ brilliant black-and-white landscapes into the vibrant, natural context of its subject matter, Burns creates a visually mesmerizing retrospective of the man’s career. Instead of recounting f-stops and apertures, the film examines the inspirations and intentions of the artist who transcended the medium to become an American folk hero.

A recipient of the Medal of Freedom in 1980, the highest honor the country can bestow, Adams was as much a conservationist as a photographer. According to the docu, Adams photographs were instrumental in persuading Congress and President Roosevelt to turn Kings Canyon into a national park in 1940. After his death in 1984, Congress preserved a stretch of land southeast of Yosemite as the Ansel Adams Wilderness.

Adams believed in the simple dignity of the glossy print, used here to great effect. In addition to archival footage, home movies and rare on-camera interviews, Burns brings together biographers, friends and art critics to recount the different stages and stories behind many of Adams’ remarkable images.

As one biographer points out, as Adams’ career and expertise advanced, the horizon became less prominent. It was as if his reverence for nature became as limitless as the sky.

For an artist, Adams’ life was relatively free of controversy and demons, save for a nonsexual love affair with an assistant, a brief nervous breakdown and a penchant for parties. Otherwise, Burns covers the basics.

Born a sickly child in Oakland, Calif., Adams’ unique spirit was nurtured and indulged by his father. Adams originally wanted to be a concert pianist, but a trip to Yosemite in 1916 set off his love affair with what he called “the great Earth gesture of the Sierra.”

Docu establishes that Adams was a perfectionist who transferred the rigorous training practices of a concert pianist to the calculated manipulation of a negative in a darkroom. He rarely took vacations and often worked through the night to get shadowing and contrast just right.

Although Adams didn’t become financially successful until later in life, his work was well received from the beginning. During the Depression, however, Adams was criticized for not acknowledging the social issues of the day through his photographs. According to Burns, Adams believed his photos were representative of a larger theme.

In the mid to late 1950s, Adams’ drive began to fade and he turned more to education and conservation. In the 1970s, he joined forces with business partner William A. Turnage and began mass-marketing his work.

With Turnage, trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, featured so prominently throughout the doc, it almost seems remiss that Burns doesn’t explore the effect of this commercialization on the photog’s legacy.

Similarly, early on, Burns describes Adams’ wife, Virginia, as his rock — the steady, guiding force who provided Adams with the freedom to pursue his art — and then never mentions her again.

That said, the docu is a technical marvel, as studied and refined as Adams’ images. Readings by Josh Hamilton, Barbara Feldon and Eli Wallach are understated but effective, as is narration by David Ogden Stiers. Brian Keane’s score is appropriately inspirational but perhaps just a notch too loud.

Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film

PBS; Sun., April 21, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in various locations by Sierra Club Prods. and Steeplechase Films. Executive producers; Ric Burns, Annette Handley Chandler, Inness Wei Shadrick, Adrienne Bramhall; producers, Burns, Marilyn Ness; director-writer, Burns.

Crew

Editor, Li-Shin Yu; music, Brian Keane. 86 MIN.

Cast

Narrator: David Ogden Stiers.
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