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…………..


World Press Photo 2012 – Difficult but worthwhile viewing

World Press Photo 2012
Royal Festival Hall

Was 2011 really so depressing? Just in case we’d already forgotten some of the natural disasters, wars and general misery affecting so many people throughout the world, this exhibition reminds us with 150 in-your-face excellent images.

It is so easy to forget. Was that incident that long ago? I’d forgotten completely about that! But surely that is the point of photo journalism, from whose leading professional practitioners these photos have been chosen: to inform so that we care, or at the very least know what is going on out there.

Many of the images on display here though arguably inform, or show us too much.

Amongst a series of photos from Anders Breivik’s massacre on Utøya island, near Oslo, are images of dead bodies scattered on the shore.

Photos from the Mexican drug wars show bloody scenes of unimaginable violence, including a severed head placed beside severed legs in the beach resort of Acapulco.

There is thought provoking ambiguity in some of these images. In particular, four gritty black and white images of public hangings in Iran appal us at face value, cause some hesitation (just for a moment) when we read that the victims are convicted rapists and murderers. And the final image of a clamoring crowd goes some way to confirming the medievalism of the whole scene. Yet aren’t we clamoring for the same view?

If these images are too graphic, isn’t that an indication of our own preference for denial? To look the other way? Because as this exhibition vividly explains, nothing conveys a truth more than an image. Reading about some of these events will never garner the same strength of impact and therefore, memory, or response to them.

One of the best examples of this is the stunning portrait of what looks like a family on a mountainside in Yemen. Easy to pass, thinking there is nothing going on in this image (which several people did); the caption reveals that the girls, in their early teens, are married to the adult men. The series is about child brides. The image now takes on a whole different horrific gravity such is its illustration of the youth of the girls and the age of the men. While the text helped understand the image, the image, when understood, told us everything.

But despite the violence of many images and the totally depressing situations depicted in others, this annual exhibition perhaps succeeds most in the personal stories.

There are, as you would expect, superb big images from headline news stories, such as the Japanese Tsunami or the Arab Spring. But it is the close up portrait of an aged, deeply lined Japanese woman, captioned “a tsunami survivor” that most impresses, as a photo and an idea.

Likewise, the familiar image of a young woman sat crying amidst an apocalyptic scene is a moving and a truly great image. But another image, in which a woman proudly holds up her daughter’s graduation certificate, salvaged from similar destruction, tells us so much more.

Even in the series on the Norwegian massacre, it is the simple image of a red rose lying on the silent water that is most personal, most moving and most inspiring.

This exhibition makes for difficult viewing. And so it should. People should be hit in the face with the terrors going on in the world.

Saying that, the overall selection of subject and image could benefit from more focus on joyous or inspiring acts (armed guards protecting a Rhino in Kenya from poachers is one of very few images that causes a smile, while also informing and inspiring).

It should be noted that there are images here by photographers who died trying to tell us what is going on. Perhaps not a reason in itself to go. But they are great photos. And they should be seen.