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In Ansel Adams’ Footsteps (part 1)

30 April, 2011

I had the great honor and pleasure to be a guest of Ansel Adams’ son and daughter-in-law, Michael and Jeanne Adams, at their cabin in Yosemite last week. Michael and Jeanne are delightful people and wonderful hosts – we had a great time talking about their experiences of Yosemite (Michael was actually born there) and Jeanne’s forthcoming exhibition projects.

I was in Yosemite working on an exhibition that will open next summer, called “Ansel Adams: At the Water’s Edge.” The idea for the show came from looking at Ansel’s seascapes and shoreline views, most of which were taken in the Carmel/Monterey/Big Sur area, with a few from Glacier Bay, Acadia National Park, and Cape Cod. The more I worked on this idea the more I realized there is a lot more to the subject than I bargained for. Looking at the seascapes got me to look at pictures of rivers meeting the sea – from there it was a short leap to river rapids, waterfalls, geysers, storms, ice, and snow. So the show has grown to include different aspects of Ansel’s interest in water. It’s fascinating to me because it shows just how much life and energy there is in his pictures – arrested motion – and it reinforces in my mind what I’ve always known about him, that he was fundamentally a Modern artist. The photographs I’ve been looking at show how much Modernism there was in Ansel – his interest in stopping time, in sequential imagery, in form, and in what historically has been called the “omniscience” of camera and lens, photographing things that the naked eye can’t see very well. And his approach was distinctive. You would never mistake his work for that of his friend, Edward Weston, for example. As photohistorian John Szarkowski once noted, in a Weston picture you get the geology of the place, in an Adams you get the weather.

It was a great weekend to be in Yosemite, especially for this project, because there is no escaping the importance of water at this time of year. The snow pack, which is 175% of normal, has been thawing quickly and waterfalls are booming. They are everywhere – majestic – indescribable really (and not too many tourists yet). It was a good reminder of why Ansel photographed water so much – he was born near the ocean, and water was so much a part of life in Yosemite and the other places he visited.

Jeanne is an accomplished curator, who is developing an exhibition for Photokunst with the working title “Fragile Waters.” I saw a preliminary edit of the show and it looks fantastic – bringing together works by Ansel, Dorothy Kerper Monnelly, and Ernest Brooks. Nothing is final yet but I enjoyed the rhythm of the presentation – the three artists’ works are blended beautifully. Ansel’s work, of course, is well-known, but Jeanne has mixed some of his most famous pictures with beautiful, lesser-known examples. Monnelly’s works are in some ways more romantic – they remind me of the late nineteenth century photographer Peter Henry Emerson – but have their own unique look and feel. And Brooks is best known for his underwater pictures. His photographs of seals playing underwater are so intimate, and the moments captured so unbelievable, you would think they had been Photoshopped if you didn’t know Brooks is a seasoned diver, a friend of the legendary Jacques Cousteau, among others. Combined, the three bodies of work make for a really powerful presentation.

The picture above is not Ansel’s, obviously. Our show is in its early stages and we don’t have permission to use publicity images yet. So one of my snapshots will have to do.

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