Ansel Adams, Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, CA (1944), photograph; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art
* * *
Did you happen to read Sarah Boxer’s review in The New York Times a few weeks back of Ansel Adams at 100, an exhibition at MoMA Queens? Talk about waking up on the wrong side of the bed: Ms. Boxer’s piece isn’t a slam; it’s a dissection she barely has the patience to perform. Rarely has the paper of record put forth such strong emotions–at least in the Weekend section.
Not that vitriol is a bad thing; it can be deserved and a restorative. And, goodness knows, tight deadlines can be hell on aesthetic reflection. But what did poor old Ansel Adams (1902-1984), the meticulous supplicant of Yosemite Valley, do to deserve such rancor? Surely there are better targets for a critic’s darts than an artist whose ambition it was to photograph the “silver light [that] turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendor.”
Actually, Ms. Boxer’s displeasure is aimed squarely at John Szarkowski, director emeritus of MoMA’s department of photography and curator of the Adams show. She clearly thinks he wasted his time: He lacked a “clearly focused concept,” a “clear motive” and “the logic that would keep one’s mind and eyes from wandering.” Ms. Boxer informs us that Mr. Szarkowski “went around the country to find the finest prints of each of Adams’ subjects.” She dismisses this approach as “a connoisseurial kick.”
Come again? Mr. Szarkowksi schleps across the United States making finely tuned aesthetic distinctions, and he’s on a “kick?” What-if I may borrow a phrase from Ms. Boxer-is that about? Far from indulging in caprice, Mr. Szarkowski separated the wheat from the chaff, came down hard for artistic merit and demonstrated why a particular artist deserves our attention. Isn’t that the curator’s job?
Ansel Adams at 100 is actually a nuanced and, at times, mesmerizing exhibition. A crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the term, the show is accessible but not undemanding. The stark pacing, as well as the small scale of the work, gives the installation a deliberate, studious rhythm. Mr. Szarkowski really wants us to look at these things-and we do. For those who know Adams mainly from posters glimpsed in the waiting rooms of medical offices, the photographs will come as a surprise: They’re more than populist wall filler. Whatever status Adams currently holds in the world of photography, Ansel Adams at 100 is bound to bump him up a few notches.
Before going any further, I should mention that the exhibition isn’t perfect-or, rather, that Adams himself is not a perfect artist. His achievement, while considerable, isn’t on a level with that of Walker Evans, say. To make a less towering comparison, he doesn’t measure up to the painter Charles Sheeler, whose photographs were recently the subject of a superb exhibition at the Met. In fact, one way to understand Adams’ limitations is to contrast his pictures of the American landscape with Sheeler’s photos of the Ford Motor Company River Rouge Plant.
There’s no doubt that Adams had the upper hand in terms of subject matter. Who doesn’t prefer nature’s majesty to the utilitarian environs of an auto plant? Yet Sheeler did something impossible: He endowed the industrial with a Renaissance-like fullness, an unearthly sensuality. Adams, in contrast, reiterates existing beauty. There’s no leap to his vision-no push, no grasp. Adams amplifies, Sheeler transforms-not the final criterion for determining aesthetic worth, perhaps, but a clue to Adams’ imperfections.
What Adams did bring to his subjects-whether it was the oncoming tide, some lumpish rocks in the Alabama Hills or snow-covered trees in Yosemite-was a crisp visual electricity. Tactility is the rule: In each photograph, he explores every crag, cranny, nook and hollow, and yet somehow makes the real thing seem superfluous. Therein lies the pictures’ appeal. The uncanny sense of unreality stems in part from dramatic manipulations of scale-in Adams’ hands, tree stumps become mountains, shoots of grass immersed in a river become the cosmos. And then there’s the bracing lack of personality: The world as seen through Adams’ lens is daunting in its independence. The pictures are majestic, sure, but their sensuality is startlingly remote. For a romantic, Adams is steelier than one would expect.
Maybe Adams isn’t a romantic after all. Some technical hocus-pocus may have gone on in the dark room-but he is, I think, a realist. Looking at Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada (circa 1914), with its cloud-dappled skies and infinite array of boulders, I was reminded of a trip my family and I took a few summers back to visit my folks in Salt Lake City. Out for an afternoon jog, I looked up and saw a raft of enormous black clouds muscling their way across the sky. Opening up ever so briefly, they allowed a crystalline shaft of light to descend upon the valley.
Having become something of a been-there-done-that New Yorker, I couldn’t believe my eyes; I was literally stopped in my tracks. Cecil B. DeMille couldn’t have asked for a more spectacular special effect. Ansel Adams couldn’t have asked for a more awe-inspiring vision. I suppose you could dismiss a photograph like Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada as an example of the “ain’t nature grand?” school of art. (That unflattering phrase was coined by the photographer Edward Weston.) But, dammit, nature is grand. And that, finally, is Adams’ gift: holding still “the moods of those moments” for which “there are no words to convey.” Do yourself a favor: Take the No. 7 train to Queens, circumvent that awful elevated station at 33rd Street, and let Adams leave you speechless.
© 2003 Mario Naves
Originally published in the September 7, 2003 edition of The New York Observer.