A FAR CRY from the soft focus pictorial beginnings, which float dreamily like Edwardian diary covers printed on cream paper, Ansel Adams is better known for his photographic monochromes which punctuate the 20th century with sharp black and white precision.
THE exhibition of his work at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London is intelligently presented by guest curator Phillip Prodger of the Peabody Essex Museum. It is also a remarkable collection in that practically all the silver gelatine prints on show were printed by Ansel, and to us today as photographers, picture editors or image makers you can see close up for yourself his painstaking techniques of dodging and burning. You also learn that he took hours and hours over the post-production. For him, as a former pianist, photography was like music. The negative is like a composer’s score and the print is the conductor’s performance. Every print for him was a different experience, and always, always, he wanted to be faithful to how he felt about the scene at the moment he took the photograph. The “experience” as Stieglitz said. So he would darken the sky considerably, taking sometimes a whole day before he got the print right before continuing with his print run. For him 50% of the creative process occurred in the darkroom, which one could argue is our Photoshop process.
SO what makes his work so compelling? He founded the f/64 school, which simply put f/64 is the term for the smallest aperture on a camera which lends itself to making a whole landscape or scene as sharp a focus as possible. He also was known and advocated fast exposure when he was shooting. So the combination of the two, results in such sharp and dramatic images. This f/64 group were fascinated by how you could create pictures according to the unique capabilities of the camera and lens you had. In some ways, you could compare this to other visual artists who use different tools, medium for their craft: so a landscape painter may use watercolour paints and paint loose with lots of water or for a different effect then chose a drier brush with different medium such as acrylic or gouache for a completely different result. So the camera and the lens, the aperture and speed of shooting affects the resultant image. Simple. But takes years to master. And that is just what Ansel did.
FROM his early life, he was always a creative soul, pursuing photography with a kind of intensity that one might describe verging on the obsessive. But one could also argue, that it takes obsession to produce genius.
In the first room of the exhibition you see his early work which was influenced by the early pictorialist style of photography, which thought that photography should imitate drawing or painting. So we see a soft focus taken when he was just 13 of the Falls in San Francisco Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915. It is printed on cream paper.
Very shortly after however, he has already started to reject this for his own “realism” and so we see him at 16 using faster exposure in the photograph below of (the “unfortnately named”, so my companion said) Helmet Rock, which he was to photograph many more times in his life. A white wave crashes over a small hump of liquid black rock.
IN the second room, we see his trademark capture of a Bacchanalian wave, exploding with delirious abandonment on Pebble Beach, California. The light soft fingers of the wave tip, like torn silken shreds of cotton wool.
THROUGHOUT his whole photographic opus he paints dramatic canvases. We see rocks glistening like reflective black coal; silken shorelines, with water slipping and sliding on the soft sand; moonlight dipping onto calm smooth satin waves; darkness enveloping; people-less; monochromatic dreams.
MY favourite in the whole exhibition, was the one above. It was also one of his. And one, which he admits in one of the revelatory 3-minute interviews, was using a long lens and the processing had been done really badly. But it’s the composition, the feel, the drama, the story. The hard rock, drops down like pleated heavy black silk, the scraped and hacked ice in the mid-ground is reminiscent of some half-prepared rasped marble, punctuated by crumbling rock face like some Gothic Edinburgh Rock-candy. The unforgiving black liquid mirror in the foreground underlines the cold snow covered ice. In this room, you stand and look around, and although it is peopled by many warm-bodied Ansel enthusiasts, you feel alone in a theatre set of snow poetry echoing emptily against a frozen score of ice.
YOU can have too much of a good thing, though, with black and white glacial huge sweeping landscapes, vertiginous giddy perspectives each way you turn. So the third and fifth rooms are interesting moments to catch your breath and reconnect with practical tangibility. We see his shipwreck series and ‘abstracts’ of surface and texture. The fragments of shipwreck, feel more military mid-Vietnam in the ’60’s than liners of 1930’s San Francisco. Close ups and odd angles of trees and rocks become folded skin, eerie rubber-gloved sea-weed fingers, thin tree black kelpie necks rise silently cold from snow-like watery dreams, we see a Dylan Thomas dalliance of straw hair, alien multi-toothed mouths yawn to the sky blotched onto the rock like reeking old chewing gum.
I admit to being a big fan of Ansel Adams, I also admit to never having seen a photo of him before either. He looks self-conscious in his thick round glasses, a little David Hockney and a little Andy Warhol. I liked him. I would love to have met him, he was good-natured and enthusiastic about his craft. He also was partial to the odd drink, so often he’d have hang overs after a heavy night! My kind of man! He died in 1984. I was 13. I started photography when I was about then, and was selling when I was 16. Like Ansel, for me photography is all about the light, its also all about the composition, the creativity, the “feeling” and “experience” I get when I press the shutter. You don’t get many female landscape photographers, my first sales and exhibition were landscapes way back then in the 80’s, maybe I should take up by boots, my camera and create some Ansels…
“I can look at a Fine Art Photograph and sometimes I hear music.” Ansel Adams