What's the best thing about good art? Although a critic might say, "an exceptionally fresh, personal vision," other viewers are more likely to respond to sheer technical mastery, especially when the subject is something dear to the heart. In photography, Ansel Adams' lasting fame stems from his ability to harness impeccable craft to views of the natural world.
A founding member of the Sierra Club, he once said that his approach to photography was based on his "belief in the vigor and values of the world of nature--in the aspects of grandeur and of the minutiae all about us."
This credo is abundantly illustrated in Adams' "Museum Set" photographs--a limited edition, chosen by Adams, of 75 of his all-time greatest hits--at Monarch Bay Gallery in the UC Irvine Student Center. The photographs include such marvels of the medium as "Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada"--the one with successive layers of contrasting landscape: chalky mountains, velvety black lowland, sun-kissed dry tree branches and a glimpse of a lone black horse.
Alongside such images as "Mt. McKinley and Wonder Lake"--talcum-like mountains rising in cold splendor and a glassy body of water in which tiny ripples look as minutely scrutinized as skin under a microscope--there are such delicate scenes as "Dawn, Autumn," a pointillist vision of stems and leaves in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tenn.
The set also includes photographs not as readily associated with Adams, like a seemingly candid shot of artist Georgia O'Keeffe, revealing a coyly humorous expression under her broad-brimmed black hat, and a 1944 portrait of a Mrs. Gunn, whose glassed-in porch betrays the bare-bones neatness of someone who has grown too sad or old to pursue a life.
But the "Museum Set" has been traveling around the country for some time. The hoopla surrounding this Adams show has much more to do with 100 other Adams prints, exhibited for the first time anywhere at the Fine Arts Gallery on campus. Before you rush over, however, be warned that "Fiat Lux" ("Let there be light"--the university motto) consists of photographs of UC campuses, research stations and agricultural units, not Yosemite or the sand dunes of New Mexico.
This "portrait" of nine campuses was commissioned by Clark Kerr, then UC president, in 1963 for a book planned to celebrate the centennial of the university system. Adams took more than 6,000 photographs, from which he made a final selection of 605 images.
Thankfully, the show includes only a fraction of those prints. At times, it seems faintly absurd to see such unexceptional views rendered with Adams' typical obsessive attention to detail, in which minute gradations of gray and black are visible, and the outlines of each leaf, building and scientific gadget leap out in electric detail.
Typically for Adams, humans take second place in these images. Except for a stray professor or farmer, most of the figures in the photos are anonymous members of the student crowds walking through campus plazas, or pin-dot spectators in a huge stadium shot. For the most part, Adams concerns himself with such subjects as scientific gadgetry (a magnetic coil, a giant telescope), the details of forgettable architecture (his ultra-crisp technique is exactly right for the angular modernism of the '60s), routine panoramic views and workaday glimpses of the university's varied land holdings, which range from farmland to forests.
Some of the campus photographs do have the fabled Adams touch--but that's usually because they remind us of famous shots from earlier days. "Moonrise," shot at the UCLA campus, is an attractive print, but it begs to be compared with Adams' famous moonrise image made at Yosemite. Even the whoosh and slide of "Waterflow: Irrigation Lab" at UC Davis looks somewhat like a miniature version of the famous Adams waterfall scenes, like "Bridal Veil Fall, Yosemite" (both of which are included in the "Museum Set.")
From a contemporary point of view, the most interesting shots tend to be the weirdest, the most peculiarly "retro" and the ones that seem to pose questions instead of supplying comforting answers.
One print, taken at the Jules Stein Eye Clinic at UCLA, shows fingers opening a scowling man's eye, which appears to be illuminated by an eerie internal light. A view of open-heart surgery reveals a wondrous medical landscape, in which the opened skin looks like a crater and the network of needles, like so many grasses.
The sight of an engineering student with a gigantic computer (in 1967, at UC Santa Barbara) looks amusingly dated today. And the image of a woman whose head is hooked up to a battery of machines at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute at UC San Francisco is likely to make viewers think of old-fashioned textbook photos and silly B movies.
"Trailers and Construction Debris"--a rare sign of mess in Adams' well-groomed world--might be a commentary on the carelessness of the human animal, spoiling nature with ticky tacky construction.
A few images have local interest: Longtime UC Irvine art department member Tony DeLap is seen as an earnest young man in his studio in 1967; architect William Pereira stands proudly alongside his campus plan; and two pedestrians are dwarfed by the sci-fi monstrosity of one of the ghastly buildings he favored--for reasons that will forever remain a mystery.
"Ansel Adams: Fiat Lux" and "Ansel Adams: The Museum Set."
Noon to 5 p.m. daily, through Feb. 10.
UC Irvine: Fine Arts Gallery (off Bridge Road) and Monarch Bay Gallery in the Student Center.
San Diego (405) Freeway to Jamboree, left on Campus Drive, right to Bridge Road.
Admission is free.
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