Knowing From Adams 

Ansel Adams exhibit worth a trip to Louisville

Ansel Adams exhibit worth a trip to Louisville

There is no doubt that the work of Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is among the most widely viewed of any photographer. His images adorn greeting cards, calendars, and the pages of numerous books. Through Nov. 15, Adams’ work is even more at hand in “Ansel Adams, A Legacy,” a traveling collection on view at Louisville’s Speed Art Museum.

Why make the six-hour round-trip to Louisville to view a collection of seemingly ubiquitous images? For one thing, though Adams’ work seems to be everywhere, a collection of this magnitude—115 black-&-white non-commercial works—is a rare treat. (A collection of his color work would be rarer still.)

Though Adams is best known for his powerful landscapes, these works do not dominate the Louisville exhibit. In fact, some of the most exciting photographs on display show different sides of the photographer. Among these are portraits of artists—including “Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona” (1937), in which the celebrated American painter casts an impish glance at her sidekick—and cityscapes, mostly of San Francisco, Adams’ hometown.

Of course, landscapes—particularly of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada—have to figure into any exhibit of Adams’ work, and “Ansel Adams, A Legacy” does offer some, though the prints on display here largely highlight a different aspect of the photographer’s outdoor work. There are a few of his earlier landscapes, which marvelously document the Western national parks. The eerie stillness in these photographs is due in part to Adams’ skill as a photographer, which allowed him to capture, for example, the enveloping quiet of a world draped in snow, as he did to perfection in “Half-Dome, Merced River, Winter, Yosemite Valley, California” (1938). Even so, photographs such as this one seem more suited to viewing through a vintage stereoscope.

Adams’ later shots of Western parks take on a looser feel, reflecting the influence of modernism in their composition. By the 1950s and ’60s, Adams was no longer taking pictures that merely chronicled the world; he had begun instead to create photographs that presented his own conceptualization of space. Hanging just a few feet away from the 1938 photograph are stellar examples of this non-pictorial approach: “Eagle Peak and Middle Brother, Winter, Yosemite National Park, California” (1960), with its two evergreen trees silhouetted against the two misty peaks, and “Forest, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California” (1950). The concentrated focus in these photographs creates a dramatic image that would have been diminished by the inclusion of a complete landscape scene.

The exhibition also features photographs that were not only difficult to shoot, but also required technical expertise in the darkroom. “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941) is considered by many to be one of Adams’ best photographs. In its final form, “Moonrise” differs greatly from the image on the negative, which Adams considered to be too thin to yield a satisfactory image. He gave the scene added weight by “burning in” the sky to remove the clouds, leaving the moon suspended in an extraordinarily deep horizon.

Many of the prints currently hanging at the Speed Art Museum were made during the last decade of Adams’ life. This was a time when he was spending less time in the field and more time working in the darkroom. It often took Adams two days to produce prints that lived up to his exacting standards. A print such as “Moonrise” was extremely challenging and might have taken even longer.

In the end, this exhibit is worth the drive for the simple experience of witnessing Adams’ prints in person. Coming face-to-face with a full-scale print of “Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California” (1960) bears no relation to seeing a small-scale, mass-produced version of this well-known photograph. The Speed staff has found the perfect place for this picture; it first catches the eye from two rooms away, as the viewer tries to concentrate on a pair of photos showing the San Francisco Bay before and after the building of the bridge.

As the viewer enters the next room, “Moon and Half Dome” is still there, trying to solicit a peek. But first, we’re invited to look at “Surf Sequence #1-5, San Mateo County Coast, California” (1940), and the abstract, otherworldly “Ice on Ellery Lake, Sierra Nevada, California” (1959). Finally, upon reaching the last room in the Adams exhibition space, we’re head-on with this familiar masterpiece—and suddenly it doesn’t look so familiar anymore. If you’ve never understood all the fuss about this image, viewing it up close and personal should provide a revelation.

Adams was a man who believed in large proportions. Most of his subjects were either huge in scope (Yosemite’s Monolith, Arizona’s Monument Valley) or in stature (Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Steiglitz), and he even preferred large-format cameras. Indeed, Adams himself acquired larger-than-life status long before his death. There is little wonder that the best way to see his works is in person, in a collection that encourages comparison across subjects and chronology.

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