Ansel Adams’ Personal Vision
CPA’s new show demonstrates a hidden side of the master photographer.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
The Center for Photographic Art has been going through a rough patch, so it’s a special pleasure to report that with the new exhibition, People, of and by Ansel Adams, the institution has officially returned to form.
Photography aficionados and interested novices alike should flock to this show, which displays a rarely seen side of Adams. The exhibition of portraits from the private collection of Michael and Jeanne Falk Adams, the photographer’s son and daughter-in-law, provides a biographical tour of Adams’ life and career.
It includes everything from a 1907 picture of Adams at 5, taken by his father at Baker’s Beach in San Francisco the year after the earthquake; to a candid shot of Adams as a teenager at Yosemite in 1916, proudly holding a Brownie camera; to a 1970 color portrait of Ansel and wife, Virginia, taken by Jim Alinder at their Carmel Highlands home.
Adams is most famous, justly, for his landscape photography – his iconic “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico’’ can currently be seen at the Monterey Museum of Art’s 50th anniversary celebration. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is mounting Natural Affinities, a major show of Adams and Georgia O’Keefe’s work, from late May through September.
But the CPA exhibition shows a side of Adams’ career that’s been overshadowed by his other achievements.
There are too many shots that deserve attention to describe, but they include a carefully composed portrait of the Mexican Social Realist painter José Clemente Orozco; an arresting, almost erotic, look at Charis Weston at Tenaya Lake in Yosemite in 1940; a head shot of the great French photographer, Jean-Jacques Lartigue. The picture was taken in 1974, but Adams’ artistry shows no signs of flagging; Lartigue’s shock of white hair is striking, but his face is almost completely obscured by the camera he’s holding in front of it – perhaps an inside joke from one shooter to another.
Of a 1936 double portrait of O’Keefe and Orville Cox, head wrangler at the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, perhaps it’s best to let Adams serve as his own critic. “The charm of O’Keefe’s expression is arresting, most obviously not posed a true ‘candid,’” he writes of the shot of a smiling O’Keefe, looking sideways at Wright, both sporting black hats, framed against the Western sky. The result, Adams wrote, was “not… a portrait but a rewarding record of a valued moment and engaging personalities.”
An early picture of Virginia Best, taken in the azalea fields of Yosemite in 1927 when she and Ansel were courting, has the spirit of young love. And other family shots, including one of his son Michael and daughter Anne, holding hands as they approach the bottom of a tree in Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove, continue to charm. A shot of Adams’ grandchildren, Matthew and Sarah, seemingly sharing a private joke at the expense of their adults in the more comfortable surroundings of Carmel, has emotional, as well as photographic, value. (Sarah and Jeanne Falk Adams curated the show).
Adams’ Bohemian roots are represented in two portraits of the Irish political and artistic activist Ella Young, who later joined Halcyon, a “Theosophist intentional community” in San Luis Obispo County, along with shots of other friends, including Ina Coolbrith, California’s first poet laureate and an early mentor of Jack London. And the great painter Maynard Dixon is portrayed at his ease in Tucson.
Although Adams eschewed the notion of art as propaganda, his work demonstrates a social conscience that does not wear its proverbial heart on its sleeve. “Spanish American Youth,’’ taken in Santa Fe in 1930, could just as easily have been shot in the outlying fields of Castroville. A teenager poses against a barbed wire fence, his hair slicked back, belt slightly askew, wearing an air of easy defiance. “Bridge Worker with Thermos and Sandwich,’’ shows sympathy, but not sentimentality, as it depicts a worker taking a break from his labors on the nascent Bay Bridge.
Breakthroughs sometimes happen by accident. Adams worked hard – too hard, some think – on his career, and his popularity has occasionally cost him critical esteem. All the more reason his family is to be commended for rescuing this more private, playful side (there’s a wonderfully campy picture of the young Ansel as “The Jester’’ in the annual Bracebridge dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel). Amidst the obligatory “Great Man” pictures of Adams with Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson and Stewart Udall, there’s a reflective self-portrait of the master himself, cast in the shadows next to his tripod, in Monument Valley in 1958 that would make John Ford proud.
This is a show of indisputable quality that has come to the institution Adams founded at a time when it is desperately needed. Words fail – the eyes, as usual, have it.
PEOPLE, OF AND BY ANSEL ADAMS shows at the Center for Photographic Art, at Sunset Center, San Carlos and Ninth, Carmel. Free; donations appreciated. 625-5181, www.photography.org