Ansel Adams and his Love for Water

Personally I’ve never really been much of a fan of photography exhibitions, especially those focusing on landscapes – quite ironic, since I usually take pictures of landscapes – but the National Maritime Museum’s latest exhibition was actually rather brilliant. As well as being increasingly popular! I went in with about 5 people behind me; I came out seeing a long queue of people lining all sides of the balcony.

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Crazy queues! Own photograph.

Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea focuses on the artist’s photographs of water, the most prominent subject in his oeuvre. Born in 1902, Adams became the first mass-marketed fine arts photographer in the world and his pictures are still reproduced commercially today. The exhibition is split into 13 themes – mostly different forms of water – with a room showing excerpts from a 2002 documentary on Adams in the far left corner. I must say it was sometimes quite confusing trying to identify which photographs corresponded to which theme, since there weren’t actually any set rooms – only makeshift walls. A little boy made a small criticism about the exhibition, too, to his dad, saying “There’s no facts. There needs to be facts.” He wasn’t entirely wrong, either. The exhibition did lack some general text for most of the themes. I guess it was less about his life story and more about his methods.

Adams photographed water in all forms, from the seas to waterfalls to snow and ice, usually at various national parks in the Western USA – we are shown a map of key locations at the beginning of the exhibition. Like many other photographers, he was interested in capturing the passage of time, which he did by assembling his pictures in sequences or two or more frames. The ‘Time and Motion’ section presents us with a series of 4 photographs: his Surf Sequence 1, 2, 4, 5, San Mateo County Coast, California (1940). I don’t where the 3rd one went. Strangely enough, I noticed that the sands/rocks in the 2nd one were considerably brighter than those of the rest. An interesting thing to note about this series is that the motion of the flowing and ebbing tides is always the same, yet the resultant compositions at each section is always unique.

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Ansel Adams, Surf Sequence 3, 4 and 5, San Mateo County Coast, California, 1940. Image via www.berkeley.edu.

Being rather fond of Alfred Stieglitz, Adams believed in the ability to express personal experiences through photography. This was the concept of equivalence, pioneered by Stieglitz, where any object – water, in Adams’ case – could provide grounds for exploration, being the visual equivalent of whatever the photographer’s mood was at the time of taking. For this section we are shown 4 photographs. The most conceptually interesting, for me, was Cathedral Peak, Tuolumne River, Yosemite (about 1944). In the foreground are a few stumps leaning to the left, while the trees in the background lean right. The rapids in the mid-ground, according to the concept, reinforce the tension between the two elements. I don’t see how this relates to the photographer’s mood or feeling, but it was interesting anyway.

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From left to right: Whaler’s Cove, Carmel Mission (about 1953), Grand Bars, American River (about 1950), Point Lobos, near Monterey (about 1950). Image via www.rmg.co.uk.

Adams also pioneered the production of oversized prints. He would hang large sheets of unexposed photographic paper on a wall and project light from an enlarger across his darkroom. Because his pictures exceeded the size of commercially available paper, he would print his images in sections then paste them together. The edges of the papers are visible up close in the American Trust Murals (above). Each individual sheet seemed to be about A0 in size: the murals were made up of about 2 or 3 of these sheets.

In the second half of the exhibition, one wall headlined ‘Focus and the f/64 School’ briefly described Adams’ founding of the f/64 group which lasted only 3 years. Being the smallest aperture at the time, it meant that pictures taken with this were exceedingly sharp across most of the frame, meaning it has a large/deep depth of field. This emphasis on sharpness was a step towards the harder edge focus of Photographic Modernism, opposing the soft focus of the favoured Pictorialism of the time. This was more or less the underlying secondary theme of the exhibition.

Back to the idea of concepts, Adams’ also had an interest in water’s reflective abilities, taking several photographs of reflections in lakes – something I’m considering experimenting with too – such as Bad Water, Death Valley National Monument (about 1942) and Ice and Water Reflection, Merced River, Yosemite Valley (about 1942). Hanging nearby is his most celebrated picture: Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California (about 1937) – a photograph showing water in all its forms.

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Ansel Adams, Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California, about 1937. Image via ozphotoreview.blogspot.com.

However, there is one important thing to note about every single photograph in the exhibition: all of them were manipulated. When printing, he would deliberately alter the exposure times of various sections of a photograph, accentuating the drama of the picture. With this, he likened a photographic negative to a composer’s score, while the performance is the photographer/printer’s interpretation and reaction in the darkroom. He is able to change how the negative is exposed, just like a composer is able to make different performances based on the same score.

This exhibition is highly recommended, whether you are a fan of Ansel Adams or simply like to view beautiful pictures. I can assure you that you will not be disappointed. It is quite well organised, despite being sometimes confusing if you intend on following the themes. It is a very free exhibition so you can walk in whatever direction/route you like. It’s basically more of a showcase of some seriously wonderful black-and-white photographs. It’s a must-see, so go to it!

Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea runs until 28th April 2013 at the National Maritime Museum, www.rmg.co.uk.

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