Trying to Be Cultured? Visit the Museum of Fine Arts
ANSEL ADAMS is best known for his sweeping, almost unbelievable, landscapes. And while one admires his choice of subjects and skillful execution, one always wonders if he was not just a tad naive--if his view of the world was not a bit too rosy.
Ansel Adams: The Early Years answers this critique by showcasing Adams's 1920's and 1930's photographs. Given Adams' later works, many of the ironic and unsettling photographs presented in this exhibit are surprising. At any rate, Ansel Adams: The Early Years succeeds both in demonstrating the evolution of Adams's style and in introducing new perspectives on his other works.
The show suggests surprising formal continuities in works whose subjects are radically different. "Monolith-- The Face of Half Dome" (1927), one of Adams's mountain scenes, is paired with his decisively urban 1940 print of the RCA Building in New York. Both works focus on a structure of monumental scale. Yet Adams crops both photos so that the viewer sees parts of other, similar details in the surroundings--other mountains in the former, other buildings in the latter. The effect is to focus our eye on the overall scene and atmosphere rather than simply the massiveness of the central subject. The result is that the viewer is impressed by both the building and the mountain, but neither overwhelmed nor intimidated.
Many of Adams's photographs are similarly evenhanded--his is a perspective where the camera more often records than interacts with the world. But, other works in this show, like "Long Beach Cemetery" (circa 1940), engages the viewer with its ironic subject matter. The scene contrasts a classicalstyle sculpture from a cemetery in the foreground with various industrial eyesores in a background of grass and trees. It is a very strange and compelling image.
Adams's "Self-Portrait in Victorian Mirror" (1933) is downright bizarre. Adams depicts a deliberately contrived quasi-symmetry. He places his face on the lens of the camera and against a background created by the mirror of the title. This effect jars both the eye and the mind--particularly the former in light of Adams's odd, transfixed expression. Again, the viewer wonders at the implicit contrast to Adams's pristine landscapes. When viewing these photographs, one might also consider how Adams addresses issues like the onslaught of industry and the alienation of the artist.
This exhibit contains other surprises. One finds numerous examples of Adams representing "low" subjects. A series of shipwreck scenes and prints of anchors indicate that these forms received as much attention as the exalted landscapes at this point in Adams's career.
This is particularly true in his depiction of "wall Paper in House at Lundy, California" (1939), where the meticulous detail makes the viewer forget that they are looking at a decrepit piece of tacky, messy wallpaper. In each of these, Adams elevates his subject with an irony and skill that recalls, yet precedes, Pop Art.
The prints of Christian crosses are among the most mesmerizing in the show. "Cross, San Rafael, California" (1932) is probably the most unnerving of these. The landscape, vacant and unadorned, is dominated by a tall, thin, utterly white cross. To add to the atmosphere of peculiar barrenness, Adams tilts the perspective. The power of ambiguity is awesome. The cross demands adherence yet remains barely standing--at once domineering and impotent.
The presence of a work like "Cross" aptly complements and brings new meaning to other exhibits, like "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" (1941), which opens the show. The latter print becomes a compendium for the show as a whole. The photograph contains a little bit of everything--a stunning evening landscape of mountains and clouds, a few remnants of industrialization, numerous crosses. It skillfully summarizes a new and fuller view of Ansel Adams.