By Chad Nance
“I believe in beauty. I believe in stones and water, air and soil, people and their future and their fate.”
– Ansel Adams
The novels of Mark Twain. The philosophy and words of Henry David Thoreau. The poetry of Walt Whitman. The music of Aaron Copeland. The sculpture of Frederic Remington. The films of John Ford. The painting of Andrew Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, and Grandma Moses. These are among the bedrock foundations on which American culture rests. These are artists that did not just cut a path through the wilderness- they set the stage for how we, as Americans, would see ourselves. When this particular roll is called it will also include photographer Ansel Adams. His full format vistas of the grandest of American landscapes inspire awe and wonder while at the same time reminding us of our humanity, our place in the universe, and exactly how blessed we are as a people to live in this magnificent land. On Friday Reynolda House Museum of American Art opened “Ansel Adams: Eloquent Light”, an exhibit of some of Adams’ finest work which offers both the layman and the dedicated photographer opportunity to view the master’s work exactly as it was intended, and carefully crafted, to be seen.
“Ansel Adams: Eloquent Light” is an elegantly hung exhibition with the feel of a career overview rather than a more focused look ata particular moment or project. Adams’ career did not only include his iconic, Yosemite landscapes. He also exposed amazing portraits, including being one of the first to photograph the people of the Taos Pueblo and Japanese Americans who had been interned in WWII. Only one photo from Taos is used and one portrait and friend and collaborator Edward Weston. While this omission can be felt by the Adams aficionado, what work remains will stun and delight the casual art fan as well as the seasoned photographer getting a close-up look at these pristine gelatin silver prints.
The exhibit opens with selections from Adams’ seminal collection, “Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras”. This published portfolio was released in 1927 and went on to become one the the blueprints for 20th Century photography. Using large format cameras and focusing on contrast, deep focus, and lighting Adams began to produce images of nature that did not simply represent “reality” they challenged it in subtle ways that illuminated the innate beauty of America’s most glorious landscapes. Adams applied red filters and a firm to commitment to using only black & white to create a look that froze moments in time and allow the viewer to take in the totality of the awe inspiring world of America’s wild places and quiet corners.
One of the smaller prints at six-inches by eight-inches, “Roaring River Falls”(1927) displays the blooming young artist hitting his creative stride with striking results. The framing is mythic and contains Adams’ carefully considered approach to geometry and mise-en-scène. both are enhanced by his craft in the dark room and lens choices. This exposure captures the power of the falls by holding a moment in time. A precise instant where each drop is defined while the collective rush of water retains its wildness and might.
“Abode of Snow”(1927) is a monumental image containing a contemplative stillness that stands in contrast to the kinetic intensity of work like “Roaring River Falls”. This wide, cinematic vista combines the epic with the contemplative and the peaceful. Again Adams finds the perfect moment to expose the film, but he had not begun marrying the earth with the sky. This print was treated chemically and the light controlled in a way to de-emphasize the sky placing the focus clearly on the hushed strength of the mountains.
“Moonrise over Hernandez” is perhaps the most famous, and certainly the most indispensable print showing in “Ansel Adams: Eloquent Light”. According to Adams himself:
“It was made after sundown, there was a twilight glow on the distant peaks and clouds. The average light values of the foreground were placed on the “U” of the Weston Master meter; apparently the values of the moon and distant peaks did not lie higher than the “A” of the meter … Some may consider this photograph a “tour de force” but I think of it as a rather normal photograph of a typical New Mexican landscape. Twilight photography is unfortunately neglected; what may be drab and uninteresting by daylight may assume a magnificent quality in the halflight between sunset and dark.”
What Ansel Adams said he saw as a “typical New Mexican Landscape” is a gorgeous, dreamy work of art that manages to not only impress with its arresting beauty, it also offers the viewer with a complete distillation of the human experience with one fixed moment in time. All of existence from birth, our relationship to the natural world, to spirituality, to the cold inevitability of death is addressed in a single, fine moment. Reynolda House’s exhibition offers a rare opportunity to see and consider an important work of this magnitude.
“Ansel Adams: Eloquent Light” is a small glimpse into an artistic career that could never be distilled down to a single experience. Reynolda House’s efforts are heroic in this this respect offering viewers the opportunity to see even this tiny corner of Adams’ vast body of work in the way that the master himself would have wanted. Ansel Adams spent his life and career creating images of people and places that he wished others to see. While many dismiss his work as crassly commercial and accessible, the truth is that the man was an artist of great vision and achievement.
Ansel Adams understood the that America’s wild places are not simply resources to be exploited, rather they are natural cathedrals where the soul can be humbled, renewed, frightened, and comforted by natural forces greater than ourselves. The images he created are not merely Adams’ interpretations of majestic places. They are also meditations on beauty, grace, and in the end, life itself. Sharing in these reflections, Reynolda House has curated yet another exhibit that is essential allowing those who take the time to go to share in Adams’ questions, conclusions, and personal wonder at the world around us.
“Ansel Adams: Eloquent Light” will be on view at Reynolda House—its only venue—through July 17, 2016. You can learn more and purchase passes HERE.