Ansel Adams, surely the most famous of American photographers, produced a body of work that has had an enormous impact on Americans’ self-image. His pictures of the vast landscapes of the American West have influenced the way we (white people, at least, and maybe this is true across the board) think about what it means to be an American. We belong to a spacious land–even when we live in cramped cities–a land of challenge and grandeur that both humbles and uplifts. Adams’ photographs are the classic evocations of America as a place where a pure and awesome Nature remains the wellspring of our character–even while we sully and diminish Nature constantly to suit our slothful convenience.
Like many things that become classics in the age of mass-reproduction, Adams’ images have been so popularized as to lose some of their impact. Posters, cards, calendars–they are everywhere. You may think you know enough about Ansel Adams, that you’ve seen those images. After all, how different can a poster be from the photograph? And we know those Western landscapes–we see them all the time in TV commercials for SUVs. Sure, the West still symbolizes freedom and wide-open spaces, but now images of those spaces are used to make money, not to communicate reverence or spirituality. They are corrupted with cynicism and irony and traffic now, so what’s the big deal about these old photographs?
Unless you’ve seen the original photographic prints made by Adams, you don’t know his work. And if you don’t know his work, or that of his predecessors and his contemporaries, you are missing a key component of our visual history. The posters have nothing on the real thing, as a visit to the current exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art so clearly shows. Walking into In Praise of Nature: Ansel Adams and Photographers of the American West, you enter an irony-free zone where the artists’ love and awe for their subject matter rolls over you like a cleansing stream.
These classic images could also be called classical. What does classical mean in art? It refers to the high cultural achievements of the Greco-Roman world, but taken more broadly, classical denotes the refined, meaning-laden, essential elements of a culture, presented cohesively so that those defining elements will endure, forming and informing the people down through time. When we think of the classical, our first thought is often of columns. But as renowned scholar of African and African-American art Robert Farris Thompson pointed out recently in a lecture at Duke, a great deal of American, especially Southern, culture comes from the classical civilization of the Bakongo of central Africa. Much has been made of “our Judeo-Christian heritage,” but the truth is, that’s just one fragment of American culture. Our culture is as African as it is European. And it’s just as much Native Indian. So here we are, eating our cornbread and gumbo against a backdrop of Corinthian columns. And behind them, in the classical America in our minds, inland from the shining seas, beyond the waving fields of grain, there are always those mountains’ majesties.
Except perhaps for the 19th-century painter Thomas Moran, who, like some of the earlier photographers in this exhibition, accompanied the U.S. government surveyors who first mapped the Western territories, no one has shown us the West’s majestic mountains like Ansel Adams. Like Moran (three of whose tremendous paintings are on view indefinitely in the grand salon of the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., and well worth a look), Adams understood how to convey the experience of seeing these huge landscapes within the confines of the small artwork. He shows us both the deep distance and the foreground; the bold forms of mountain, rock and trunk, and the delicate tracery of snow crystal, of lichen, of leaf. And he does all this with a technical grace that has to be seen to be believed. His whites are the brightest; his blacks are as dark as a mineshaft during a solar eclipse–and between he teases out a thousand shades of gray.
In Praise of Nature is a mini-retrospective of Adams’ work, covering 45 years of his career–from childhood on. We see him working through the technical and aesthetic levels until he reaches his own style, and we see that he never reaches a comfortable plateau. In many retrospectives, you can tell just when the artist quit growing and struggling–the last years’ works merely attempt to repeat past successes. But as the NCMA’s curator John Coffey points out, “With Adams, it’s uphill all the way. He keeps doing better work until the end of his life.” Adams became more and more attuned to the rhythms of nature, and ever more able to anticipate the moment when light, weather and landscape would come together to offer an astonishing image to his lens. In his darkroom he became a great master, intensifying the images so that they more truly resembled and conveyed what he had seen with his own eyes to people who would never gaze on the glorious backcountry for themselves.
In addition to surveying Adams’ life work, the exhibition puts it in context, with a number of images by the great early landscape photographers who so influenced Adams, and with even more images by Adams’ contemporaries, like Imogen Cunningham and both Edward and Brett Weston. There are beautiful pieces by all of them, and in some cases there are shots by Adams and another photographer of the same scene, and these illuminate the differences between them while emphasizing their shared modernity. But often you can see how Adams looked to past photography and other art to inform his own work. He saw his art as building on the traditions of the past; we see it now as one of the classical visual foundations of our national character.