Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea, National Maritime Museum, 6th April 2013

‘The splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious . . . One wonder after another descended upon us . . . There was light everywhere . . . A new era began for me.’

So wrote Ansel Adams of his first visit to Yosemite National Park in 1916, when he was just fourteen years old. His father gave him his first camera on that trip, a Kodak Box Brownie, and so was born a passion which led to Adams becoming one of America’s most famous landscape photographers. This exhibition, held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, brings together over one hundred original prints covering the years 1915-1968 and ranging from iconic images (such as ‘Storm, Yosemite’) to those rarely on display. The unifying theme is water – one of Adams’s favourite subjects – and the images are grouped under various headings such as ‘Sea and Surf’, ‘Rapids’, ‘Coast’ and ‘Rivers’.

The prints included in ‘Sea and Surf’ demonstrate Adams’s incredible talent for capturing moving water, a notoriously difficult photographic subject. The four prints from his ‘Surf Sequence, San Mateo’, taken from above, show the ebb and flow of the sea as it approaches and departs the beach; not only has Adams managed to capture the sense of peace and relaxation that comes from watching this regular movement of water, like the regular inhalation and exhalation of breath, but he also brings into focus the traces of water left on the sand, and this is a strong example of his ability to reproduce different textures and tones of flowing water in one photograph.

Surf Sequence, San Mateo, California, 1940

Surf Sequence, San Mateo, California, 1940

Also noteworthy in this section is the print entitled ‘Wave, Pebble Beach’, which, through its white horses and dark cliffs, brilliantly demonstrates the raw, elemental power of the ocean; again Adams’s ability to preserve a sense of movement is stunningly apparent. ‘Wave and Log, Dry Lagoon’ showcases Adams as a pioneer of the art: sea spray is shown leaping over a log in the foreground, almost erupting out of the photograph towards the viewer. The textural contrast between the static, wooden log and the changing, powerful water is stunning, and a further contrast is provided by the sand, as Adams has even managed to capture the individual grains on the beach.

My least favourite sections were ‘Coast’, ‘Geyser’ and ‘Monumental’. ‘Coast’ is a collection of prints depicting shipwrecks and miscellaneous items thrown up on the shore by the sea. These were interesting only insofar as they offered a thought-provoking contrast to Adams’s photographs in which nature itself is the focus, though I was also struck by the fact that I found them distinctly unmoving, as this helped emphasise even further the effects of his nature photography. ‘Geyser’ is a collection of six prints mostly depicting Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park. While these photographs demonstrate Adams’s infinite patience (he often waited for days for the right moment, and would have had to wait until the geyser erupted) and also capture a different sort of movement and power, they also left me curiously unmoved, and a discussion with my friend led us to conclude that this was as a result of the photographic subject being steam rather than water.

The overwhelming majority of prints in the exhibition are quite small. However, the curator has decided to include three large murals that Adams produced in the 1950s for the American Trust Company in San Francisco; these were so large (about 9 x 6 feet) that Adams had to print the photographs in sections and join them up – if you look carefully you can see where he united the different pieces. Yet their scale is the only noteworthy thing about them, as it’s evident that the clarity and contrast that characterise Adams’s other photographs are absent from these prints: they feel static, lifeless, as though the soul of the landscape (and the photographer) has been sacrificed in the service of empty scale.

Two of my favourite sections were ‘Rivers’ and ‘Waterfalls’, both of which showcase Adams’s talent for composition, whether that was by depicting the reflection of trees and grasses in the water (‘Mirror Lake’) or by arranging the photograph in ‘tiers’ from water to trees to mountains, thus drawing the viewer’s eye up and up to the heavens, imparting a feeling of dizziness (‘Maroon Bells’). One of the best pictures in the exhibition is ‘Fern Spring, Dusk’, in which Adams has reproduced the amazing effect of light on the surface of water. Individual streams of water pour over three levels of rock, the milky liquid pooling at the bottom and creating a misty, sulphurous cloud. It has a beautiful, ethereal quality.

Fern Spring, Dusk, Yosemite Valley, California, about 1962

Fern Spring, Dusk, Yosemite Valley, California, about 1962

The final section, ‘Clouds and Reflections’, houses the  other photograph that really stands out for me. The three-tiered composition in ‘Thundercloud, Lake Tahoe’ (water, hills, clouds) demonstrates the power and oppression of nature, as the land on which we live (represented by the hills) is dwarfed in comparison to the expanse of water and the amazing clouds massing in the sky; we are oppressed on all sides. The weight of the clouds and the sense of doom they signal is palpable. Also beautiful about this photograph are the pricks of light around the edges of the clouds, the different textures of the clouds and the sense of movement as they loom in the sky.

Thundercloud, Lake Tahoe, California, about 1938

Thundercloud, Lake Tahoe, California, about 1938

Adams is famous for the words ‘A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed’, and he always attempted to show not only the landscape but also how he himself felt about it. The most powerful photographs in this exhibition are the ones that, like those shown above, demonstrate not only Adams’s brilliant technical ability, but also encourage us to view them as an expression of the feelings of the photographer at the time, feelings and emotions which we, as the viewer, are encouraged to share.


Categories: Museums, Galleries & Exhibitions

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2 replies

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