ANSEL ADAMS AT 100
by Anthony Torres
To commemorate the centennial of the birth of Ansel Adams (1902–1984) in San Francisco, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art organized and exhibited Ansel Adams at 100, an exhibition that tours the U.S. and Europe through 2003. Curated by John Szarkowski, Director Emeritus of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the exhibition opens this spring at the Art Institute of Chicago (showing February–June), and then travels to the Hayward Gallery, London; Kunstbibliotek, Berlin; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and finally The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The stated goal of the exhibition, which brings together 114 of Adams’ photographs, is a re-presentation of Ansel Adams as an “art” photographer, underlining his contribution to modern photography. Ansel Adams at 100 consists largely of photographs from the earlier part of his career — the 1920s to 1940s — and is structured around seven areas. “Context” features works of his contemporaries, including photographers Paul Strand and Dorothea Lange, painters John Marin and Marsden Hartley, and others. “Crux” draws from the hundreds of photographs Adams took of the American landscape west of the Rocky Mountains, predominantly the California Sierra. “Learning” displays photographic albums from the mass back country expeditions he helped organize with the Sierra Club, and for which he was the official photographer. These works are presented as a historical record of Adams’ development as a photographer, in his experimentation with framing, points of view, changing light, and other aspects of the photographic craft. “Motive” is identified by Szarkowski as Adams’ quest to give “objective form to the sense of ineffable knowledge.” “Reconsideration” looks at Adams’ reinterpretation of negatives of earlier photographs during the latter part of his career. Lastly, “Further Responsibilities” is concerned with Adams’ legacy to photography, and the lesson, identified by Szarkowski, “that photography — used with rigor, intelligence and passion — can help us enlarge and enrich our understanding of and our affection for the natural world.”
Through this structure, the exhibition aims to evaluate what Szarkowski views as one of Adams’ primary accomplishments, the revision of the public’s thinking about landscape, based on the idea that “his pictures have enlarged our understanding of our visceral knowledge of things that we do not understand.”
Contrary to popular belief, Szarkowski states, “Adams did not photograph the landscape as a form of social service, but as a form of private worship…done under the stimulus of a profound mystical experience of the natural world.” The exhibition is thus anchored in Adams’ landscape work, and his quest to make “a photograph that would give objective form to this sense.”
The focus on Adams’ landscape photographs is perhaps natural, given that the spotlight is on Adams the “artist,” and that during his lifetime much of his energy was devoted to the struggle for recognition of the photographic medium as a legitimate “art” form. Adams’ desire for the legitimacy of photography as art is made explicit in both SFMOMA Curator of Photography Sandra S. Phillips’ catalogue essay “Ansel Adams and San Francisco,” and Szarkowski’s essay “Ansel Adams at 100.” It is also visually illustrated in the introductory “Context” gallery, where photographs and paintings are shown side by side on equal footing, as well as in the absence of Adams’ other bodies of work, which included commercial photography, portraits and architecture, amongst other subjects.
Interestingly, the exhibition’s concern with Adams the “artist” simultaneously brings to the surface photography’s historically second-class “art” status, and its perceived separate and unequal history. Ironically, in seeking “art” status, photography took on its own modernist hierarchy, which distinguished “art photography” from photojournalism, documentary, and fashion photography. Indeed, photography’s triumph as an “art” form, which Adams championed through his practice of the medium, his criticism and scholarship, contributed to a value-inscribed canon of photography and the establishment of masters and masterpieces, of individual “genius,” which in the end conditions this exhibition.
Here, however, the formal strategies on display in his landscape work — composition, light, point of view, etc. — are as much the subject of the photographs as the depiction of mountains, trees or seascapes. In fact, viewing the photographs, the construction of the works often seems a primary concern, with the landscapes functioning as vehicles for the articulation (sometimes to the point of pressing form to abstraction) of Adams’ subject — the medium of photography.
In this context, the photographs are striking and even unnerving, not only in the distance between Adams’ invisible presence and the scenes represented, but also, conversely, in the interface between the photographic discourses and processes by which the images were constructed in the locations and conditions that made them possible. Indeed, the presentation of the only two photographs depicting people — Eagle Dancer, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico (1928-29) and Buffalo Dance, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico (1928) — as the first and last images of Adams’ work in the exhibition, seems laden with monumental signification.
One wonders what the conflation of Adams’ landscapes, bracketed between these two photographs, signals. Does this pairing of images act as a photographic “contact” account, in which “landscape” is analogous to ethnographic recording of “disappearing/exotic” places and cultures? Is this symptomatic of a particular kind of religious, pastoral nostalgia aimed at reclaiming a mythical “Edenic” state, a lost “purity” conjured through landscapes and indigenous people to evoke some un-alienated, far-off, imaginary pre-capitalist existence? Or is it an attempt to bridge a gap in a nature/culture divide that can be transcended, at least on photographic paper, through the interface of a particular instrument — the camera? Perhaps the significance of this fusion of Ansel Adams’ images in this exhibition is that, consciously or unconsciously, it memorializes both modernism’s insistence on “purity” and photography’s triumph as an art form — curiously at a time when such notions have been thoroughly questioned, and in many cases undermined.
This essay first appeared in Art Papers, April 2002.