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Ansel Adams: Photographs from the Collection of the John and Barbara Glynn Family

September 5 - October 31, 2004

 

This outstanding group of forty black and white photographs by the American master of the landscape communicates his fervent awe of nature in ways not discernable in the more familiar posters and books of his work. Some of his most popular images are included, such as: Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico; Yosemite, Clearing Winter Storm; Moonrise, Half Dome; and an oversize print of Aspens, New Mexico, along with examples of powerful but lesser-known photographs, such as his studies of waterfalls, the Pacific surf, rocks, leaves, trees, and clouds. All of the photographs in the exhibition are on loan from the collection of the John and Barbara Glynn family.

 

Ansel Adams: Artist

Ansel Adams is probably the best-known photographer in the world, and possibly the most misunderstood. If you ask visitors who attend his exhibits what they think of his photographs, they will probably use words such as "beautiful," "timeless," or "peaceful." They might mention approvingly that Adams took many photographs to help save the environment.

In fact, Ansel Adams denied that he had ever taken a single photograph for the purpose of saving the environment. The confusion arises because Adams gave permission to groups like the Sierra Club to use some of his photographs in their environmental campaigns, although they were not originally taken for that purpose. He was basically apolitical, and always resisted involvement with social movements and causes.

Nor were his photographs taken primarily to capture beauty, peacefulness, or timelessness, although those qualities often appear in his work. What, then, is his photography really about?

In order to understand his pictures, one must read Adams' early writings. When he first began to hike with his camera into California's High Sierra, Adams had a series of epiphanies, experiences that verged on the religious. He described one such occasion around 1923 in his journal:

"It was one of those mornings when the sunlight is burnished with a keen wind and long feathers of cloud move in a lofty sky. The silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendor: there was nothing, however small, that did not clash in the bright wind, that did not send arrows of light through the glassy air. I was suddenly arrested by an awareness of the light. The moment I paused, the full impact of the mood was upon me. I saw more clearly then I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks. There are no words to convey the mood of these moments."

Adams did not choose a professional career as a writer, using words to "convey the mood of those moments." Instead, for twenty-five productive years he kept trying to do it with his photography.

Notice that in his "vision" every part of the landscape was described as continually moving, continually changing: the sky, the ground, the wind, the clouds, the light. This obsession with the ephemeral quality of existence shows up in many ways in his photographs. The weather is always important, such as the bright light of the middle of a summer day, or the soft light of dawn and dusk. Snow indicates that it's winter, and the snow itself is often changing, moving or swirling around the mountains, or has recently fallen, or is melting away. The light itself is in continual flux, and Adams was famous for visiting a site over and over again (sometimes for years) until the light was right. There are flowing rivers, waterfalls, surf dashing against rocks, storms leaving or approaching, cloud formations that will be completely different a few moments after the film is exposed, and even the sun and the moon seem to be either rising or setting.

A good example of an Adams photograph that is often seen as peaceful or timeless, but is actually bursting with energy, is his famous "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," from 1941. He came upon the remarkable scene by accident as he was driving home from a day of photographing. He immediately stopped the car and frantically began to unload his equipment and set up his tripod and large camera. Quickly estimating the time necessary for the exposure, he was only able to get one good negative before the sun set behind him, and the cemetery in the foreground (another symbol of change) was plunged into darkness. While the photograph may at first glance seem calm and serene, it is actually precariously balanced on a razor's edge, teetering between day and night, light and darkness, life and death.

The best of Ansel Adams' pictures are the ones that are able to express some fragment of those visions that the young man brought down from the mountaintops and out of the wilderness, and leave the viewer with the sense that beneath the changing face of Nature lies the eternal face of the Divine.

by Steve Moriarty
The Fritz and Milly Kaeser Curator of Photography

 

The public is invited to the opening reception Sunday, September 19, 2-4 pm.

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