You've Not Seen Ansel Adams Until You Go to Salem

Reflection at Mono Lake. If this doesn't thrill you here, see it in person and get back to me!

Ansel Adams: At the Water’s Edge
Peabody Essex Museum
Salem, MA through October 8

Yes, I know--Ansel Adams. Been there. Done that. No reason to see an exhibit of his work, right? Wrong! And wrong in more ways that you can even imagine until you stand amidst the hundreds of watery glories on display at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum  (PEM).

Ansel Adams might be the most popular American photographer in history. (Is there anyone who has not seen one of his shots of Yosemite Park’s Half Dome?)  Reproductions of his works show up in textbooks, in documentaries, in poster shops, and on college dorm rooms all over the country. He is, in short, a person whose work we think we know. Confounding our expectations is among the many joys of the PEM show. 

We mainly think of Adams as stolid and earthbound, a bit like Half Dome itself. The PEM exhibit concentrates on images of water, those that flow, spray, crash, dribble, roar, tumble, terrify, pacify, and reflect. Among the exhibit’s surprises are images made by Adams (1902-84) when he was a mere lad of 14 and, yes he had a keen eye even then. As the story is often told, though, young Adams confined himself to soft focus, painterly images until he co-founded f/64 in 1933, a group that foreswore gauzy, romantic imagery and embraced sharp focused photography that documented reality rather than fantasy. As the tale continues, f/64–named for the smallest stop on a camera lens, one that yields the greatest sharpness–decided to leave symbolism to painters. In truth, this yarn is only half right; Adams and his cohorts did leave soft focus in the dustbin, but Adams, at least, never gave up the notion that a photograph could be imbued with spiritualism, or that shooting what was (literally) there was devoid of mystery. Nor did he ever stop being a painter of light. Check out “Reflections at Mono Lake” (1948), which is a black and white version of what Claude Monet might have done with a camera. Or gaze upon images such as “Grass and Pool” (1938), “Grass, Water, and Sun” (1948), or “Submerged Trees, Slide Lake” (1965). Each looks as if they could be prints of Japanese calligraphy. Adams may have photographed what he saw, but abstract art doesn’t get any more ambiguous than “Foam” (1960), or his’ 1940 “Surf Sequence.”

We are accustomed to thinking of Adams as a California photographer, but the PEM exhibit also exposes us to shots taken in places such as Alaska, Hawaii, and Cape Cod. (The latter have a forlorn quality evocative of Edward Hopper.) But the best thing of all about the Adams exhibit is seeing the photos as they were meant to be seen–as direct photographic prints. That may sound obvious, but aren’t most of us more familiar with reproductions of Adams’ work? I was stunned by the clarity and detail of the PEM exhibit. Reproductions smooth and obliterate details such as reflection, grain, shadow, and texture. In black and white photography, though, how an artist uses these things is often the very essence of what makes a great image as opposed to a so-so offering. Adams was famously obsessive in the darkroom, often working days to obtain a single image. Seeing the prints reveals his hard work but, more importantly, it reveals levels of detail and majesty that no reproduction can show. I’m sure I am among the many who bought the exhibition catalog, took it home, and felt a letdown when images on the wall over which I gasped looked merely ordinary on the page. (There are other reasons to buy the catalog, including Phillip Prodger’s insightful and well-titled essay “Sharp as a Tack, Mysterious as the Universe.”) Therein lies the best reason to see this show–unless you’ve seen the prints, you’ve not really experienced Ansel Adams.

The PEM show closes October 8, about the time Salem’s ghoul industry cranks up. If you’ve been contemplating some witch hunting, avoid the crowds and go before October 8. You can assuage your guilt over wallowing in pop culture trash with a dollop of high art.  

No comments: