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.  


Rocky Mountain Die: More Senseless Gun Murders

And Aurora surprises us, why, exactly? 

What’s left to say? James Holmes walks into an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater armed for Armageddon and blows away a dozen people and wounds 59 others. Tragic? Of course it is, and my heart goes out to the victims and their families. Surprising? Not in the least. In fact, I predicted it–on this blog no less. Back in 2011, when Gabby Giffords and her aides were shot, I remarked that such incidents were inevitable because Americans think the Second Amendment is more sacred than the sanctity of human life. I said it when the Virginia Tech murders occurred in 2009, and I said it after the tragedy at Columbine in 1999. (It’s located just 20 miles from Aurora, by the way.) I said it again when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, a pipsqueak who thought a gun made him a man.

I’m sure the rightwing nut jobs will try to tell us that fewer would have died in Aurora if the patrons were all packing pistols. They’ll drag out all the nostrums, such as “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” “Guns cause crime like flies cause garbage,” and “An armed man is a citizen. An unarmed man is a subject.” These look good on t-shirts, but it’s gauche to wear them to funerals. How about this one for a new slogan: “The N.R.A. Murdered More Americans Than Osama bin-Laden.” Catchy, eh? And true as well. Because the NRA lines politicians’ pockets and because they propagandize a na├»ve citizenry into thinking guns make them safer, each year more than 11,000 Americans die from gun violence–that’s more than 3 ½ bin Ladens per year, folks. But we already know and ignore these statistics, and others such as the overwhelming evidence that murder rates are highest in states where guns are most easily obtained, and that individuals are more likely to be killed in an attempted crime if they brandish a firearm. But we don’t want to hear any of this, so maybe we should applaud James Holmes for helping us reach our national murder target faster (word play intentional).

Look–here’s a guy, Holmes, who in fewer than 60 days, purchased an AR-15 assault rifle, two Glock pistols, a 12-guage shotgun, six thousand rounds of ammo, and enough chemicals and explosives to restage Bhopal, and nobody was suspicious. Why? Because it was all legal; Holmes had no criminal record, so to raise any questions would be, according to the NRA, a dangerous intrusion of civil rights on the part of the Evil Government. (For the record, Evil Government officials, AKA/the police, generally fatally wound around 400 people a year. What a bunch of amateurs!) The Aurora massacre raises the same damn questions asked (and ignored) before: Why does any American need an assault rifle? (Up yours, collectors!) How is it an intrusion of rights to limit the number of rounds a gun can fire without reloading? Why can’t we place strict limits on sales of ammunition? (The NRA even opposes technology that would allow ammunition to be traced to its purchaser.) Why is the Second Amendment more sacred than the 18th (Prohibition), which was repealed? Yada, yada, yada….   Same questions, same funerals, same tears, same bewildered shock, same inaction….

I’ve not been following Aurora carefully–it’s like a syndicated TV show whose episodes I’ve seen so often I can recite the plot and dialogue from memory. And it will air again, and again, and again. All because we allow a terrorist organization in our midst, the NRA, to pose as a public service organization and sandbag sane political policy (gun control). All because we really don’t give a damn about Aurora, Trayvon Martin, Gabby Giffords’ aides, Virginia Tech, or Columbine. Harsh? I don’t think so. If we really cared, wouldn’t we have done something more than dry our tears and move on? 


American Banks: Parochial Thinking in a Global Economy

But do U.S. banks even know the rest of the world exists? 

The evidence of the global economy is all around us. All of our electronics are made abroad, as is nearly every stitch of clothing we wear. You name it– knickknacks, mowers, appliances, kayaks, bicycles–and chances are good it’s not labeled “Made in the USA.” We eat sea bass from Chile, olive oil from Italy, cheese from Switzerland, and egg rolls from China, then wash it down with beer from Mexico and coffee from Vietnam. If it makes you sick, your stomach x-ray will be read in India. Looking for a car with the most American-made parts? Try a Toyota Camry! Go to work and your boss tells you that you have to work harder in order to be more competitive in the global market.

Yep. It’s a global marketplace out there, which makes you wonder why American banks seem not to have gotten the memo. Two recent examples: Try to buy some Euros, Yuan, or British pounds at your local bank. If you live in a major city such as New York or Chicago you can probably find one, but all the banks here in Western Massachusetts told me the same thing: they would need to “order” foreign money. That little “service” costs far more than using my ATM card and withdrawing it in the countries I visited.

Okay, a minor thing perhaps. But try this one. I am the organizer for a yearly academic conference. We don’t accept credit cards or other rip-off services (like PayPal, the TicketMaster of credit transfers) because their fees are too high. (I’ll be damned if I’ll pay banks more than my annual stipend for the “convenience” of allowing others to deposit money into their accounts.) We operate on a cash, check, or money order basis. Until recently, that is. Now I have to tell those who don’t live in the United States that their checks and money orders must be issued by a U.S. bank. I recently had to return a money order to a young man in Canada because–and you can’t make this up–Canadian routing numbers only have eight digits and U.S. banks require nine!

Wait a minute! Have banks never heard of NAFTA? This is Canada, for heaven’s sake, as in our number one trading partner. As in that place north of us with the world’s longest unprotected border. As in an economy that’s outperforming our own. Exchange is a rather basic economic concept and these experiences made me wonder how American banks expects to compete in the global marketplace if they can’t even handle a money order. A personal check I can understand. It would cost the bank something (substantially less than they charge) to process a bad check, but a money order is cash under a different name. It’s akin to old-style travelers’ checks in that they’ve already been purchased, so there’s no fear that the money isn’t there. And we’re also talking an electronic transfer of funds. How hard is it to enter an eight-digit routing code into a computer? I went on line and found dozens of software packages available for any bank (apparently all in the U.S as the sites are all in English) dealing in foreign currency, transfers, and–ahem!-–money orders.

And really, shouldn’t all banks be dealing in foreign exchange in an economy in which goods, services, and workers move across borders? It made me think. Maybe the U.S. is so concerned about Mexican migrant laborers because they are stamped with the wrong routing code.