Monday, 30 September 2013

The Photographers: Ansel Adams 1902–1984



"Photography, as a powerful medium of expression and communications, offers an infinite variety of perception, interpretation and execution."

Ansel Adams is probably my favourite photographer. I know for many people such a statement would result in an audible groan of predictability. His photos have become an oft-used cliché, synonymous as a symbol of the all-American boy conquering the great frontier in the turbulent times of the modern-age.  A visual statement of the 'American Dream' in a fit of whimsied nostalgia which I can take or leave - mostly leave.  I have no patriotical connection to his images. I find I'm able to admire them as images without having all the needless - sometimes nauseating - cultural baggage that comes with an American icon. Once you make the distinction between image and legend you can step back and admire his landscapes for what they possess as images. Not just some of the best photographs ever, but also some of the best works of visual art ever made.

Discontent towards Ansel Adams mostly stems from his subject matter. His work is distanced from the politically charged - sometimes subversive - statements of his contemporaries. The carte du jour of the serious 1930's photographer was the diminutive 35mm Leica, and the ever changing social landscape in the fast-moving modernist age. The quest of the photographer was for the elusive decisive moment. A captured moment which was at once both: a great photograph but also a powerful statement of the human condition. Adams' choice of subject matter, drew the derision of his contemporaries who criticized him for taking human-less, idealised landscapes in a time of the Great Depression and later, war-torn Europe. The idea of the decisive moment at times becomes a bourgeois, sometimes propagandic term and Adams' chose to focus on the unpolitical. Instead, he captured that ephemeral notion of the decisive moment as shadow and light, cast onto grand vistas and almost fantastical mountainscapes.

His photos are no less part of the moment than those of Henri Cartier-Bresson's. Landscape photography is a different beast to sharp-eyed observation of the photojournalist. Decisive moments exist, but that moment is in a fleeting existence of the perfect synchronisation of light and shadow. A moment where a landscape becomes more than just a scenic view - captured within the frame of an expertly skilled photographer.. We've all seen it, but rarely have the ability to express it. I hate to use the term 'spiritual' as it's such a wafty, meaningless statement. However, if there exists photographs which possibly suggest the ability of images to take us beyond the real, but keep us firmly entrenched in reality in a very primal way - it's in the photographs of Ansel Adams.

Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine (1944)
The Tetons and the Snake River (1942)
Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941)

Moon and Half Dome (1960)
Hoover Dam (1942)

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