Saturday, January 05, 2013

Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park

Ansel Adams, The Tetons and the Snake River (1942)
Source: Wikimedia Commons
This image was included on the Voyager Spacecraft Golden Record. 

Old photograph albums are littered with images of mountains, lakes and rivers that were of momentary fascination to the photographer on their travels, but are ignored now in comparison to the accompanying snaps of family members.  Perhaps it's not surprising therefore that Geoff Dyer's Borgesian history of photography, The Ongoing Moment, largely excludes landscape views.  He only finds one thing to write about Ansel Adams, 'the most popular and arguably the most influential photographer in American history', according to the website for the Adams exhibition currently on in London.  It is a passing reference to an atypical non-landscape photograph, 'unexceptional in every way', that Adams took of the model Charis Wilson.  Ansel Adams is certainly not a photographer you go to for human interest.  Alastair Sooke of the Telegraph doesn't warm to him: 'Adams’s photographs have an enamelled over-intensity that can feel inhuman. In his pictures, Adams presents an alternative to reality. With consummate skill, he isolates and composes a scene so that it resembles a snapshot of perfection. Yet it also remains distant and unattainable.  Even a familiar image such as Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California, about 1937 has an extraterrestrial quality: all that wintry vapour could be clouds of nebular gas coalescing into a faraway planet at the beginning of the universe. On such a cosmic scale, humans are irrelevant. Adams’s vision is at best detached, at worst cold and misanthropic.'

One of the advantages of seeing the exhibition with children this week was that I felt I had permission to enjoy these images as an 'alternative to reality' (on another of the miserable wet days we have been experiencing here in London).  I didn't feel I had to keep reminding myself that these mountains and rivers are not the timeless wilderness his photographs might lead you to suppose.  Nor was I in danger of being seduced into planning a holiday to 'the great landscapes of the Golden State' (the exhibition is sponsored by Visit California).  Instead I became absorbed in the shadows, patterns and visual echoes that Adams brought out of monumental vistas and detailed studies of surf and foam, seaweed and barnacles, icicles and snow.  Adams was one of the photographers who led the move away from Pictorialism (soft-focus images intended to look like paintings) but his images are all highly composed.  One interesting early print shows the influence of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints: a mosaic of flat planes showing sky, rocks and slope of trees and Marion Lake. (You can see this photograph at Artblart - an interesting blog brought to my attention just this week by its author Marcus Bunyon).  Alastair Sooke sees something of 'a deadening effect' in this formalism, given that Adams's wanted the images to provide an 'equivalent' to the emotions he felt out in the landscape.  Nevertheless, these photographs would be 'unexceptional in every way' if their musical configurations of form and light and shade wasn't deeply satisfying at some level.  And on that note here, is a clip of the late Dave Brubeck, talking about Ansel Adams' notion that 'photographers are in a sense composers, and the negatives are their scores'. 

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