Every week the Thursday Afternoon Art Society of the Women's Club of Dover-Wellesley visits the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for lectures, tours and special exhibits. Last Thursday the Society went to the photography exhibit entitled Ansel Adams: The Eloquent Light. Two ladies stood before a four-panel, seven-foot screen of "The Clearing Storm" in all its mammoth glory. After a suitable pause for appreciation, Dover turned to Wellesley and announced, "We stayed at a little motel up above it and we could see those lights."
The mere mention of a motel in the same breath as an Adams photograph is grotestque; after all, he is the official photo-muralist of the Department of the Interior. But the comment illustrates a fundamental need of the viewer; a photograph must be somehow associable with him. Because he lacks or rejects the use of human scale, Adams' photographs are most effective on three-and four-foot panels. Everything is larger than life; he chooses subjects before which a human being stands tiny and speechless.
Adams' technique dazzles no less than his subject matter. Because of the limitations of the mechanical process of photography, what the eye sees can never be transposed exactly into film. To plan and to execute perfectly one image of dawn light, in anything approaching its natural subtlety, is a lour de force. To do so repeatedly and faultlessly in hundreds of photographs spanning three decades is a monumental achievement. To want to do it repeatedly and faultlessly for four decades is a monumental firmness of mind.
There is little warmth, however, to relieve the glare of what God hath wrought on the great North American continent and what Ansel Adams hath done to drive it all home. The cumulative effect of the Fine Arts exhibit is somewhat akin to that of being dangled over a chasm for several hours. You admire it, but it scares hell out of you.
Adams, as a founder of "Group f/64" with Edward Weston, became an advocate and practitioner of "straight" photography. Nevertheless, his pictures at times achieve the character of abstract paintings. The enlarged wood-grains of "Detail of Old Wooden Cross' are the strokes of the painter's brush. The suppression of the background of "Rain Forest Kileuea" into middle grays sets off the few black tree trunks in the foreground and gives the jungle a surrealistic quality reminiscent of the paintings of Rousseau.
If the grandeur of the West is already surrealistic, as in "Sand Dunes at Sunrise, Death Valley" (1954), then surrealism is nature and Adams is only its faithful scribe. We must look to his choice of the instant in portraiture or in an urban world to find the mind of the artist shaping its material. The regularity of the natural stonework in "Grand Canvon" is like the automated regularity of the "San Francisco Bay Bridge from Yerbe Buen Island" (1953). Adams chooses to portray the bridge in a straightaway perspective with its vanishing point squarely centered: Beetle-like automobiles march toward infinity in formation, as do the landscapes achieve an effect perilously close to the Canyon's rocks.
The sheer size and exactitude of some of Adams' landscapes achieve an effect perilously close to Cinerama, as in "Winter Frost, Yosemite." Wellesley, openmouthed before all 20 square feet of "Thunderstorm, the Teton Range and Snake River, Wyoming," could finally say of the uncannily highlighted water only "Well, you can see why they call it the Snake River, all right.
Occasionally one can see Adams missing and then discovering the precise size and degree of detail which will exactly convey what he seeks: in "Detail of Meadow Grass, Late Evening" he achieves a delicate, tapestry-like translation of nature; later in "Raindrops on Grass" his enlargement is merely crude, but finally, in the complete abstraction of "Water and Foam," the play of light on form is translated from reality into a perfect work of artifice.
Really, though, the BMFA exhibit is too much of a good and powerful thing. By the time you are facing "Mount Williamstown, from Munzana" (1944); on the last wall of prints, you hardly register the now-familiar enormities around you. You almost pass by untouched, but a piercing ray of sunlight glints off the center middle ground. You look again at the terrifying array of boulders marching out at you. There is a start of recognition.
Beauty hath ever some strangeness; the beauty of Adams' work is strangely cold. It has little of the subtle irony or quick warmth of Cartier-Bresson, for instance; it is not man facing himself, but man facing a huge natural universe. The one real portrait in the show, happily, is magnificent. "Dr. Dexter Perkins" exhibits the photographer as more than a master of the flawless snowscape; it is both artistically and emotionally comprehensible and satisfying. Adams' irritating crispness of vision is relieved in "Woman at Screen Door" by the device of shooting through the screen and using it to soften the subject's face. Otherwise it would be "American Gothic" all over again.
The light of Adams' photographs is indeed eloquent; its intensity and brilliance here may well be temporarily blinding, but the show at the Fine Arts is certainly worth the candle.