If you love photography in any way then you will know all about Ansel Adams. His strikingly beautiful black and white photography of the American wilderness is timeless and majestic.
All students of photography will know his work inside out and those of us who haven’t looked too closely will surely recognise his iconic work from many an office calendar or coffee table book. His most famous images were amazingly shot in the 1920s and 30s and their freshness to this day is testament to the visionary talent of the photographer.
Adams was one of the first photographers to embrace ‘photographic realism’ – photographs that showed everything pin sharp, as the eye sees it. Up until then, photography was very much an extension of romantic art with blurred, artistic edges and soft focus techniques. Adams was also a founding member of the F64 club – an elite bunch of photographers committed to the realistic depiction of their subject matter using the smallest aperture on the camera lens which delivered the deepest depth of field.
I was also intrigued by Adams’ criticism by fellow documentary photographers who felt that he and his fellow F64ers should be photographing the grim reality of dustbowl recession in America. Adams remained committed to his work and stuck resolutely to nature photography, claiming not unreasonably that his work was art someone had to continue with it amidst the gloom of the period. Some of the most iconic photography comes from this period with Dorothea Lange leading the field with unflinching investigative journalism and Ansel Adams creating timeless, nourishing images.
A large body of Adams work is currently being shown at The National Maritime museum in Greenwich, with prints that don’t travel cross the Atlantic that often. I made the trip across London not really knowing what to expect as photography exhibitions can leave me a little ambivalent.
The show was beautifully staged and full of drama. Well designed with lots of moments throughout, the exhibition contained a wide selection of water related imagery – which is much of his work to be honest – showcasing the handsome imagery to full effect.
Adams huge body of work must take some interpreting. He was a hugely prolific image maker (not taker, please note) and finding a meaningful narrative in his work must take some doing as many of his images are riffs on texture, time, repetition, movement, reflection and stillness. In some ways his work is documentary in style and to that end, can lack depth in the beauty presented.
But it is the large format prints that take the breath away and this is where he excels. Where the vignettes titillate, the vistas take the viewer by surprise, delivering life-size monochromatic Californian scenery. My personal favourite s winter storm clearing the half dome in Yosemite, an image alive with the unpredictability of a winter storm in the High Sierra.
The show is well worth catching but you’d need to look sharp: it finishes at the end of April, but it is well worth the effort and the rather excellent National Maritime Museum adds to the value of the excursion.