A Report on the Ansel Adams Exhibition @ Modern Art Oxford (MAO), UK
The Ansel Adams Exhibition has opened in the Modern Art Oxford (MAO), UK, from 2nd April. I went there during my lunch break on the very first day. Here is a quick proto-review:
1. There are (about) 75 original prints of photographs taken by Adams, starting from the early 1920s, and spread around chronologically on the walls of three rooms, ending with a full portrait of Adams. Most of the photos are – my guess – either A3 or A4 in size, bearing his signature in pencil on the right hand corner of the frame.
2. The best of the show are
a. Dawn Autumn, 1948
b. Clearing storm, 1951: a misty mystic shot
c. Redwoods, 1960: plain vertical trees, absolutely simple and beautiful, you wonder, “May be I can also do it, but why didn’t I do this before?”
d. Mount Mckinley and Wonder, 1947: a magisterial vista
e. Sand dunes, 1948: approaches to an abstract form, with black and white and a brief tonal gradation in between.
f. Tetons and Snake River, 1942: master , classic one . This had to be there. But I wonder why did they put in one corner and some charm is lost in the process.
g. Moonrise, Hernandez, 1941. Next time I know I can keep 2/3 of the frame completely dark and have the lit up subjects on the rest. It works. I won’t follow the “balance the weight” rule.
h. Dogwood, 1938. Observe the highlight details. Simplicity of the composition comes through, a primer in pattern/arrangement and texture.
i. Winter sunrise, 1944. Superb theatrical lighting, adding drama. Adams was either too patient or just lucky.
j. Moon and Half Dome, everyone likes, except me.
3. I think, gleaning from the exhibition, that Adams was at his best in between 1930-1967.
4. The early period covers his expedition to (Taos) New Mexico, and this phase is strongly influenced by Alfred Steiglitz’s artist approach. The first photograph of the exhibition is the only one where Adams experimented with soft focus, etching, etc.
5. After this brief period, there is a strong influence of cubism. I detected this first and then this was confirmed by the blurb on the exhibition, which informs the viewers that Adams was influenced by the post-cubists like Andrew Dasburg and John Marin, with especial emphasis on the “geometric interpretation of form.” The 1929 photo of “Winnowing Grain” is a good example.
6. Later, Adams was influenced by Paul Strand, and hereafter, one sees the use of sharp and deep focus and more realistic approach to the world. This seems to me is correlated to the beginning of the “deep focus” movement in cinema.
7. There is a steady development in his style, retaining the residues of influences by others in his career: eye for forms, realism, and emphasis on the darkroom craftsmanship to overcome the allegation that photography is a mechanical output, hence not art.
8. The study of form remains constant, only technique changes.
9. At times, he pushed formalism too far, resulting, in my view, unpleasant photos, example, Grass and Pool, 1935.
10. I am no expert on Adams and have never read any quality book or article on him. But looking at those original prints, I now know where does this “zone system” come from. It was definitely inspired by Stieglitz’s “equivalent” approach: try to portray, transfer and re-create the feeling you had (i.e. the subjective dimension) while taking the photograph. But how do you do that? How do you record that and more importantly translate that– which is nothing but patches of darkness and brightness? Enter “zone system”: assign values to each patch and try to create “equivalence” between “what you saw” and your final print. A standard system emerges.
11. This is all very good: but I guess the problem remains on the emphasis on feeling rather than meaning and ideology. A pure aesthetics with out politics, or a naïve politics, or worse, aesthetisation of politics. Adams’s photos of nature are devoid of human beings, nature is wild and uninhabited – a space for escapism, a form of idealism. This is a dangerous vision for environmental politics – which I study for my doctoral degree – it advocates conservation of nature without providing any space for human beings. For this vision, human beings are antithetical to nature. The world has seen many such efforts of purging human beings from the natural habitat; Masais of Kenya are one such victim. My favourite photographer is Sebastiao Salgado; he never talks about “zone system”, though he retains the graphical elements of B&W photography, without subjecting everything to a formal study.
There will be a talk on Adams’s landscape photography on 9th April, 6.30pm onwards at MAO.
Many thanks for posting this review. I hope to pay a visit in ~10 days.
I'm glad I'm naïve enough to actually enjoy art.
that's what MTV says, and I too follow it. no quarrel here .. just co-exist and tolerate.
Interesting review. I would definitely interject that Salgado and Adams are polar opposites. One is out to document the human condition while the other, in his own words, sought to record nature as he found it. Some times the cigar, is just a cigar.
Technological society has succeeded in multiplying the opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty in generating joy. Pope Paul VI
So, I think the "greats" were true to their visions, once their visions no longer sucked. Ralph Barker 12/2004
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Interesting review, thanks for posting it.
Some places should be devoid of the touch of man, IMO, or at least photographed to document what it looked like before human beings trashed it or were otherwise uniquely involved. In Salgado and Adams, we have a distinct record of both situations.
"Expression" is still, as far as I know, widely taught in art in general and in photography in particular here in the States. The (or one of the) standard teachings is on how to express the artist's reaction or "feelings" in the photograph or other artwork. Ideology and politics are still not really thought of as "art" over here, at least, not to my semi-detached understanding. Am I misunderstanding or are we back to the (possibly mythical but I've seen it referenced so many places) comment by Henri Cartier-Bresson at about the beginning of WWII that the world was going to pieces and Weston and Adams were photographing rocks. Something like that. If that's it, it is interesting to me that we still have this gulf of misunderstanding between our two cultures.
Originally Posted by leicaphile
In Europe, art devoid of ideology or irony, produced with passion and technical prowess is known as "kitsch".