Ansel Adams – Photography from the Mountains to the Sea

We went to the Ansel Adams – Photography from the Mountains to the Sea exhibition at the maritime museum at the end of November.

Growing up around photographers, I was familiar Adams’ work from about the age of four but but it wasn’t until High School photography class that I really studied his work. These days I tend to regard his contribution to landscape photography more or less on par with Rembrandt’s contribution to the use of light in oil painting. His work has been a huge influence on my landscape and industrial photography.

Here’s an example from our last trip to Scotland.

Loch Maree lookout

And another…

Loch Claire

Of course, Adams would have done it in monochrome, camped at the spot for two or three days to get the right light with the sun just above the second mountain from the left, held back the sky in printing and bumped up the contrast somewhat.

Loch Claire

A bit like this, only with the contrast turned up to 11.

Unfortunately, this is the level of background knowledge that would be required to make the exhibition more than just a collection of numbered photographs hung on a wall. Having to frequently refer to the catalogue at close distance due to the lack of captions on the walls, then look back at the photographs at middle distance wasn’t a whole lot of fun for middle aged eyes. A location and date for each image wouldn’t have been too much effort and wouldn’t have been contrary to Adams’ own exhibition practices. I guess the biggest problem with the exhibition was that it couldn’t work out if it was history, art or retrospective.

The exhibition venue was well presented, with the works thematically arranged in spaces that lead on to each other with a reasonably good flow. The introductory section from the catalogue was printed on the wall at the start of each theme. The prints were well mounted and framed at a good height on the white walls, with good lighting at a comfortable height for viewing without reflections. The only quibbles on this count were that the introductory video was nearer the exit than the entrance, we found the roped-off exit first and had go back to look for the entrance. The side-effect of the roped-off exit  was everybody had to go back against the traffic and inevitably got between the viewers and the prints.

The themes were well chosen, given Adams’ approach, but the prints selected to illustrate the theme often didn’t fit the theme very well. The first theme, Pictorial vs Modern was supposed to demonstrate the innovations Adams bought to photography in the period following the first world war – the then novel approach now known as Photographic Modernism,  utilising the characteristics of the camera, plate or film and print to produce images that were “art” rather than the expected exact pictorial depiction of the scene. The photographs in this section mainly came from the late 1920s and early 30s, but included some of his earliest landscapes from 1918 and early industrial photographs through to a series from Yellowstone in 1942. And Sun and Fog from 1960.

The second theme, Time and Motion, tried to illustrate Adams’ different ways of depicting movement and the passage of time. The catalogue claims it is because the camera is quicker than the eye, but in reality he was mostly using slower shutter speeds both to blur the moving object (usually water) and to ensure a small aperture so everything else would be as sharp as possible. It also mentioned that Adams also made use of sequences of two to ten photographs and appeared to present a series of three photographs of Upper Yosemite Falls, but a quick check of the catalogue revealed the images covered a span of 14 years from 1946 to 1960.

Waterfall, Northern Cascades, Washington, ca. 1960. Photograph by Ansel Adams
Waterfall, Northern Cascades, Washington, ca. 1960.
Photograph by Ansel Adams

It was the third theme, Focus and the f/64 School, that I felt was really struggling to make its point. The f/64 School was a small group of photographers who used the smallest aperture possible to make their photographs as focally sharp as they could, with a maximal focal range so things close to the camera are as in focus as far away objects. It existed from 1932 to 1935, but their influence continues to the current day. Only one image illustrated the theme, and it was too big for the presentation space so the viewer couldn’t take in the whole picture at once. The others either had a flat focal plane (everything the same distance from the camera) so a similar result could have been obtained using a medium aperture of f/8 or even f/5.6. A real Adams sequence, Surf Sequence from 1940 featured here, but frustratingly, the images were displayed in a 2×2 grid rather than a horizontal line and in the order 2, 1, 5 & 4 so whatever Adams was trying to convey was suborned by what the curator wanted to present instead.

In the final theme, Equivalents, we finally get to Adams’ philosophy and motivation. Adams often stated that the reason for his photography was to allow the viewer to experience the same reaction and reach the same emotional state that he was experiencing when he took the image. The catalogue continues with one particular quote “… I give it [the image] to you as a spectator, and you get it or you don’t get it, but there’s nothing on the back of the print that tells you what you should get” and then without trace of irony, the catalogue went on to tell the viewer what they should “get” from the pictures of mountains, waves and rivers. It’s not until print 66 of 73 that the observation about Adams’ increasing use of contrast throughout his career is made. It should have been in the intoduction. The prints from different periods were not presented in anything even vaguely resembling a chronology within each theme, so if it wasn’t something that you already knew, you wouldn’t have been able to discern it.

The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Part, Wyoming, 1942. Photograph by Ansel Adams.
The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Part, Wyoming, 1942. Contrast level set to stun.
Photograph by Ansel Adams.

If you get a chance to see the exhibition, go. Enjoy the photographs for what they are rather than what the curators, gallery or museum want them to be, react, reach the emotional state and just get it (or don’t get it). Seize the opportunity given by a roped-off exit to go back and review the earlier photographs in light of his later work.

Ansel Adams – Photography from the Mountains to the Sea was at the Australian National Maritime Museum from 4 July to 8 December 2013

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