Updating Ansel Adams

A review of the exhibition "Ansel Adams in Our Time" now on view at the Portland Art Museum

I associate Ansel Adams’ photographs with posters hung by people with a different sense of the potential for joy in damp technical fabric than I have. I’m all for nature but I want the day’s expedition to end in a warm shower, a glass of wine, and an actual bed. Ansel Adams poster people find bliss in dehydrated casseroles and sleeping amidst the aforementioned technical fabrics. 

I admit that I have conflated the photographs of Ansel Adams with the predilections of the people I know who buy and display reproductions of his work. Like many artworks that can be labeled “iconic,” Ansel Adams reproductions are so ubiquitous that they become part of the background, something that I don’t really look at because I think I’ve seen them before. 

Ansel Adams, Monolith–The Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park (1927, printed 1950-1960). Gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Portland Art Museum.

Ansel Adams is an extraordinarily popular figure in the world of photography. All variations of the search “most popular photographer in America” that I ran on Google (an extremely scientific study) returned Adams as the first choice. Mounting the show Ansel Adams in Our Time, organized by Karen Haas, the Senior Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, was, therefore, an easy choice for the Portland Art Museum. It was always bound to be a big win with a large and receptive audience, but given my general indifference to Adams, I didn’t expect to be among the thronging fans.

Thanks to a well-curated show that then was augmented by the Minor White Curator of Photography Julia Dolan for exhibition in Portland, I’m happy to join the masses. 

Before its Covid-induced, fits-and-starts debut in Portland, Ansel Adams in Our Time was mounted at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Haas put together a show that deftly weaves well-known and lesser-known photographs by Adams with works by predecessors (to show how he revolutionized nature photography) and contemporary photographers (to how his “revolutions” continue to loom large over the medium). Six sections organize the exhibition: “Marketing the View,” “Becoming a Modernist,” “In the American Southwest,” “Picturing the National Parks,” “The Other Side of the Mountains,” and “The Changing Landscape.” The progression of the sections is roughly chronological, tracing Adams’ development from a budding photography enthusiast to a “giant” in the field. 

“Marketing the View” introduces work from Adams’ early career including images from the 1927 portfolio Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras. The exhibition includes all 16 original images from the portfolio, originally printed in an edition of 100 by a press in San Francisco. The portfolio is now rarely found intact. This was Adams’ first published project; the one that made him think that he might possibly make a living as a nature photographer. In looking at the group, there were only two that I recognized from the poster reproductions: Monolith, the Face of Half Dome and El Capitan. The others were less dramatic images of less familiar, but still linger-worthy, views.

In a lecture that was meant to accompany the exhibition but ended up preceding the opening due to Covid restriction, Rebecca Senf, the Chief Curator at the Center for Creative Photography in Arizona and author of the book Making a Photographer: The Early Work of Ansel Adams, explained that the portfolio was arranged and sequenced as a fictive hike but one without a fixed destination. Adams used different compositional styles and vantage points to capture the terrain of Yosemite National Park, and the advantage of a portfolio was that the viewer could sequence their “hike” however they pleased. 

Installation view of “Becoming a Modernist,” Ansel Adams in Our Time at the Portland Art Museum. Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

The next section in the exhibition, “Becoming a Modernist,” offered a different side of Adams’ work. Adams had his first public exhibition of photographs at the Sierra Club headquarters in San Francisco in 1928. He lived in the city during the Depression in the 1930s. Rebecca Senf argues in her book that the 14 years between the time that Adams shot the Parmelian portfolio and his famous photograph Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico were densely packed for Adams: This is the span during which he became the iconic photographer we’re familiar with. 

“Becoming a Modernist” doesn’t feature mountains or vistas but rather urban subjects in the artist’s hometown of San Francisco. There is more abstraction in this section: close-up photos of corroding pieces of steel, an anchor, and rocks. This is the section that I had the easiest time connecting to the traditional arc of the art history of photography. Adams’ 1931 work, Anchors, San Francisco, was part of a one-man show at photo history superstar Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery (An American Place) in New York. Works like Sutro Gardens, San Francisco and Laurel Hill Cemetery, San Francisco firmly associate Adams with the 20th-century “straight photography” movement. 

Ansel Adams, The Golden Gate Before the Bridge (1932). Gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Portland Art Museum.

In “Becoming a Modernist,”  though, some of the connections to the accompanying 21st century works in the exhibition seemed most tenuous. San Francisco is an overarching presence in the section, and it includes the Adams’ work from 1932 The Golden Gate Before the Bridge, which features the landscape that will, a year later, be dominated by the famous bridge. In light of this, Richard Misrach’s 2000 series on the Golden Gate Bridge, hung handsomely on the back wall of the gallery, makes sense. But the connection to Chris McCaw’s Sunburned GSP#683 (San Francisco Bay, Sunrise in 12 Negatives) from 2013 is less certain: The subject isn’t the bay at all but the rising sun, and his unorthodox process privileges “primal photography…reduced to water, earth, atmosphere, and quite literally, fire.” McCaw’s work is fascinating but the relationship between it and Adams’ work seemed like a reach to me. 

Richard Misrach, Golden Gate Bridge (1998). Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

The most effective contemporary examples in the exhibition are the ones with clearer parallels to Adam’s work, the ones in which the Adams-familiar viewer can see the parallels in the image and then read the wall panel for more context (rather than being totally reliant on the wall panel to understand the relevance). I was charmed by Matthew Brandt’s silkscreens Molé Sauce (2009) and Ketchup and Mustard (2009), prints of Yosemite’s Half Dome made with the titular condiments. Abelardo Morrell’s Tent-Camera Image on Ground images were created in national parks using a camera obscura tent and digital camera and incorporate the projected image and the ground of the tent. The exhibition includes a short video of Morrell explaining his process and background.

Abelardo Morell. Tent-Camera Image on Ground: View of Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. (2011). Inkjet print. Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

The works by contemporary artists that use Adams as inspiration or a point of departure make the show current and equally demonstrate Adams’ long shadow. But where this exhibition really shines is in the inclusion of works by contemporary artists that “crack open” Adams: The historical images are used as a foundation from which to start conversations that engage contemporary concerns about identity, access, and privilege. 

Haas, the organizing curator in Boston, built in several of these narratives. In the section “In the American Southwest,” Haas paired Adams’ 1929 images of Pueblo dancers with Will Wilson’s 2013 portrait of Nakotah LaRance. Adams’ dance images were taken during his trips to the Southwest to shoot photographs for the book Taos Pueblo (published in 1930) but weren’t included in the book itself. Performances by Native dancers were a popular attraction in the United States beginning as early as the 1870s with the “Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.” Adams cropped the audience out of his compositions to give the impression of authenticity rather than a packaged spectacle.

Will Wilson. How the West is One (2014). Inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist and the Portland Art Museum.

It is this idea of authenticity and performance that Wilson’s portrait of Nakotah LaRance and his dual self-portrait How the West Is One subverts. Aware of the prevailing romantic implications in 19th and 20th century representations of Native populations and the unspoken power dynamic between photographer and subject—most commonly associated with the work of Edward Curtis and seen in this exhibition in the works by Adam Clark Vroman and John K. Hillers—Wilson engages with the idea of agency. Nakotah LaRance is shown with a Hopi dance hoop but also with headphones and manga, effortlessly combining the notion of tradition and the present. In How the West is One, Wilson probes his own identity as a Diné photographer and how that may shape the interpretation of his work. 

Will Wilson’s work reappears in the last section of the exhibition, “The Changing Landscape,” in Auto Immune Response No. 2 from 2005. This work from the PAM permanent collection was an addition made by Julia Dolan (the Minor White Curator of Photography at PAM). Dolan curated a show in 2016 that featured the work of Will Wilson, Zig Jackson, and Wendy Red Star called Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy. Dolan also added Red Star and Jackson’s work to the Adams exhibition but her contributions were not just related to Native photographers. 

Zig Jackson. Indian Man on the Bus (1994). Gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

Dolan’s additions are a highlight of the show. The introductory panel for “The Changing Landscape” indicates that Haas conceived of this section as following the thread of Adams’ environmental advocacy. Dolan interpreted this theme of “change” more broadly and incorporated works that deepen our understanding of past and present: How does identity shape our relationship to the landscape? What was considered an immutable and universal constant under Adams’ modernist framework becomes fragmented and even contested in the present day. 

Ansel Adams. Self-Portrait, Monument Valley, Utah (1958). Gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Portland Art Museum.

Dolan’s pairing of Ansel Adams’ self-portrait from 1958 with Jonathan Calm’s Double Vision (Record) from 2018 is nothing short of brilliant. Adams’ self-portrait shows himself as an oversized shadowed form against a rock face in Utah. Calm captures himself on the California cliffs operating beneath the hood of an old-timey, large-format camera, his bare legs revealed. Dolan explains: “Typically, Calm’s skin color would not be visible to the passerby, most of whom would probably visualize a white photographer under the dark cloth. Calm’s pointed inclusion of his unclothed body asks us to question our assumptions about who is most welcome in the world of landscape photography, who has easy access to the landscape, and who is free to move through nature with little or no resistance.” In this same section, Dolan incorporated Calm’s Green Book Series of 2020 and Melodie McDaniel’s portraits from the Compton Jr. Posse Youth Equestrian Program.

Jonathan Calm. Double Vision (Record) (2018). Pigment print. Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

I’ve criticized the museum in recent months (and years) for not adequately shaping exhibitions to thornier problems. I’m thrilled to see that this is far from the case with this exhibition. The show came to Portland with nods to certain issues, but Dolan expanded those nods to make them full acknowledgments. She took a show about a white, male photographer and made the conversation current and inclusive. 

I should admit, too, that the show introduced me to an unfamiliar side of Adams’ work. I had never seen any of his photographs of Manzanar, the California concentration camp for Japanese Americans during World War II, for example; no one has posters of those. If anything, there were more Adams photos in this show that I hadn’t seen before than those that I had. 

I stand by my assessment of people who hang Ansel Adams posters (it should be noted, several of whom I love and adore), but those posters are only a small sliver of Adams’ long photographic career. The posters mislead by lending an impression of familiarity, an excuse to dismiss the legacy of Adams as single-issue. The excellent curation of this show demonstrates that his legacy and the contemporary conversations around his work are rich and multi-layered. I’m glad to have been wrong.

About the author

Laurel Reed Pavic is an art historian. Her academic research dealt with painting in 15th and 16th century Dalmatia. After finishing her PhD, she quickly realized that this niche, while fascinating, was rather small and expanded her interests so that she could engage with a wider audience. In addition to topics traditionally associated with art history, she enjoys considering the manipulation and presentation of cultural patrimony and how art and art history entangle with identity. She teaches a variety of courses at Pacific Northwest College of Art including courses on the multiple, the history of printed matter, modernism, and protest art.

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