Spirit Of The Land
Chris Ranier carries through many of the same themes explored by his mentor, Ansel Adams.
Thursday, September 5, 2002
Photo: Walking With God-"Nuns Exiting Shrine, Sarnath, India, 1990," by Chris Rainier, is at the Center for Photographic Art.
Chris Ranier was Ansel Adam''s last full-time assistant, part of a unique and privileged group of photographers who to this day carry on Adams'' legacy of creating art that affirms the beauty of our spiritual connectedness with the natural world.
One of the five photographers on display at the Center for Photographic Art''s centennial tribute, Ansel Adams, 100 Years: The Assistants, Ranier says his lifelong passion for documenting the tribal and indigenous cultures of the world represents an effort to use art to help preserve and awaken people to the fragility of our relationship with the Earth.
"I''ve always been deeply involved in traveling and interested in indigenous cultures," says Ranier, who first met Adams in 1979 at a photography workshop in Yosemite and later served as the senior photographer''s assistant from 1980-1985.
Ranier''s peripatetic childhood took him around the globe with his family, to homes in South Africa, Australia and Europe. His instincts for the power of photojournalism to share essential truths are combined with a strong background in the fine arts, which Ranier says became refined when he began working for Adams.
"Ansel''s influence had less to do with technique than the idea that art is your way of life," says Ranier. "Ansel lived his entire life wrapped up in photography and creating art, and his message to me was that life and art are very internal and spiritual. I''m using photography both to create art and beautiful photos that celebrate life, and as a social tool to motivate people to save what''s left of the planet."
Ranier''s photographs have appeared in numerous magazines, including Outside, Men''s Journal, Conde Nast Traveler, Smithsonian, the New York Times, and National Geographic. He has published two highly acclaimed books, Keepers of Spirit: Sacred Cultures Around the Planet, and Where Masks Still Stand, and is completing a third book, Ancient Marks, scheduled for publication next year by National Geographic. Ranier now works full time as a photographer and director of a program sponsored by National Geographic seeking out and documenting endangered indigenous peoples around the world that are successfully preserving their cultures.
Whether it shows tribal cultures on the plains of Africa, or the indigenous peoples of the New Guinea rainforests, Ranier''s photography is characterized by its technical excellence and the amazing rapport the artist establishes with his subjects. What stands out most noticeably is the empathy and understanding he communicates in his images, as well as a seemingly preternatural ability to make his presence invisible in such a way that his own biases never intrude on his subjects.
"Ansel had a sense of integrity in the way he treated people that he passed on to all of his assistants," recalls Ranier, "and what I like to do is have people become more aware of indigenous cultures, to look at my images and see the parts of other cultures that go beyond stereotypes, and that speak of things internal and spiritual."
When photographing indigenous cultures, Ranier works hard not to overly romanticize his subjects, acknowledging that it is in the nature of all peoples to exploit the natural environment. For Ranier, the issue comes down to a matter of degree.
"There is no question, having spent ten years living as a photographer in New Guinea, that there is not much difference on a daily basis between a people with one foot out of the Garden of Eden or us chasing Al Qaeda," says Ranier. On the other hand, he continues, "There is no question our actions and what we might do with nuclear war have a much more devastating impact than slash and burn in the jungle."
Although the connection between Adams'' pristine, people-less landscapes and Ranier''s world of inhabited spaces might not be readily obvious, Ranier believes he and Ansel are committed to an identical sense of how the celebration and preservation of the land are crucial to the spiritual well-being and salvation of mankind.
"My work is an extension of Ansel''s work," says Ranier. "When you look at Yosemite you''re reminded that indigenous people were living in that valley. As a people we are all connected to the landscape. I''m merely a storyteller, a conduit for peoples'' stories, trying to help save cultures that help save the land we live on."
Ansel Adams, 100 Years: The Assistants is on display at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel through October 4.