Trending: Ansel Adams Is Cool Again

By David Schonauer   Monday January 28, 2019

America is rediscovering the most iconic name in photography.

“Until recently, I would have said that nothing could be more boring right now than looking at photographs by Ansel Adams,” writes art critic Sebastian Smee at The Washington Post. “Sacrilege, I know. I would never say this was Adams’s fault — he was a pioneer, a mythmaker and clearly a photographer of genius. He was also indefatigable. He deserves his fame.

“But Adams’s well-thumbed vision of the world — and especially of Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Sierra Nevada — felt increasingly false to my eyes,” Smee continues. “Yes, he helped secure the sacred status of many areas of American wilderness. He also helped establish the art credentials of photography in the first half of the 20th century. In this era of unfolding environmental catastrophe, however, Adams’s images — so pristine, fastidious and preposterously hygienic — simply deflect my eyes."

What changed Smee’s mind was “Ansel Adams In Our Time,” an exhibition running through Feb. 24 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The exhibition reconsiders Adams’s legacy and makes a case for his relevance today: His famous black-and-white prints are displayed alongside prints by several of the 19th-century government survey photographers who greatly influenced Adams, as well as work by contemporary artists whose modern-day concerns center on the environment and natural resources.

Coming as U.S. national parks are in a partial shutdown, the exhibition reveals "how human intervention has changed purple mountains’ majesty," notes The New York Times.

Adams, adds The Wall Street Journal, is cool again.

“The Tetons and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming,” by Ansel Adams, 1942

“Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” by Ansel Adams, 1941

“[I]t is bracing — if perhaps cautionary — to see, close to the moment that the government shutdown has affected many of the national parks, so many noble and challenging images of our country’s heritage,” writes critic Vicki Goldberg at The Times.

Adams, notes Goldberg, "carried the 19th century’s hymn to America into the 20th century" and "has remained an inescapable force.”

But, she adds, while he “gave his heart to the 19th century, he trained his eye on modernism and the ‘straight photography’ of the 1930s, with its sharp focus, vivid contrast and compositions that amounted to studies in form and light.” And he influenced photographers to come.

The later photographers included in the exhibition — including Mark Klett, Trevor Paglen, Catherine Opie, Abelardo Morell, Victoria Sambunaris, and Binh Danh — have adapted Adams’s work, making radical changes and commentaries. “Their inclusion points out major shifts in the way both landscape photography and landscape itself are now regarded,” notes Goldberg.

“Untitled #1 (Yosemite Valley),” by Catherine Opie, 2015

“Some contemporary photographers ask a vital question of art history: What can be done with a scene that long ago became an icon and is tattooed upon our minds?” writes Goldberg. “The answer lies with what artists have done with icons for centuries: They have reinterpreted them.”

As an example she points to Opie, who takes out-of-focus, color pictures in national parks. “In a video at the exhibition she said that she wants people to know what they are looking at but to question it, an act of witnessing that one click on an iPhone, one glance at social media, does not create,” notes Goldberg.

“Tent-Camera Image on Ground: View of Mount Moran and the Snake River from Oxbow Bend, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming,” by Abelardo Morell, 2011

Klett and Wolfe “remind us of all that Adams’s visual rhetoric omits in panoramic collages combining archival prints with recent views of the same places,” notes Smee at The Post. “They show kayakers, campers and — intense surprise! — color. A wall label quotes Klett saying: 'Anyone who has ever visited the site of one of Adams’s photographs knows that the romance of his landscapes is often best experienced in the photographs themselves.'”

Morell is represented with three photographs made with a camera obscura, using a tent with a small opening at the top, a periscope and an angled mirror. “This puts him physically inside the most basic form of a camera. Then, using a digital camera, he photographs the inverted image of the landscape outside as it is reflected on the ground,” notes Smee.

“Marrying far and close, large and small, Morell’s bewitching images are also a way of looking at the ‘Adams landscape’ indirectly, thereby catching the cliche off guard, discovering the image anew,” Smee writes. “Suddenly, ‘that Ansel Adams mountain is yours, not his,’ Morell says in a video. “You take ownership of looking at it again.”

“Self-portrait, Monument Valley, Utah” by Ansel Adams, 1958

“Confronted by great images, we too often recoil from their rhetoric, and perversely censor the creativity they stimulate in us,” adds Smee. Ansel Adams did not end the conversation about America’s natural world. He just helped to start it.
At top: “Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park,” by Ansel Adams, about 1937


  1. D. Lindemann commented on: January 28, 2019 at 12:45 p.m.

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