It may sound like a strange thing to say about such a legendary photographer, but Ansel Adams is something of a controversial figure among curators of my generation. People still love his work, but as the professional field has increasingly come to embrace a harder-edged, more conceptual brand of photography, Adams has lost some of his critical appeal. This is especially true in landscape, in which New Topographics and the so-called Dusseldorf school have held sway for decades. I love that work, but I’m interested in things that others overlook, and I’ve always felt Ansel was more interesting than people give him credit for. After all, this was a man whose career extended for almost sixty years, whose work is among the best known on the planet, and an active educator who had a direct influence on hundreds, possibly thousands of photographers. He was also a Modern Artist who had a distinct and reasoned position in the history of photographic art.
This is what makes the subject of water in Ansel’s art exciting to me. Especially in the 1920s and 30s (people forget how early the work was), he was already making sharp-focus, complex formal compositions composed in the camera – the best of his work easily rivals that of his friends Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham. However, while most (but by no means all) photographic modernists made pictures of carefully selected stationary scenes and objects (think Weston’s Pepper #30), Adams photographed shifting, evanescent things like waterfalls, sea spray, storms, rapids, and geysers.
Some of these things he couldn’t even see with his naked eye. Of course, he knew he was setting up to photograph, say, a waterfall. But the exact shape of it – its thunderous ebb, flow and texture, was impossible to anticipate. So in that way, every shot was a revelation. When he made this kind of picture, Adams didn’t really know what he had until he developed the film. This reflects an attitude to the omniscience of camera and lens that is quite Modern. And when he combined this with repeated views of the same or similar things – his famous Surf Sequence, for example, or his repeated views of Old Faithful erupting – he tapped into ideas about seriality and sequence that even the most conceptual contemporary artists can appreciate.
I’ve been contemplating these things as I work to refine the checklist for Ansel Adams: At the Water’s Edge, which will open at the Peabody Essex Museum in summer of 2012. What I’ve been finding in my visits to places like the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona (above), where Adams’s archive is housed, is that pictures of motion and time are not so much the exception but the rule with Adams.
Next month (on June 11, 2011), Man Ray | Lee Miller: Partners in Surrealism will open in the Peabody Essex Museum’s special exhibitions galleries. At the heart of the show is a love story – the failed romance that Ray and Miller shared from 1929-32, the devastating effect the breakup had on Ray when they split up, and the lasting friendship they built from the ashes. But it’s also one of those incredible stories in which two artists pushed, challenged, and inspired each other across a variety of disciplines. Their work changed the face of photography in the 1930s, with their joint perfection of solarization (also called the Sabatier Effect), and Miller’s pioneering Surrealist street photography, finding unstaged ‘surreal’ scenes on the streets of Paris. But it also had ripple effects in other fields. It shows the way in which media can be connected – photography, painting, sculpture, and book arts coming together in a synthesis of media.
The show reminds me how human, intimate, and even fragile art movements can be. Together and separately, Ray and Miller had a substantial effect on modern art and photography. And though you could argue that either artist would have been known even if they hadn’t met – Ray, for example, was already established when Miller met him – there is no doubting their relationship was decisive in each artist’s career, and that they, in turn, influenced countless others.
The show traces the white heat of their time together in Paris, the chaotic disintegration of their breakup, their reconciliation just before the Second World War, and the evolution of their relationship in the years that followed. Both married other spouses, and Miller slipped into a debilitating depression that haunted the rest of her life. Piecing the story back together through the limited correspondence that remains, but mostly through works of art, has been an art historian’s dream. The end result though, has been unexpected. The works speak on many different levels. The works address universal themes – love, loss, and the search for identity. Each picture is also a time capsule, providing a window into the lives of Miller and Ray, their compassion, determination and selfishness. They were hugely consequential people, wildly creative, passionate, and imperfect.
The catalogue will be published by Merrell Publishers in London.
I had the great honor and pleasure to be a guest of Ansel Adams’ son and daughter-in-law, Michael and Jeanne Adams, at their cabin in Yosemite last week. Michael and Jeanne are delightful people and wonderful hosts – we had a great time talking about their experiences of Yosemite (Michael was actually born there) and Jeanne’s forthcoming exhibition projects.
I was in Yosemite working on an exhibition that will open next summer, called “Ansel Adams: At the Water’s Edge.” The idea for the show came from looking at Ansel’s seascapes and shoreline views, most of which were taken in the Carmel/Monterey/Big Sur area, with a few from Glacier Bay, Acadia National Park, and Cape Cod. The more I worked on this idea the more I realized there is a lot more to the subject than I bargained for. Looking at the seascapes got me to look at pictures of rivers meeting the sea – from there it was a short leap to river rapids, waterfalls, geysers, storms, ice, and snow. So the show has grown to include different aspects of Ansel’s interest in water. It’s fascinating to me because it shows just how much life and energy there is in his pictures – arrested motion – and it reinforces in my mind what I’ve always known about him, that he was fundamentally a Modern artist. The photographs I’ve been looking at show how much Modernism there was in Ansel – his interest in stopping time, in sequential imagery, in form, and in what historically has been called the “omniscience” of camera and lens, photographing things that the naked eye can’t see very well. And his approach was distinctive. You would never mistake his work for that of his friend, Edward Weston, for example. As photohistorian John Szarkowski once noted, in a Weston picture you get the geology of the place, in an Adams you get the weather.
It was a great weekend to be in Yosemite, especially for this project, because there is no escaping the importance of water at this time of year. The snow pack, which is 175% of normal, has been thawing quickly and waterfalls are booming. They are everywhere – majestic – indescribable really (and not too many tourists yet). It was a good reminder of why Ansel photographed water so much – he was born near the ocean, and water was so much a part of life in Yosemite and the other places he visited.
Jeanne is an accomplished curator, who is developing an exhibition for Photokunst with the working title “Fragile Waters.” I saw a preliminary edit of the show and it looks fantastic – bringing together works by Ansel, Dorothy Kerper Monnelly, and Ernest Brooks. Nothing is final yet but I enjoyed the rhythm of the presentation – the three artists’ works are blended beautifully. Ansel’s work, of course, is well-known, but Jeanne has mixed some of his most famous pictures with beautiful, lesser-known examples. Monnelly’s works are in some ways more romantic – they remind me of the late nineteenth century photographer Peter Henry Emerson - but have their own unique look and feel. And Brooks is best known for his underwater pictures. His photographs of seals playing underwater are so intimate, and the moments captured so unbelievable, you would think they had been Photoshopped if you didn’t know Brooks is a seasoned diver, a friend of the legendary Jacques Cousteau, among others. Combined, the three bodies of work make for a really powerful presentation.
The picture above is not Ansel’s, obviously. Our show is in its early stages and we don’t have permission to use publicity images yet. So one of my snapshots will have to do.
I visited landscape photographer Alia Malley in Los Angeles. She has a beautiful studio behind her equally beautiful house, airy and full of light. She had pinned up a number of prints from her Southland series for me to see, which feature overlooked scraps of nature seen around the greater Los Angeles area. (She remarked, at one point, on how Robert Adams has found similar poignancy in his photographs of land on the fringes of developed areas). This is a body of work Alia exhibited at Sam Lee Gallery in Chinatown last year, which got a lot of buzz, but which I missed. Alia finds the places she photographs by car, and rarely uses maps, because she says that’s how most people experience the city. The results make me think of Dutch Old Master landscape painting – Ruisdael, Hobbema, etc. and British Romanticism – Constable and Gainsborough in particular. Suffused with golden light, they do look strangely like paintings and this is part of their appeal. I also enjoy the fact that they are so counter-counterculture – nothing could be more out of fashion at the moment than photographing Los Angeles with emotion and expressiveness. I’m always excited when artists strike out against dominant trends.
We talked a little about what it is like to be a female landscape photographer. Alia feels the reason there aren’t more like her is because it can be a little dangerous for women to be alone in nature, especially around urban areas, where they are especially vulnerable to being attacked or harassed. She recounted several harrowing stories of people accosting her as she photographed, including a homeless woman who defended her territory surrounded by feral cats, and a near escape with a threatening man that caused her to loop an extra mile out of her way to get back to her car. Lately she has been photographing Mexican men horse riding in the neighborhood of Lakeview Terrace – weekend warriors who ride around like cowboys with elaborately painted saddles. It’s a touching theme – escaping into a cowboy fantasy world as a leisure pursuit, part-time, on weekends and holidays.
I just got back from Los Angeles where I had dinner with Arthur Tress at I Cugini in Santa Monica. His new book Skate Park has just been published by Birch Books and it’s stunning. Arthur told me he took many of the pictures from the bottom of a bowl in a suburban skate park, and while they are formally quite beautiful, they also give a strong feeling of being immersed in the action. The hardest thing was learning to anticipate a skater’s approach by sound, and quickly get out of the way. For a 70-year-old man, it’s an impressive feat.
Arthur is working on a new project of photographs taken of Morro Rock, an island on the coast near his home in San Luis Obispo California. The pictures were inspired by Hiroshige’s Hundred Famous Views of Mount Edo, and they have the same quality of using the prominent landform to anchor a variety of views of people and animals living and working around it. Arthur has been collecting Japanese woodblocks since the 1960s and recalled giving a particular book to Henri Cartier-Bresson years ago. Cartier-Bresson loved it because the pictures were so experiential, and this was the same kind of thing he was interested in capturing with his camera. He always remembered Arthur for giving it to him.
We talked about Arthur’s early career too, and the male nudes he published in the book Arthur Tress: Facing Up, A 12-Year Survey in 1980 (it was published a little earlier in Europe). He only made one female nude in his entire career, an image of Twinka Thiebaud, Wayne Thiebaud’s daughter, which appears as the frontispiece in the recent book Naked: The Nude in America, by Bram Dijkstra. Although Arthur is rightly celebrated for his homoerotic nudes, he told me he was “a wall flower in the bathhouse scene,” and at times felt strangely alien to gay culture. Compared to Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, whom he knew and who celebrated gay culture, Arthur says he felt a little repulsed by the scene and his earliest pictures reflect his ambivalence about it. Later when he realized people preferred to see more positive images he lightened the tone a great deal and some of the nudes he is best known for were made after he decided to changed gears.
I am pleased to announce my book with Jerry Uelsmann, “The Mind’s Eye,” has been named one of the best photobooks of the year by Photo-Eye Magazine. This is a coveted recognition and a nice endorsement of the wonderful work done by the publisher, ModernBook in San Francisco. It’s also a well-deserved nod for Jerry Uelsmann’s important, but sometimes underappreciated work.