Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Father's Legacy: Ansel Adams Classic Images @ FMOPA

[In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that long ago, when this institution went by a slightly different name and was in a different location, I was a volunteer there, working the desk a couple of days a week. I haven't had any affiliation, other than as a visitor, with this Museum for many years.]

Gallery view, Florida Museum of Photographic Arts

Ansel Adams is perhaps the best-known photographer in the USA. One of the least understood, too. People who should know better think he invented the fabled Zone System on his own, but it was conceived by Fred Archer (to whom Adams gave credit) and developed as a teaching aid in 1940 by the two of them.

The Zone System (ZS) is not about any kind of formulaic thinking, or about including a pure white or black, or any of the other myriad imperious cliche's one often hears about it. As Adams clearly stated in book 2, it's about enabling the actualization of the photographer's vision. Adams' "performance" of his negatives (the print) varied across time. They generally tend to get contrastier as he aged.

Other myths about Adams include the use of a large format camera. While it is true he made many of his most famous negatives with view cameras, as we will see, he also used 35mm cameras hand-held, and most of his latter works were with the medium-format roll-film Hasselblad camera and three lenses Viktor Hasselblad gave him. There are examples of both in this exhibit.

Most photographers are familiar (in book form, and I'll return to this later) with the classic Adams images that form the nucleus of this exhibition, so I won't be addressing them here. One thing that is different about this exhibit is that the prints were made by Adams for his daughter, not for collectors or exhibition, and there are a few surprises.

Let's take Jose Clemente Orozco's portrait [Link]. Made in 1933, before the ZS, it is a great example of Adams' wide range as a photographer. It was made on his first trip to NYC. He'd gone to meet with Stieglitz, and shown his work to the Delphic gallery who also represented Orozco, which is how the portrait came about. AA thought the glasses made the good-natured painter look like "some slightly wrathful Mayan God". Curiously, Weston had also photographed Orozco a few months before AA [Link].

How are these two portraits different? Not just formally, but in the way Orozco comes across?

Grass and Pool, 1935 [Link] is a great example of an AA trope, something he was fascinated by and returned to time and time again, the calligraphic pattern, seen here in the form of grass on the water.

Lodgepole Pines, Lyell fork of the Merced River, 1921 [Link] Notice how different this early work by AA is from the latter ones. Ansel was seeing more like a Pictorialist when this was made. Here's a somewhat small (sorry) classic Pictorialist landscape from earlier times (late 1800's) [Link]. You can see similarities between the softness and painterly qualities in both, but the Adams is already on its way out towards Modernism.

Georgia O'Keefe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly, 1937 [Link] is an excellent portrait, taken with the speed of a seasoned street photographer. It was made before the ZS, and with a Contax rangefinder 35mm camera. Adams described it as a spontaneous shot.

Pool, Acoma Pueblo, 1942 [Link], this was made using the ZS, and look at the difference in tone control and expressiveness made under blazing light. It is exquisite and precise, and almost beyond anyone else's technical abilities at the time. A technical virtuoso piece. I have had the privilege of visiting the Acoma Pueblo and been at this very spot. When I was there, this pool (cistern) was almost empty.

White House Ruin, Canyon de Chelly, 1942 [Link]. AA was influenced by Carleton Watkins and owned a few of his prints, but he collected Timothy O'Sullivan, one of the greatest American landscape photographers. This picture was inspired by a very similar one by O'Sullivan that AA owned [Link]. AA's is almost an homage. Note the difference in tonal control between the two. O' Sullivan was limited (and defined) by the techniques and materials of his day.

Surf Sequences, #2, #4, #5. Here's #4 [Link] and a fuller portion of the entire sequence [Link], made in 1940. This predates Minor White by several years, and is later explored further by John Pfahl. It was made with AA's Hasselblad medium format camera (note the square format) using three backs for the camera enabling the use of the ZS.

Mrs. Gunn on Porch, 1944 [Link]. This is another AA portrait, this time an environmental one, that takes full advantage of the ZS to maximize the artist's expression. Note how much this portrait prefaces William Eggleston's early black and white work.

Golden Gate Before The Bridge, 1932. Here we have an unusual, very dark, brooding version of this [Link]. I wonder when that print (not the exposure/negative) was made.

An interesting, well-curated AA show at FMOPA. I want to emphasize that if you're familiar with AA through books, that you should make the trip and visit the gallery to see them in person. If you're well acquainted with AA, there's some gems and versions of prints here well worth seeing. Congratulations to the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts for their continuing efforts, both in the exhibits and their community outreach.

--- Luis

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