07 April 2008

Ansel Adams ~ Not just pretty pictures

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 ~ Ansel Adams

In The Guardian today is this review of an exhibition of work by Ansel Adams that is showing in Oxford. Here are a couple of paragraphs that raise interesting issues:
Adams left what he called his Museum Collection: an entire career condensed in 80 images for anyone who wanted to display his work in public for free. This is the first time his self-selected portfolio has been shown in Britain, and it is both a perfect introduction and a summary of his work.

What strikes, over and again, is the awesomeness of Adams's America: a semi-heaven here on rocky earth. His photographs represent untouched nature with meticulous fidelity, as it seems, and yet they appear to belong to the world-in-a-grain-of-sand poetry of painting.

The first thing I find interesting is the bequest Adams left. I suppose there is in it a sense of the artist controlling his legacy by identifying what people are likely to see. On the other hand, though, that he arranged for this set of images to be exhibited for free is remarkable.

Aspens, Northern New Mexico, 1958 ~ Ansel Adams

The second thing is that the author seems to not have looked at the pictures. She starts by referring to the first image I've lifted above. But this is hardly unspoiled wilderness. Indeed it show domiciles and grave stones in the foreground. Who are the people - living or dead - here? This landscape is hardly "untouched." I recommend reading Rebecca Solnit's Storming the Gates of Paradise [*] on this theme among American photographers of the 'natural' landscape.

Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, 1960 ~ Ansel Adams

Finally, the author also is incredibly naive. She seems not to get the Adams and other photographers used the sublime, they didn't just find it or represent it in nature, the explicitly sought to connect nature and the sublime. They were trying to induce "wonderment" in the face of the "awesome" beauty or power of natural world and they were doing so for political purposes. Here Solnit is very good too, but you might also check out the terrific analyses of historian Finis Dunaway [*].
All three photographs
© The Trustees of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

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