by Jack Mottram, a freelance writer based in Glasgow · About · Contact · Feed

Ansel Adams at the City Arts Centre

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The first few images in this survey of Ansel Adams’ pho­to­graphy are nothing short of breath-taking, but, before long, boredom sets in.

This is down to the fact that - though this exhibit is keen to remind us that, while Adams is first and foremost a landscape pho­to­graph­er­, his practice was broad, taking in por­trait­ure and abstract imagery - there is precious little evidence here of artistic de­vel­op­ment, with prints from the 1930s sitting happily beside those from the 1970s, because they are, in essence, the same.

That is not to say that the 150 prints gathered here are dull, far from it. The show opens with a brace of wa­ter­falls, great violent cascades of white water set against im­plac­able rock, then turns to a more intimate view, with spring water flowing over stones, turned cloudy and gelat­in­ous by the long exposure time, in a way that is almost painterly (though Adams himself, who co-founded Group f/6.4 to champion ‘pure’ pho­to­graphy in op­pos­i­tion to the pict­or­i­al­ist style prevalent in the first decades of the last century, would have baulked a this sug­ges­tion). Then come the work for which Adams is best known, his views of mountain ranges and great lakes, rocky outcrops and desert sands, captured in perfect detail, composed with an almost obsessive care. They are glorious, sure, but after a little while, one finds oneself looking not at the land­s­capes Adams has captured, but at the pho­to­graphs them­selves. It is the im­pos­s­ibly crisp rendering of the distant peaks in Mono Lake, Cal­i­for­n­ia that grabs the eye, not the beauty of mountains, and the sheer rock face shown in Monolith, the Face of Half Dome is notable not for its majesty, but for the tonal contrast between the grey stone and the black sky behind it.

In other words, if Adams was a genius, as the show’s subtitle would have us believe, his genius was technical, not artistic. And with this in mind, the ex­hib­i­tion’s fails is its complete lack of technical in­form­a­tion. Or­d­in­ar­ily, this would not be an omission worth cri­t­i­cising - images are the important thing, after all, not how they were made - but with Adams, mastery of pho­to­graph­ic technique over­whelms the subject almost every time. Take Mudhills, Arizona, for example, a late pho­to­graph that hovers on the edge of ab­strac­tion. It is lit at the centre by a shaft of light. Was this blind luck, did Adams spend hours at this spot waiting for a break in the clouds, or is that striking highlight the result of some in­nov­at­ive darkroom technique? We are left none the wiser.

Then there is the subject matter. Perhaps, as a confirmed city-dweller who tends to think that a wind farm improves a wild vista no end, I cannot truly un­der­stand these works. But after twenty, thirty, forty pristine images of ‘unspoilt’ nature, it is hard not to wish for some sign, however small, of human activity. And when Adams provides, it comes as a blessed relief - standing before Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, in which a squat, flat-roofed church and adjacent graveyard provide welcome right-angles, it is im­pos­s­ible to remain unmoved at these signs of lives lived in a landscape. Of course, taking a landscape pho­to­graph­er­ to task for pho­to­graph­ing land­s­capes might be missing the point rather, but there is something in Adams un­re­lent­ing, nigh on mono­ma­n­i­ac­al regard for natural form­a­tions that grates, with this re­pe­ti­tious, touched-up and ul­ti­m­ately tedious parade of images ending up just short of being sickly soft por­no­graphy for the outdoor set.

When Adams turns away from the land­s­capes he loved, though, he falters, unable to leave them behind. A close-up of a picket fence is, seen through Adams’ lens, a mo­nu­ment­al mountain range, the lines of in­dus­tri­al machinery become a rocky outcrop, and even an abstract like Stained Wallpaper Near Alturas, Cal­i­for­n­ia bears a title that em­phas­ises the place the pho­to­graph was taken, and can only be read as an attempt to evoke eddies on the surface of a pool or knots in wood. The few portraits gathered here are for the most part eminently for­get­t­able, with one exception - John Martin In His Studio shows the subject slightly unsteady on his feet, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lip, a decisive moment among the too-careful com­pos­i­tions.

In the end, this show will doubtless be a treat for keen devotees of Adams - it is by far the most com­pre­hen­s­ive ex­hib­i­tion of his work shown on these shores to date - but for those new to his work, or familiar only with his often-re­pro­duced Western land­s­capes, it is sure to dis­ap­point, offering a huge volume of works where a select few would do, revealing Adams to be, if not a one trick pony, then a pho­to­graph­er­ whose re­lent­less pursuit of the perfect landscape pho­to­graph ul­ti­m­ately obscures his desire to share a love for the beauty of the natural world.

This review was first published in The Herald on February 15th, 2008.