Ansel Adams Show at MFA is Glorious!

Ansel Adams in Our Time
Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Through February 24, 2019

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is probably the most famous American photographer not named Dorothea Lange. Is there a dorm in any college in North America that doesn’t sport at least one poster of one of his Yosemite Half Dome shots? You know Adams’ work. Or at least you think you do.

An exhibition at Boston’s MFA focuses on Ansel Adams, his predecessors, and contemporary photographers inspired by him. It was instructive to see the work of earlier artists, especially Eadward Muybridge and Timothy O’Sullivan. In like fashion, more recent shutterbugs such as Binh Danh, Mark Klett, Catharine Opie, and Victoria Samburnaris have created some interesting offshoots that owe a debt to Adams. But the overwhelming feeling one gets upon seeing the MFA’s high quality prints can be summed by saying, he was Ansel Adams and they were/are not.

I mean no disrespect to anyone who has ever clicked a shutter; it’s simply the case that Adams was to the camera what Segovia was to Spanish guitar. I had the experience of walking into the first gallery and putting my own camera back into its bag. It took me a solid 30 minutes before I overcame the feeling that trying to capture anything I saw would amount to sacrilege. What an amazing body of work from a guy who started with a Brownie box camera.

Adams quickly ditched the Brownie and worked with 8 x 10 full frames, Hasslebads, various 4 x 5s, and an array of 35mm cameras. He was a legendary workhorse—perhaps a holdover from being a hyperactive child—who was known to spend weeks in the darkroom to get a single image that pleased him. Remember, in those days that meant using physical tools to dodge and burn small sections of an image. Speaking of work, the MFA has some home movie footage of Adams and associates hauling heavy equipment through the snow so that he could perch precariously on a ridge and get the shots of Yosemite he imagined. He met his wife, Virginia Best, on an outing to Yosemite, but one is tempted to engage in cheap psychology and assert that the park was actually the love of his life. He certainly spent much of his time shooting it, working with (or in opposition to) the National Park Service (NPS), and writing about Yosemite’s glories. He was a member of the Sierra Club and was an environmentalist long before that term came into vogue.

There are certain Adams images that have been endlessly reproduced, such as his Half Dome at Yosemite shots. Others in this category include images he took of the Manzanar Relocation Camp, his portrait of Orville Cox and Georgia O’Keeffe (1937), “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941), “The Tetons and the Snake River” (1942), and “Evening, McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park” (1942). When you see these printed in large formats, you feel as if you are really seeing these for the first time. Take “Moonrise,” for instance. We have long known that it is a masterwork in tonality–and Adams pioneered a zone system for getting those tones–but we also see in much greater detail that Hernandez, New Mexico, is a windblown collection of hardscrabble farming and poverty.

Adams intended us to see the injustices of Manzanar and the despair of Hernandez. When he was four, an earthquake shook his parents home in the San Francisco Bay. Adams was thrown to the ground and broke his nose. As he joked thereafter, from that point on he, like his nose, leaned to the left. We seldom see Adams’ more political wok. The MFA has an Adams image of a political campaign handbill juxtaposed with a circus poster, a wry reminder that during and after the Great Depression, he was leery of mainstream politicians. Later in his life, Adams took photographs of freeways and interstate highways. These images are at once eye-popping in their geometric symmetry, we also see how all of this was out of sync with Adams’ desire to preserve mature. He often criticized the NPS for what he called its “resortism” approach to national parks.

If I had to pick a single Adams nature picture as my favorite, it would be “The Tetons and the Snake River,” not one of his Yosemite images. Apparently others think so as well, as its one of the 150 images aboard the Voyager space probe. It sent me on a journey of my own as I stood before it. I think it’s as close to a perfect shot of natural beauty and awe as humankind can render on film. I literally gasped when I saw it.

Move heaven and earth to see this show before it closes on February 24. By the way, I too started with a Brownie camera. He's Ansel Adams and I'm not!

Rob Weir


No comments: