Review: Ansel Adams at the Eiteljorg Museum
“Painting is dead” has become such an entrenched phrase in the art world that it now rings of the knowing chuckle of irony. We all know it isn’t true, but in the second half of the twentieth century the medium seemed to exhaust itself. Paintings served as commentaries on other paintings, critiques of the field’s own longstanding clichés. But at the dawn of the twenty-first century, this question seems to take precedence: is photography dead? At the Indianapolis-based Eiteljorg Museum’s recent Ansel Adams exhibition, even the most cynical viewer (i.e., yours truly) could at the very least stand in awe of the noble bones of the medium.
In popular media, contemporary landscape photography has become the hobbyist’s realm. We all recognize the familiar images: HDR shots of fast-moving streams, portraits of stern-looking deer, large-format landscapes of mountains at sunset. They adorn our doctors’ office walls and tourist gift shops. But as ubiquitous as this trope has become, one thought kept recurring to me as I walked through the Ansel Adams show: these photos could never be cliché. Although Adams was himself the pioneer of high definition, large-format photographic imaging, he doesn’t come off as a nature hobbyist, but as reverent monk . These aren’t snapshots, they’re paintings in light. They take time to make and develop. Individual, iconic pieces, such as Moonrise, Hernandez, MX (1941) absorb the attention of viewers with a tonal range of truly magnetic blacks, shimmering silvers, and an overwhelming sense of quiet. Looking at these images is like looking into a black hole.
The environment of the exhibition, however, deviated from the reverent vacuum these images deserve. An old non-academic art classroom movie about Adams’s life blared in the entrance to the gallery space. Due to the half walls employed in the exhibition, the muffled narration and musical score bounced throughout the entire show—an unfortunate juxtaposition to the solidtude of the American wilderness. There was no observable order to the show or the photographs chosen for display, and for the most part the wall text only acted as personal biography.
There is value in a biographical show, however, and some of the surprising curation choices gave—and I say this without sarcasm—a fresh look into the old master. In particular, his portraits of trailer camp children in the 1940s revealed the artist’s compassion. The luxurious textures and exposures do not mask the human details, such as a young girl reading a comic book in an image from 1944. The pose references earlier Farm Security Administration images by Gordon Parks or Dorothea Lange, and shows Adams’s ability to restore a sense of humanity to social documentary—much like how he endowed nature with a sense of dignity in his better-known work.
The most surprising part of the show also referenced the medium’s own history. Soft focus gelatin silver prints of Yosemite National Park c. 1925 look like the final evolutionary form of nineteenth century landscape photography. The silvery, liquidious trees in Lodgepoll Pines hint at the creative chemist in Adams, a quality that photographers have championed since the time of William Henry Fox Talbot. On the other hand, the images’ soft dewiness forms a visual dialogue with Adams’s contemporaries such as Alfred Stieglitz and other Pictorialists.
The museum, at least, did emphasize the historical context of Adams’s relationship with Edward Weston—a relationship that plays out visually in both men’s attention to the elegant details of flora and fauna. Although Adams is best known for his large-scale landscapes, a close up Surf Sequence, San Mateo County Coast, California showed the intimate, nearly tender details of waves bubbling on the sand. Examples such as these show the importance of initiating dialogue—historical and contemporary—in any decent art exhibition. Although Adams’s photographs create serene, seemingly sealed universes, they are most exciting when placed in a context where the viewer can appreciate the artist’s social and historical relationships.
All of this goes to show that photography isn’t even close to “dead.” It is an overwhelmingly expansive medium with a multifarious history and plenty of untold stories to tell. Adams, arguably the most canonical photographer of his age, still needs to be seen—a fact celebrated by the enormous popularity of the show. And if a young photographer can walk into the show and see the visual, historical links between Adams and Weston, Adams and Talbot, Adams and whomever—then we never have to worry about the medium’s mortality. Just as painting has developed a discussion with its own traditions, contemporary nature photographers should take Adams’s unwavering earnestness and look at our twenty-first century landscapes with new—and old—eyes.
Ansel Adams – A Lifetime Portfolio
Exhibit at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art
March 1st-August 3rd, 2014
Katie Morrison serves as Visual Arts Editor for Buffalo Almanack. She received her M.A. in Art History from the University of Colorado and is presently trying to make a stable living with said degree. Her research tracks issues of race, violence, and urban identity in American photography. She is an avid cat enthusiast and possesses a deep passion for iced coffee.