18 March, 2013Issue 21.5North AmericaThe ArtsVisual Arts

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Liquid Landscapes

Judyta Frodyma

Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams: Photography From the Mountains to the Sea
National Maritime Museum
9 November 2012 – 28 April 2013

The American landscape has long captivated, and been a captive of, the American imagination, serving as physical representation of the vastness that united a scattered people upon its foundations. The formation of America (and not just the United States thereof) was an endeavour that beckoned strong, labouring men and adventurers; it was a project based firmly on the conquering of a landscape. In its entirety, the American landscape today, populated heavily around its coasts, scarce and lonely in its wind-swept, textured belly, is a political and artistic subject. Ansel Adams, even as a young boy from California, took this subject and made it his own. From his famous depiction of a looming thundercloud over Lake Tahoe now found in calendars and on mugs, to his most celebrated, “Storm, Yosemite“, his works have been a pillar of landscape photography since the 1930s.

One image near the entrance of the National Maritime Museum’s exhibition of Adams’ work serves perhaps as an augur to the photographers Adams inspired. Entitled ”Holding my Box Brownie camera, Yosemite National Park” it was taken in about 1818, when Adams was a young boy. The photograph shows a funny looking boy, wearing a newspaper cap and britches, perched on a rock looking beyond the photographer’s shoulder. It was this boy’s gaze that would later present the American wild to the world. Those who came after Adams, photographers such as Sally Mann, Jock Sturges, and many others, use landscape as a poignant backdrop for smooth, strikingly nude youths and depictions of childhood in the vast backyard of America. Adams takes their backgrounds as his subject.

The National Maritime Museum proves to be a thematically-suited venue for the exhibition rather than an ideal one. Open, light and spacious, the museum resembles a ship-deck, and although the exhibit takes place downstairs, it maintains that feeling. It also maintains the crowded, slightly over-familiar feeling one can imagine aboard a ship. With queues outside waiting to get in, there is a sense of being locked in for the duration of your visit, denied any personal time with the photographs: often, they had to be experienced over someone else’s shoulders. There is no specified “route” through the exhibition either, barring the entrance and exit (by which hangs a photograph of the older Ansel himself carrying his camera, walking away into the mountains). The photographs are very loosely categorised into groupings of three to ten, with headings such as: “Pictorialism vs. Modernism”, “Sea and Surf”, “Time and Motion”, “Equivalency”, “Focus and f/64 school” and “Snow and Ice”. The images are hung on false walls and sub-walls giving the semblance of rooms, though the whole exhibition takes place in what is effectively one large room. Neither does this give the works their own breathing space. Anyone who has stood in front of Adams’ seven-foot tall American trust murals would appreciate an entire room to counter the sublimity. Instead, these monumental images are paired side by side with several others.

Place is an important interest of this exhibit but it comes at the expense of technical detail. Each photograph has a note stating where it was taken and a note stating where it is on loan from but none of these notes gives the technicalities of the shot: aperture, shutter speed, sensitivity. Only one of the photographs in the exhibit was a reproduction: ”Diamond Cascade”, Yosemite 1920. It is a blur of waves possibly observed from the top down. The original, the curators marked, is with Adams’s family as it marked a new direction in photography for the artist. In a letter to his father, Adams stated that he intended to “capture the spirit of the little cascade”.

Capturing the spirit of the subject struck me as one of the main focuses of the exhibition. As much as the goal is to showcase “Ansel Adams: American Landscape Photographer” to those who have never seen his work, there are numerous smaller gems hidden among the famous pieces. Capturing time in landscape is a motif, one that the curators achieve by choosing and highlighting photographs of water. The exhibition features water as a photographic subject–mysterious, ephemeral, and transitory. As Philip Prodger, the curator of this exhibit, explains: “Water was one of Adams’s favourite subjects […] The works in this exhibition explore water in all its forms, from turbulent views of rapids and waterfalls to contemplative scenes of rivers and pools.”

The focus on water in all its states, though interesting, dominates the exhibit, which perhaps could have been titled something more fitting than just “From the Mountains to the Sea”. The use of water as mirrors, or water frozen in time, such as the geysers in Yosemite photographed in a sequence reminiscent of Monet’s “Haystacks”, and the use of light as texture in the black and white photos were indeed pioneering acts of photography at the time. Adams’s innovations were welcomed, but not expected, by his audience. One particular photograph, slotted in between the others, is “Early Morning, Merced river, Yosemite, Autumn”. Taken in 1950, its soft light and long exposure play with the texture of the river such that it resembles an expanse of moss, rather than water: resisting the idea that it has captured a substance in motion.

These exhibitions play with landscape and imagination but also attempt to partake in the aesthetic argument between the Pictorialists and the f/64 group. The “Pictorialists”, a side panel explains, “were a group of photographers circa 1910 who believed photos should look like paintings or drawings, but were seen as nostalgic after the first World War. Their work developed into Photographic Modernism or ‘letting the camera speak’”. The f/64, founded in 1932, was a group of seven friends—including Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham—who characterised their work by using exceedingly sharp and maximum range of focus from foreground to background. They meant to show the world not as the eye sees it but as the camera and lens see it. Adams himself stated: “what I am trying to do in pictorial photography […] is the representation of material things in the abstract or purely imaginative way.”

This aesthetic ideal drove Adams to pioneer techniques such as “parmelian” prints and the “egg yolk brown” mural series, as well as focusing on the “equivalency” of the photo itself: “the photograph should correspond to an artist’s emotional state at the time it was made.” Water, in this case, was to Adams what clouds were to Alfred Stieglitz: a vehicle of expression.

If there was one photograph that sums up the spirit of the exhibit, it is a striking photograph taken of waves, from profile, at Dillon Beach in 1964: the water resembles a mountain range, with no distinction between liquid and rock. The “equivalency” of the moment—the steadiness of the rock, and the movement of the spray—is captured. In it is also embedded the journey of those men and women who once decided to make this wild, unknown land their home at any cost.

Judyta Frodyma is reading for a D.Phil. at St Edmund Hall. She is a senior editor at The Oxonian Review.