Ansel Adams viewed through a wider lens
The Portland Art Museum has reopened, and soon it will present an exhibit by one of the foremost American landscape photographers.
"Ansel Adams in Our Time," available to view by members April 28 and the public May 5, puts the photographer's work in context, showing what came before and what's going on now in relation the master's monolithic brand.
So, although his work is remembered as calendar-friendly shots such as "Moon Over Half Dome (1960)" and "Jeffrey Pine Sentinel Dome," there's more to the Adams look than western crags, wild clouds and crisp shadows.
Adams' career began as a teenage tourist in Yosemite Valley. His parents annually took their only child to the newly popular camping spot from their home in San Francisco.
On his first trip as a 14-year-old in 1916, he was given a Brownie Kodak camera and entertained himself roaming the hills and taking snapshots. He compiled them into an album, as he was wont to do all his career. (Later, "The Parmelian Prints" — a made-up word — of the High Sierras are some of his most famous commercial work and the entire album is in the show).
Each year Adams grew more adventurous and would take long solo hikes, which he documented. By midcareer, he was renting burros to carry large-format cameras and heavy glass plates to remote peaks where he could capture the rugged splendor of the West.
The show also contains 80 images by artists working both before and after Adams.
Julia Dolan, the Minor White curator of photography at the Portland Art Museum, spoke about the show recently with the Portland Tribune. It was curated by Karen Haas, her friend and counterpart at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Haas drew from the MFA's Lane Collection of more than 6,000 American modernist photographs, works on paper and paintings, including 450 Adams photos collected by Saundra and William Lane. But, she also left it open to Dolan to add to the mix works by western artists for local context.
Diversity in photos
In his maturity, Adams was known for his high-contrast images of national parklands including Yellowstone in Wyoming, Glacier Bay National Monument in Alaska and Hawaii National Park.
Of Adams' "Moon Over Half Dome" photo, Dolan says, "He's very concerned about moving you into the image. He's also concerned about conveying feeling over maybe what the negative is recording. So, this is a beautiful, but very high-contrast image that speaks to the sublime nature of this incredible space."
However, he was probably surrounded by tourists as he took it, as we would be today by people with their phones up.
"So, this is his interpretation of the Yosemite Valley that you and I will never see like this because of the nature of the national park. This is like the Yosemite Valley of our dreams," Dolan said.
Contrast that with photographs by contemporary artists such as Jonathan Calm, whose work Dolan included in the exhibit. In one, you see a photographer mostly hidden by the dark cloth of his large camera on a tripod. The only thing visible is one bare leg, which shows him to be Black.
"Jonathan Calm, who teaches at Stanford, is someone who was very interested in what it means to be African American, and traveling throughout this country, in particular in the West, and what it means to be a Black man making landscape photographs in the West," Dolan said. "He's very interested in his own physical being. Because when I think of someone under a dark cloth, looking through an 8-by-10 camera, like Ansel Adams may have, I typically am thinking it's probably a white man doing that work. And Jonathan disrupts that tradition."
Catherine Opie has a colored photo of a blurry waterfall, in which she messes with an icon of Yosemite. She asks, "What does it mean when you're a professional photographer going into a space that Ansel Adams has, in some ways, overtaken by his photographs?" Dolan said.
"Opie is also very interested in the West Coast being the left coast and how it's become politicized. She's also very interested in the fact that she is a woman making photographs in the landscape. The history of landscape photography is primarily white male. And so she's thinking through all of these things as she's making her photographs in the national parks."
A UCLA professor, Opie will do a Zoom talk for Portland Art Museum in June.
Adams also took photos of the threat of environmental destruction, including droughts and ghost towns, as well as the experiences of interned Japanese Americans at the Manzanar War Relocation Center during World War II.
One color image from 2007, "Altamont Pass Wind Farm, California," by Mitch Epstein, simply shows men playing golf on a lush green in front of a dry landscape covered by a wind farm.
When he took pictures of Native Americans (in Native dress) Adams had the classic white man's gaze, which was the 20th century mainstream point of view. But this exhibition, trying as it does to see things through an equity lens, questions his outsider status.
This show includes works by contemporary artists including Wendy Red Star, an Oregon favorite, who consistently satirizes the white way of looking at Native Americans.
Laura McPhee, Trevor Paglen and Bryan Schutmaat demonstrate photography's critical role in documenting both the environmental promise and crises facing the American West today.
It's worth doing a bit of homework before it opens. Rebecca A. Senf, author of the book "Making a Photographer: The Early Work of Ansel Adams," and Haas, from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, are both in talks about the exhibit on video available on the museum website.
Dolan said that some of Ansel Adams's most striking and poignant images come at the end of the show.
"What I'm really excited for people to see when they come to this exhibition is not only the glory of the American West, as seen through Ansel Adams, his lens and other photographers' lenses as well, but also the opportunity to engage with the distinct realities of our lives on these lands here in Oregon, in California and in Washington," she said.
Landscape photography shows today always come with an environmental hazard warning. Wildfires now are a threat in urban areas, but Adams was observing them way back.
"Some of the final photographs that you will see in the exhibition, both by Adams and by other artists, (are of) the landscape that's been destroyed and is then being reborn through forest fires," Dolan said. "And that is something that is so, so close to home, particularly after the past couple of years to those of us who live in Portland."
Adams' work offers to open and continue conversations that he was having nearly 100 years ago.
"Those conversations are not yet closed. We have not solved any of the issues that Ansel has brought up," Dolan said. "And, so, while we get to glory in this incredible landscape, we also need to remind ourselves that we need to be better at being stewards of these lands, and caretakers."
'Ansel Adams in Our Time'
Where: Portland Art Museum, 1219 S.W. Park Ave., Portland
When: members only April 28; public May 5. Show closes Aug. 1. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday Cost: $20 adults, kids free
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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