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Home / Articles / Arts / Art Features /  Overexposed
ansel adams - Thunderstorm, Yosemite Valley, California
"Thunderstorm, Yosemite Valley, California"; sounds striking enough. But is it?
2010, Trustees of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, Courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery and Andrew Smith Gallery, Santa Fe, NM

Overexposed

In saving the West, Ansel Adams may have destroyed photography

May 5, 2010, 12:00 am
My relationship with Ansel Adams, to use the current parlance, is complicated. One cannot deny his technical mastery. The guy invented his own system for exposing and developing negatives. He literally wrote the book—several, actually—on darkroom photography. His prints are the finest examples of what is rapidly becoming a rarefied medium. So what is it about him that sort of gets on my nerves?

Ansel Adams is like Michael Jordan: Everyone knows him and he is widely agreed to be the best ever. Ask someone to name a painter and you may get Picasso, Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Monet or a host of others whose work appears on merchandise. If you ask people to name a photographer, I’ll wager they say Adams more often than not.

With such prominence there’s bound to be a backlash. I’m not trying to be that guy who dislikes things just because they’re popular but, frankly, it’s annoying that an entire discipline is so often measured against one person. He is a pinnacle of achievement that can never be challenged. To photograph a landscape is to live in his highly nuanced Zone III shadow.

Despite the familiarity—or perhaps because of it—people were out in great numbers to see the new exhibition at Gerald Peters Gallery, Ansel Adams: Landscape and Light. And they seemed pleased.

The show consists of approximately 25 pictures of (you guessed it) landscapes, including a few mural-sized prints I’d never before seen. A press release notes these are part of a commission Adams received to “motivate progressive preservationist policy.” The funding was pulled when the US became involved in World War II and the project was never completed.

Maybe it’s for the best. The enlargements are novelties at most and don’t retain the fidelity or subtlety of the smaller works. They look more like the backdrops in a history museum than works of art. As for the rest, let’s just say there aren’t many surprises.

When I see Adams’ prints, I am both arrested and unmoved. His pictures are so clear and precise, the lighting so dramatic, the vistas so well-composed, that I don’t feel drawn into them. I am held at arm’s length, inspecting the surface of things—the stunning contrast and nearly limitless tonality. Crystallized in silvery stillness, the actual landscapes would probably seem disappointing by comparison; it’s possible to be too good at something.

Ultimately, I only think of Adams’ picture, never what the picture shows, perhaps because the pictures do not contain even a semblance of narrative. They are fetishized depictions of untamed nature, meant to instill in us feelings of awe. However, rather than instruct us or impart morality, they function only to parcel out the West by letting us take it home with us.

The stories about Adams sitting for days on end, waiting for just the right conditions, are meant to be inspiring. I find it creepy and depressing, like he’s a stalker. Maybe all photography is a bit vampish, disconnecting us from the reality of our surroundings in favor of representation. If so, Adams is the nail in the coffin.

Overall, his life’s work is rather one-dimensional. He found a way he liked to photograph, and just did it over and over. One may admire his convictions but, viewed all at once, his imagery is as unchanging as the mountains on the horizon. As it stands, Landscape and Light has the vibe of a greatest-hits album: There is no cohesion, no dialogue, no overarching agreement; there’s just a bunch of singles played back to back. And maybe that’s all Adams is—a hit-maker.

 

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