Exhibit of the week
Ansel Adams in Our Time
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through Feb. 24
“Until recently, I would have said that nothing could be more boring right now than looking at photographs by Ansel Adams,” said Sebastian Smee in The Washington Post. Though the San Francisco native (1902–1984) undoubtedly earned his place in history with his black-and-white images of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome, those same dorm room–ready photographs—“so pristine, fastidious, and preposterously hygienic”—feel stuck in a past age of mythmaking about the American wilderness. Fortunately, a new exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts “breathes unexpected life into Adams’ work,” and the effect is mesmerizing—“like watching your family’s resident pyromaniac resuscitate a dying campfire.” Adams, we’re reminded, created a varied body of work that often undercut the romanticism of his best-known images. More importantly, he created a visual legacy that subsequent generations of photographers, including 20 artists represented here, have been playing off of ever since.
Adams’ style was defined as much by what he left out of the frame as what he included, said Richard Woodward in The Wall Street Journal. From the beginning, when he was a teenage Sierra Club member collecting wilderness images that he sold to other members, he cropped out or erased evidence of any human presence. And in the late 1920s, when he made it a mission to capture the ritual dances of the Pueblo Indians, he never showed the throngs of tourists watching. Later artists have found ways to push back. Feminist photographer Catherine Opie followed Adams’ footsteps to Yosemite Falls, producing blurred color abstractions in a stated attempt to “de-cliché” the wonders of the site. Mitch Epstein’s Altamont Pass Wind Farm, California, from 2007, sarcastically evokes Adams to contrast the pristine West of myth with a thoroughly manhandled contemporary landscape in which a grim, dusty wind farm provides backdrop to a generic golf course.
Adams himself was no Pollyanna, though, and some of his work here is “the least Adams-esque I’ve seen,” said Murray Whyte in The Boston Globe. In 1943, he created a series of images of Manzanar, the World War II Japanese-American internment camp, in which the surrounding Sierra Nevada peaks are menacing rather than heroic. Elsewhere, a photo of a cemetery statue surrounded by oil derricks comes across as “pure high-modern black humor.” But to dismiss the images that made Adams famous would be a mistake. A 2016 photo by Lucas Foglia might at first seem like another critique: Echoing a “mesmerizing” 1940 Adams series, it’s a shot from overhead of a wave-lapped beach, except that this beach is being repaired by a large backhoe loader. Really, though, the two works represent “a shared hope”—of damage undone, of a planet healed. “That’s the Ansel Adams our time needs to look to, and with clear eyes.”