A successful retrospective art exhibit serves as a discussion of an artist’s creative output — a effort to put a body of work in a sometimes-too-neat context. When it comes to a genre giant whose photography has been shown as much as Ansel Adams’s has, you have to ask whether there’s anything left to discuss. Surely, after major Adams exhibits at the MFA, the Museum of Modern Art, and elsewhere, his life story is well known. His central role in turning photography from an art-world stepchild into a full-fledged artistic medium has long been secured. And the inescapable topic of his place in the tradition of Western-landscape photography, harking back to the photographic survey photos of the late 1800s, has been exhausted.
So, armed with the world’s largest privately held collection of Adams prints, what’s the MFA to do? For "Ansel Adams," an exhibit of 180 Adams prints on display through December 31, the museum chose to put Adams in not one but two historical contexts: the history of photography and 20th-century history. The latter tack is uninspired and likely to be missed by most visitors. The exhibit is hung in roughly chronological order, which is wonderful in terms of visual continuity, but the "Ansel Adams Timeline," which intercuts events from the artist’s personal and professional life with events he and his photographs had nothing to do with (the passage of the 19th Amendment; the attack on Pearl Harbor; the creation of the Peace Corps), doesn’t add up to much.
The exhibit’s primary thrust — Adams’s work as a reflection of photography’s technical and æsthetic trajectory through the 1900s — is, though hardly pat, far more successful. And it gives the museum a context for displaying some atypical and seldom-seen Adams photographs. The show begins with a soft-focus 1919 box-camera landscape, Wind, Juniper Tree, Yosemite National Park, printed in the soft-focus Pictorial style of the day, which sought to use the camera to replicate pre-existing mediums, such as oil painting or etchings. It ends with large-format, high-resolution prints of a housing development outside San Francisco (taken about 1966) and an aerial view of a freeway interchange in Los Angeles (1967). For Adams (1902–1984), the latter two photographs fall into the atypical category — that is, they are not of a mountain or a rock or a tree. As such, they represent more the type of manmade subjects being photographed in the urbanized 1960s.
The implication — and there’s a chronological spectrum of atypical shots in this show to back the notion — is that Adams’s career not only spanned but mirrored 20th-century American photography, from the primitive to the "contemporary." Throughout, the exhibit’s atypical shots suggest that he was always pushing the envelope and thinking ahead of his time. Well, perhaps. But aside from his association with the Polaroid Corporation (alas, an evolutionary dead end in photo history), we don’t think of Adams as an artist ever in search of reinvention. On the contrary, his reputation is that of a technical conservative who used large-format view cameras on location long into the era of professional hand-held cameras and invented a too elaborate science of photographic exposure (the Zone System). In the end, that affably stodgy reputation prevails, and the gorgeous "typical" results of his stringent approach, also represented at the MFA, testify to its validity. That he occasionally departed from his trademark æsthetic or choice of subject hardly makes him a faddist or a relentless innovator. As a charter member of the renegade Group f64 movement that championed high-resolution "pure" photography’s ability to interpret as well as record experience, and as a founding force behind the creation of a photography department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, he was among the medium’s true visionaries and revolutionaries. Which may not be an entirely new way of looking at Adams, but it works.
Themes aside, "Ansel Adams" is a wonderful retrospective that showcases even some unexpected typical Adams photographs — a enthralling and evocative natural-grotto scene titled Merced River, Cliffs of Cathedral Rocks, Autumn (1939) — along with the most famous of his works, the big, fragile, and beautiful Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941). It also includes a rare display of all five prints from his abstract (he would have called it "extracted") Surf Sequence (1940).
And the atypical inclusions, whatever they prove, are indeed treats. Among them we find a texture-rich "posed" still life, Rose and Driftwood (circa 1932), some early shots of Pueblo Indian dancers, and some character studies taken in the obscure ramshackle town of Hornitos, California, which Adams visited frequently. There are also informal portraits of Alfred Stieglitz (who gave Adams his first New York exhibition, in 1936), Edward Weston, and others. A standout is a rare 1937 33mm candid of artist Georgia O’Keeffe. In the frame, she seems to be sharing some wry joke with Orville Cox, the head wrangler at a New Mexico ranch where she kept a studio. (The picture, taken during a tour of the Southwest that Adams made with O’Keeffe and some patrons in 1937, was shown with an exhibit of Adams proofs from that excursion at the Fitchburg Art Museum in 2002.)
The MFA show also displays some novelty Adams items, including a 1969 Hills Brothers Coffee can with an Adams view of Yosemite printed over the entire surface. Less peculiar, but more impressive, are three Japanese-style folding screens decorated with super-large-format Adams nature prints. Little seems to be known about these unusual, but beautiful, side projects. Adams manufactured his first decorative screen in 1936 as part of a Chicago photo exhibit and is thought to have made only 11 to 14 more. In addition to the three-paneled screens Grass and Pool (1948) and Leaves, Owens Valley, California (1950), the show includes a meticulously executed two-sided, four-panel screen, Sonoma County Hills and Oak Tree, Rain (1969).
Not all the atypical works are that extreme. In the 1930s, especially the early 1930s, before Adams devoted himself to the landscape motif that would make him famous, he made some interesting photographs you wouldn’t recognize as his. Fence Near Tomales Bay (1936) is an intriguingly detailed texture study of a decaying wood fence looming before a soft farm-country landscape. Sutro Gardens, San Francisco (1933) focuses on a fractured statue overlooking Pacific breakers. Both these compositions depend on a layered depth that Adams’s later large-format perspective would often flatten. Political Circus (1932), a light-and-shadow study of political posters and Ringling Bros. posters plastered on a corrugated wall, is a brilliant photograph, no matter who took it. Some other early works, the Pueblo Indian dancers, for example, are more interesting because it was Adams who took them than they are as photographs.
The prints in "Ansel Adams" come from the collection of the late William H. Lane and his widow, Saundra B. Lane. The Lanes were Adams’s friends as well as his steady customers, and the eccentric side of their Adams trove is, one suspects, the result of their close relationship with the photographer. This is the show Saundra Lane "always wanted to do." It is memorable and enjoyable and, unlike some mammoth Adams retrospectives, easy to digest. Does it really redefine Ansel Adams? That’s going a bit far, but it does cast him and his career in an unexpected light — proving that there is still something to say about a familiar legend.
Non-member adult tickets to "Ansel Adams" are $22 and entitle the holder to a return visit to the MFA’s permanent collection, good for 10 days.
Issue Date: September 2 - 8, 2005
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