A question of mismatched scale and ambition?

Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea

There is no doubting the skill of this iconic American photographer, it’s evident to anyone who is familiar with his striking, precise images, beautifying the wilds of the great national parks like Yosemite. In their exhibition, despite the title, the National Maritime Museum has, in a rather twee fashion, focused on water topics. There are seas and coastlines, great soaring mountains reflected into pristinely calm lakes, rivers, storms, snow and geysers. This ignores the fact that many of Adams’ strong images contain only land and sky, and is also quite limiting in terms of curation.

Despite this, the exhibition opens well, with an interesting introduction text and some lovely early photographs where Adams was learning his craft. A small, slightly hidden, section displays diminutive, very focused tidal scenes. Gorgeous curves of water, sultry blacks and glittering sand; these are almost abstract forms. They could be aerial views of a whole coastline from way up high or shallow waterfalls. The most striking images, however, felt large in scale. Epic shots where bold mountains meet water, eternally conjoined as a double image of the sky, these are the money shots for Adams.

Ansel Adams, Maroon Bells nr Aspen, Colorado (1951)

Ansel Adams, Maroon Bells nr Aspen, Colorado (1951)

Small details say huge amounts. Carefully framed whooshes of sea spray tell the story of the power of the sea. A leaping, towering geyser stream looks almost otherworldly; it states a life-force of its own. A man who did not love nature, did not spend hours in isolation with only the mountains and trees for company could not draw out these connection. Some of his photographs look hyper-real, like film stills or outrageously intricate ink drawings by the best draftsman that has ever lived. As stunning as nature can be, I am sure I have never seen it so awe-inspiring, so unspoilt as in the best of the images on display. The containment provided by the paper’s edge removes distraction, any evidence of human activity or presence, bad weather, small annoyances. It’s the landscape equivalent of a perfectly lit and proportioned airbrushed fashion model.

With some exhibitions, you are aware that you are witnessing something groundbreaking or so unique that you’ll never see quite the same thing in your lifetime. Not every show can be a heart-stopper though, provoking curiosity, showcasing the best of an artist’s body of work or making new, unseen connections are all equally valid outcomes. Here, you can’t question that you’ve seen the work of a great artist, but the lack of atmosphere, the ugly space and clumsy hang devalue the experience. The end effect would have been better received in a coffee-table book (there is one on sale, obviously), and but for three large photographic murals in the show the scale would have been much the same.

Ansel Adams, Stream, Sea, Clouds, Rodeo Lagoon, Marin County California (1962)

Ansel Adams, Stream, Sea, Clouds, Rodeo Lagoon, Marin County California (1962)


On display until tomorrow (28th April 2013).

  1. nigelip said:

    Love the style you’ve written this! It really brings out the drama of Adams’ photographs!

    • Thanks Nigelip. His photographs do justice to the subject matter in this really graphic, striking way; I just wanted to bring that out in the review.

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