In December 2002 I went to see the Ansel Adams at 100 exhibition in the Kunstforum in Berlin. A thoroughly good day out - the exhibition was marvellous, the gallery it is in is really impressive, and I find Berlin a fascinating city and love visiting it.
The exhibition, designed by John Szarkowski and put together by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is very cleverly laid out. It's arranged to show Adams' early development as an artist, and is ordered roughly chronologically as you go round the room. Some of the early photos from the 1920s are nothing much, and you think hmm, what was I actually so excited about coming to see?. Then you get halfway round the room to the mid-30s, he hits his stride and wow. It's clearly to be seen in some of the Adams trademark dead wood abstracts. There's one from the late 20s that is by any standard very good - interesting composition, spot-on exposure, lovely tonality and texture - but the print is in places maybe just a little soft. Next to it is one from 1936 that is perfect. The compositions start to get consistently interesting around 1928 - the quality of the prints isn't so impressive until the mid-late 30s.
Then we start to get the trademark Ansel Adams look - perfectly chosen, perfectly controlled highlights against a rich, dark (but not-quite-black) backdrop. (Does this have to do, as well as his improving technique, with the development of less excessively blue-sensitive films making it possible to produce dark sky tones?)
The general layout of the exhibition is so good, one little innocent cliche is forgivable - juxtaposing a New York street "canyon" picture with the big grand Yosemite prints. The NY picture is only small, and it's good, so it's ok.
I've only seen one or two original Ansel Adams prints before, and I found the experience of looking at a large collection of 8x10 contacts fascinating. If you press your nose up against the glass and squint you can just about convince yourself that you can see grain in mid-tones, but highlights and shadows are so creamy-smooth and perfect. Looking at relatively small prints behind glass is frutstrating though - reflections inevitably get in the way(*) can't hold them up to the light at different angles, it's hard to really *look* at something nailed to a wall. On this scale, anyway. I was surprised that none of the prints are BIG. Even the enlargements were mostly only about 16x20, so only 2x if from 8x10 negatives, or 4x if from 4x5. There was one of Yosemite that was bigger, and visibly less sharp (not that you would notice if it wasn't right next to other smaller Ansel Adams prints).
Adams now is so much the epitome of conventional, classical black & white landscape, it's hard to realise how *modern* he was in the 30s and 40s. The pure graphical abstraction of the dead wood or the grass-on-water pictures; and there's one of a moon in a dark sky over a rock in Joshua Tree that's reminiscent of an expressionist painting by someone like Paul Klee.
Seeing the actual prints also makes sense of some of what John Szarkowski has to say in the book that accompanies the exhibition. He says that during the later years of his life, Adams took fewer new pictures, or fewer that he liked, and concentrated instead on "re-interpretations" of earlier negatives. And Szarkowski feels that the later prints - intenser, more contrasty - are heavy-handed and melodramatic compared to the earlier prints. Having seen the prints he's talking about, I agree. He shows two examples - one of aspens in New Mexico, a print circa 1960 and one from 1976; and another of Denali (Mt McKinley) - again, a print from the '40s or '50s and one from the '70s. The earlier aspens print is gently, ethereally beautiful (melancholy, my girlfriend Maria says). The '70s print also has a certain - different - beauty viewed close up, but from further away it just looks harsh. Same with the two Denalis. You can't see this at all in the book (which I therefore didn't buy). In the reproductions there, the '70s prints look good, the earlier prints just look grey and flat and lifeless. You can't see this sort of thing in a book, you have to be looking at a real print.
Pictures that I found particularly amazing and memorable:
The Sierra Club website has an online galley of Adams pictures.
The last time I was in Berlin was for the Magnum 50th anniversary exhibition - a very different and, is some people's view, even antagonistic photographic experience:
Quality doesn't mean deep blacks and whatever tonal range. That's not quality, that's a kind of quality. The pictures of Robert Frank might strike someone as being sloppy--the tone range isn't right and things like that--but they're far superior to the pictures of Ansel Adams with regard to quality, because the quality of Ansel Adams, if I may say so, is essentially the quality of a postcard. But the quality of Robert Frank is a quality that has something to do with what he's doing, what his mind is. It's not balancing out the sky to the sand and so forth. It's got to do with intention.
Eliott Erwitt (quote courtesy of photoquotes.com)
This is worth thinking about, although I ultimately don't agree with it. It's certainly true that technical mastery doesn't in & of itself make for interesting art. A technically perfect print of a boring picture is a boring picture. And, although I'm not personally a big fan of Erwitt's pictures, there are other Magnum photographers whose work I admire more than Ansel Adams. Some kinds of picture don't need huge negatives or fantastic darkroom technique to be powerful & impressive. Not just photojournalism. Even landscapes - look at Ernst Haas' (differently but equally) impressive impressionistic kodachrome landscapes - all (I think) shot on 35mm.
And the great Magnum photographers, although they may not have been obsessive technical maestros like Adams and used different tools than he did for different purposes, were by no means sloppy or casual about equipment, technique or who they got to do their printing for them(**)
The world is going to pieces, and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!
Henri Cartier-Bresson, quoted in Kenneth Brower's review of Ansel Adams at 100
My view on this: in a world where a lot of things certainly can be seen as going to pieces (and arguably more so in the mid 20th century than now), there are still things that make it all worthwhile; and some people's ability to see beauty in rocks is one such thing. And being motvated by seeing beauty in rocks, enough to dedicate a lifetime's effort to campaigning to preserve wild and beautiful places like Yosemite, is worthwhile and important too.
I am personally (even) more impressed by some Magnum photographers, like Raymond Depardon and Ernst Haas, than I am by Ansel Adams. What I admire in them, though, isn't some supposedly greater social "relevance" in their pictures compared to his. It's their ability to pull amazing, striking compositions out of nothing - a street corner, an empty car park, some scratched and peeling paintwork. A lot of the famous Adams pictures aren't like that, especially the Yosemite ones - they're huge, impressive pictures of huge, impressive, obvious things. Or so I used to think. As I think about it more, though, I'm not so sure. Ansel Adams also took a lot of pictures - the dead wood still lives, the closeups of grass stems in ponds or wet leaves, the semi abstract aspen trunk compositions - that look obvious to us now because everybody with any interest in photography has seen his pictures of them dozens of times. But actually, they probably weren't at all obvious when he was photographing them in the '30s and '40s. He was probably a lot more modern then than he looks now. There's still something about Depardon's achingly empty street corners and lost desert highways that moves me personally more than any Ansel Adams pictures; but that certainly doesn't mean I find Adams boring or irrelevant.
I went back to the show a second time with my girlfriend Maria (Russian) who has a very appreciative and discerning eye for art and photography, but had never heard of Ansel Adams. She was impressed. Pictures she particularly loved were Moonrise Henrandez; Aspens (earlier print), Yosemite panoramas, and one of a tree in snow in front of Cathedral Rock that the Kunstforum used as the exhibition poster. Was interested to hear that these are all among the most famous classic Adams photographs. (It's interesting to see how often people agree about these things. I also had a look round the collection of paintings in the Kunstforum. Would glance a round a room full of portraits and think "well, they're all pretty good but that one's particularly excellent". Then the particularly excellent one would turn out to be the only one in the room by Holbein, or somebody else famous)
She also liked a picture of a dead tree covered in snow, that we both agreed would make a perfect Christmas card. I wonder what a batch of 50 original Ansel Adams 4x5 contact prints would cost? Is, however, otherwise sceptical of the concept of dead trees as a photographic subject. (Must remember not to take her to any Edward Weston exhibitions)
Wanted to know why my digital prints from scanned 35mm film aren't as sharp as Ansel's prints. Listened patiently to an explanation of 8x10 view cameras and contact printing - but refused to entertain the concept of me going out and buying "a camera the size of a television" and turning the bathroom into a darkroom.
Also refuses to have anything to do with the idea that there might be anything about the American landscape that could be more impressive than Russia - "oh, we have things like that too in Siberia / Kamchatka / the Urals". Until stopped by a picture of a saguaro cactus - had no idea that the such things as giant cactuses existed in the world, and now wants to go to Arizona to see them. Also to Yosemite. Fine by me.
I love visiting Berlin - it seems like a far more interesting and exciting city than Munich where I live (as witness, for example, the fact that it gets all the interesting touring photo exhibitions and Munich doesn't). I've only been there twice, for a couple of days each time, but I have the feeling that if it weren't for the lack of mountains I could happily live there. Having the Alps on the doorstep is the best thing about Munich. Had dinner with a friend of Maria's who's lived in Berlin for years and he agreed - said that being near mountains is mostly what he misses.
The gallery where the Adams exhibition is being held, the Kunstforum, is only a couple of years old and very impressive. Definitely the best new art gallery I've ever been in. The area it's in, around Potsdamer Platz, was right by the Berlin Wall and has been rebuilt in the last ten years with a lot of also-impressive modern architecture - the Philharmonic Hall, a big new railway station, a couple of shopping centres and several office buildings, and the offices of the German Bundesländer (states). It reminds me of how impressed I was when I first came to Germany four years ago by the amount and quality of modern architecture in Germany compared to Britain - a sign, I think, of West Germany having been a wealthier and more self-confident society than Britain in the 70s and 80s.
Nowadays, though, it's increasingly obvious that that era is over. The German economy is in deep trouble and the days of massive spending on impressive public works projects are numbered. Maria says her ex worked in the construction industry in Berlin, and twice lost his job because the companies he was working for did big expensive projects, then went bust because the clients couldn't pay.
The Kunstforum also houses a very fine collection of German and Dutch Renaissance art, which I spent a couple of hours looking at after Ansel Adams. It's interesting to see that - despite unrealistic compositions and boring biblical subject matter - (a few) people were well capable of painting "photo-realistic" human faces and clothing over five hundred years ago. And I learned, by looking at a fifteenth century nude Venus by Lukas Cranach, how Photoshop unsharp marking actually works. (Cranach did a much better job of it than Photoshop usually does).
I also expected the German national gallery to have an impressive Dürer collection, and perhaps it does, but there was disappointingly little of it on display - perhaps it's all on loan to the British Museum.
It's a fun experience just to spend what would normally be a working day walking around a fascinating and unfamiliar city looking at pictures in an art gallery, then hanging out in the art gallery cafe writing about looking at pictures. Well worth working a weekend to be able to take time off during the week. Eerily quiet, though.
* not a criticism of the lighting in the Kunstforum, who have done a good job. Certainly much better than a Martin Parr exhibition at the Tate Gallery in Liverpool that I went to last year, where the lighting - direct window light and fluorescents - was so bad you actually couldn't see some of the pictures for reflections. (back)
** according to Mike Johnston's column for Luminous Landscape, there is a widely believed story that Henri Cartier-Bresson had his lenses specially made for him by Leica. (back)
*** Kenneth Brower's review of the exhibition in the Atlantic Monthly is an interesting read. Kenneth Brower is the son of Adams' long time friend and publisher, David Brower, and himself knew Adams and worked with him on book projects. He is also a leading Sierra Club environmentalist, and sees Szarkowski's exhibition as Adams viewed through East Cost urban blinkers. He talks at length about how Manhattan urbanite art critics are afraid of mountains and don't understand what Adams was seeing in them. I find this a little odd as a criticism of an exhbition where the first third is devoted to (to my eye, largely pretty nondescript and uninteresting) early pictures of the Sierra Nevada and the Canadian Rockies. More importantly, he takes exception to the absence of any of Adams' non-landscpae work (true) and to the choice of almost entirely contact prints and small enlargements - Adams himself, apparently, delighted in making and dislaying huge prints. He also mentions that the American exhibition also had a major section devoted to pictures by Adams' contemporaries - this section hasn't made it as far as the Berlin leg of the tour which is a shame, it would have been interesting to see.(back)
©2002 Alan Little