Admiring Ansel Adams’ America

Ansel Adams: Untitled, about 1960
© The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

If you love America, or more precisely the scenery of the American west, and if you love moody black and white photography (all of which I do), then you gotta get down to Greenwich and check out the current exhibition of “arguably America’s most celebrated photographer” Ansel Adams.

Perhaps there aren’t as many of Adam’s best or most familiar images as you would expect.

Perhaps the photos are exhibited in surprisingly small prints that are not how you normally think Adam’s pin sharp images of epic scenery should be displayed.

But I loved this exhibition. It is succinct, well themed and staged in an appropriate location and gives a good concise history of modern photography.

And of course there are enough photographs here that simply make you stop and think “wow” as well as want to get on a plane to Yosemite straight away.

And if you want famous or big, there are according to Time Out “some of the most famous photographs of the twentieth century,” on display here, as well as three monumentally large sepia tinged photos.

Titled ‘Ansel Adams Photography from the Mountains to the Sea’, the exhibition of around 100 photos focuses, appropriately for the National Maritime Museum where it is staged, on Adam’s photos of water (though most of that water is in rivers or lakes rather than the sea).

Themes include waterfalls, clouds, gesyers, rapids, rivers and coast.

We see how Adams was a leading proponent of photographic modernism and what this is: hard and sharply focused images as opposed to the softer, painterly like images of yore.

Ansel Adams: Waterfall, Northern Cascades, Washington
© The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

We learn how this was achieved with greater effect by Adams through getting the maximum range of focus (depth of field) possible so everything is crystal clear and how he saw this as emphasising the apparatus of the camera rather than the human eye. We read how this concept was seen as a scary radical development by traditionalists in the photography world.

But more importantly we are constantly aware of water. But not always through our eyes.

Orson Welles once said, the best pictures are the ones you see with your ears. And a quote by Adams painted on the wall of the exhibition reads “I can look at a fine art photograph and sometime I can hear music.” Indeed these images invoke the sound of rapids crashing down a mountain river, or the wind rustling through riverside grasses. I could almost hear the sea crashing on the rocks of the Californian coast.

While Adams has been criticised by critic Alistair Sooke in the Telegraph for the lack of humanity in his images (which is definitely literally true) I actually found humanity in the photographer’s own excitement transcending the image. Famous for his immaculately composed images, some on display here look like they have been taken spontaneously by Adams, bursting with passion about his subjects.

And those immaculate compositions are jaw droppingly stunning. An image of the Teton Mountains in Wyoming with the Snake River snaking past in the foreground feels like THE most perfectly composed landscape photograph. Too prefect for Sooke, but heavenly indeed.

And the other worldly misty landscape of Clearing Winter Storm Yosemite, in which the scene looks like a sci fi planet from an intelligent blockbuster, is just sublime.

The exhibition, for some, may be too focussed on the craft of photography than the photos themselves. And if you don’t like America or you want colour or people in your photos, then it probably ain’t for you.

For me though this was inspiring art. Now how much is that flight to California…………..

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