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A new angle on Ansel Adams' image

An engaging survey brings out the complex dynamics in the seemingly cliched photographs.

February 06, 2003|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Ansel Adams has so profoundly shaped the way city folks look at nature that it's easy to look at his photographs and see only cliches: romanticized panoramas and misty vistas. But there's more to the landscape photographer and his pictures.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a traveling survey of 122 images that Adams (1902-1984) shot and printed between 1918 and 1978 goes a long way to show that the self-taught photographer (who dropped out of grade school) was no bumpkin who simply fell in love with an idealized vision of natural purity and down-to-earth authenticity. The popular idea that the San Francisco photographer was a natural also falls by the wayside.

"Ansel Adams at 100" reveals him to be a hard-working artisan and savvy showman who made nature over into his own image of it: a theatrical extravaganza driven by brute force, shot through with formal patterns and accented by operatic crescendos.

The engaging exhibition was organized for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art by guest curator John Szarkowski, director emeritus of the department of photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art. It focuses on the '20s, '30s and '40s, when Adams made his best work, and includes only 12 photographs from the '50s, '60s and '70s. "Vernal Fall Through Tree, Yosemite Valley, California" (1920) is small enough to fit in your wallet. Yet it crams enough action-packed adventure into its humble dimensions to put a big-budget Hollywood production to shame.

Having set up his shot to make a viewer feel as if he's about to be swept away by a river's rushing rapids, Adams built his composition around over-the-top contrasts, vivid silhouettes and sharp, thrusting angles.

The top edge of the black-and-white image teeters on the peak of a mountain, which forms a triangle that disappears behind a crisp horizon. In turn, the tree-dotted horizon line forms the top of a giant, Z-shaped zigzag that follows the contour of a steep valley and causes your eye to ricochet from background to foreground.

The cascading river traces a more twisted Z, laid out in one-point perspective and bent into three dimensions. In the lower right corner, a solitary boulder anchors the hyperactive image, counterbalancing the jagged branches of a towering pine, whose trunk, shrouded in shadowy blackness, defines the left edge of the photograph.

Decisive lines cut the picture plane into bold, jigsaw puzzle pieces. This gives it the visual dissonance of a collage, or a digital image whose seams haven't been hidden. In either case, artifice forms the heart and soul of Adams' overwrought image. Through his 18-year-old eyes, nature appears to be a theatrical tableau that has been aggressively arranged by a designer intoxicated by his own powers of invention and the infinite possibilities of wildly engineered fictions.

Very quickly, Adams started treating landscape as the star of the story. Refinement and subtlety followed as he simplified his compositions and stopped trying to encapsulate everything he was capable of in each print. He began to isolate single elements from "Vernal Fall," making each the centerpiece of more resonant, less hysterical compositions.

He continued to build images out of distinct sections, but limited their number to four or fewer. Many of his photographs do not appear to recede into space as much as they seem to be made of sharply focused components stacked atop one another, from foregrounded boulders to distant valleys and far-off peaks. So powerful is Adams' ability to bring every element into the action, even the sky in "Thundercloud, Ellery Lake, High Sierra, California" (1934) seems to be within arm's reach.

Likewise, the blunt contrast between the white-capped rapids and the shadow-shrouded pine in "Vernal Fall" became an Adams staple. Many of his most potent photographs include such prominent areas of utter darkness that the mountains around them seem to be teetering on the edge of the void. This intensifies their beauty, endowing the compositions with the pang of the sublime.

Geometric patterns and complementary textures take center stage in other works, whose rhythmic structures suggest a well-ordered universe. The mirror image of the snowcapped mountains in "Wanda Lake, Near Muir Pass, Kings Canyon National Park" (1934), however, is unsettling in its symmetrical perfection. Never one to let logic get the best of him, or to create pretty pictures that soothe the senses, Adams refused to treat nature as a benign retreat from life's messy complexities. In his eyes, it's the only place where existential questions can be played out meaningfully.

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