Thursday, 31 October 2013

Ansel Adams Photography from the Mountains to the Sea NMM Greenwich 2013

I have been really lucky this year to see the work of so many respected and eminent photographers and, while it was still on at the National Maritime Museum, went to see Ansel Adams Photography from the Mountains to the Sea.

“The works in this exhibition explore water in all its forms, from turbulent views of rapids and waterfalls to contemplative scenes of rivers and pools.”
Phillip Prodger, guest curator, Peabody Essex Museum

Adams was one of the founder members of Group f-64 in 1932 (f-64 was then the smallest available aperture available on a photographic lens)

“Group f-64 limits its members … to those striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods … Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form … The members of Group f-64 believe that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.”

So there you go!

When it comes to reviewing the exhibition I don't really know where to start... I really hate to have to say feels sacrilegious... but shhhhhhhhhhhhhh I don't feel inspired by his work that much....its not that I don't LIKE it so much as it doesn't make me feel, I like photographs to inspire some emotion, either from the imagery itself or the message/story it telling. Ansel Adams photographs while technically stunning, with amazing detail don't make me feel anything beyond those 2 observations. I have read so many reviews on other bodies of work that get mixed reviews but no-one anywhere seems to have a bad word to say about Adams? I was starting to think there was something wrong with me until I came across this...

where Alastair Sooke states:

Why, then, did I find myself resisting the allure of his photography... let me come right out and say it: I find Adams’s aesthetic curiously off-putting.....Adams’s vision is at best detached, at worst cold and misanthropic..... As a result, though I greatly admire Adams’s artistry, I rarely warm to him.

Ok, so I have cut out the blurb in the middle but I felt Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa relief...I'm NOT the only one who feel this way then. Sooke mentions the lack of people in the images, maybe this is what I haven't be able to put my finger on.

Similar shots by Vittorio Sella speak more to me than Adams but the imagery is so similar, is this due to the inclusion of people giving perspective, a human touch, emphasising the harshness of the environment?

Panorama of the Baltoro Glacier with Mitre Peak, Mustagh Tower and K2 in the background 1909 Vittorio Sella
And I get cross that no-one ever mentions Carleton Watkins who was there before him, it was 30 images of his which captured the valley's ravines, "cascading waterfalls and monumental trees" that inspired Abraham Lincoln to sign the legislation needed to secure the wilderness "for public use, resort, and recreation". He even photographed the Golden Gate area before the bridge was built which everyone raves about with Adams.

Watkins photographed ravines, rivers, waterfalls and monumental trees to secure the grant that allowed this vast wilderness to be kept 'for public use, resort, and recreation' forever. Here is River View down Yosemite Valley (looking west-southwest toward Cathedral Rock)
Despite not being as pin sharp and a bit sepia in tone, these images of Watkins have a gentle grace about them, the contrast is not so great and I know Adams spent hours in his darkroom dodging and burning, but sometimes I feel to excess. I really, really don't want to diss Adams that much as he was a master at his craft and his images are amazing, I'm just not his number one fan I guess.

What about Charles Leander Weed and George Fiske? I wonder how many people don't know about them? I know I didn't until recently.

Mirror Lake and Reflections, Yosemite Valley, Mariposa County, California, 1865. Smithsonian American Art Museum Charles L Weed

Washington Column, Mirror Lake [Yosemite Valley]. 366. [Photograph by George Fiske.]

Back to the exhibition itself, over 100 photographs were displayed under separate headings:  Sea and Surf, Coastal, Monumental, Rivers, Waterfalls, Rapids, Surface and Texture, Snow and Ice, Geysers and finally Clouds and Reflections.The prints varied greatly in size: from tiny polaroid prints to supersize prints covering entire walls. On examining how the exhibition was curated it was interesting to note that the display of the work was varied; some collections were sectioned off with low lighting; large screens show large formatted pictures and, towards the end, a documentary of the photographer’s life and career was screened in a medium-sized room with seating. This led on to another section, making it maze-like.Sometimes the maze like way the exhibition was set out got overwhelming and you had to ask yourself have I looked at that bit yet?

Other useful/interesting features were maps placed around the space showing the locations where Adams took the photographs. Towards the end there is a small "washing line" notes pegged to it. A sign asked viewers to write down how this work has inspired them. I'm not sure what the gallery was going to do with them after but it made people feel part of the exhibition experience.

His timing and composition are fantastic, as said above I really can't find fault with this, he pioneered so many new techniques for example his huge oversized prints produced in the early 1950's for the American Trust Company, it is a shame modern technology caught up and took over and huge is all you invariably tend to see at exhibitions these days. I found it more interesting to look closely at his smaller pieces in this exhibition palm-sized prints so unbelievably sharp – masterfully developed to have such strength in contrast and tone.

Most of the photographs were printed by Adams himself (so at least you know that he intended to make some of the darkest areas THAT dark and it wasn't an overzealous reproduction) and were accompanied by a little bit of blurb to explain the photograph and its relation to water, which was good. One aspect the exhibition showed how Adams photographed and "played with the aesthetics of patterns and textures found within nature", this work was new to me and I could see how he and Edward Weston must have bounced ideas off each other.

What I took away from this exhibition most of all (apart from the fact that I had been lucky to see up close and personal the landscapes of the Ansel Adams, oh and 2 postcards) is that every single photograph in the exhibition had been manipulated. We heard from his son in the video above that he likened a photographic negative to a composer’s score, while the performance is the photographer/printer’s interpretation and reaction in the darkroom. Why is it that today's photographers get vilified for their manipulation yet Adams is revered for his?

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