Ansel Adams show at MMA is an aesthetic – and historic – treasure trove.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
There is no way of getting around the work of Ansel Adams in American photography, nor should there be.
His reputation stands as steadfast as the iconic rendering of Half Dome in Yosemite, which helped permanently emblazon him in the consciousness of those who appreciated both fine art and natural wonders.
But his range has always been more subtle than the iconic status which he has been granted – all the more reason to celebrate the Monterey Museum of Art’s opening this week of a new exhibition, Ansel Adams: Portrait of America, composed of 72 prints from his personally compiled “museum set,” selected by Adams in 1978 as examples of his greatest works, now on loan to MMA through the generosity of Adams’ daughter, Anne Adams Helms.
The scope ranges from the famed Half Dome portrait to “Moonrise at Hernandez, New Mexico” to the 1967 “Cypress and Fog,” shot in Pebble Beach. It also includes a 1937 portrait of an uncharacteristically playful Georgia O’Keefe, with Orville Cox at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona; a 1944 image of Adam’s mentor, Alfred Stieglitz; and many other gorgeously detailed, lovingly executed wonders.
“These were all photographs Ansel chose as being his most significant,” Anne Adams Helms says. “In his early seventies, after he stopped making prints for individual sale, Ansel was hoping museums would develop serious photography collections. Most hadn’t even started to look at photography as a fine art, so he thought if he developed sets that would only go to museums, educational institutions or philanthropists who had a record of donating to museums, it would help the effort to build [such] collections.”
Helms says the Portrait of America exhibition title is fitting “because it does cover more than California and the West. Besides the landscapes, it’s got some wonderful portraits, still lifes and renderings of architectural details.”
Her personal favorite? “I grew up in Yosemite, so those images really speak to me,” she says. “There’s a very delicate shot of dogwood blossoms in the misty rain at Tenaya Creek.” She is also fond of the O’Keefe/Cox shot.
“Everyone thinks of [O’Keefe] as so severe, but in this one she looks quite flirtatious,” she laughs.
MMA Executive Director E. Michael Whittington says Portrait of America is probably the most ambitious show the museum has mounted during his tenure, in addition to likely being one of its biggest draws.
“Every image is extraordinary,” Whittington says, calling Adams “one of the quintessential American artists. There’s a reason his images have been championed by organizations like the Sierra Club – they raised environmental awareness to the status it has today. He and Edward Weston were also revolutionaries in American photography, elevating it from an imitation of painting to an art form in itself.”
MMA Chief Curator Marcelle Polednik says the show differs from some other recent Adams exhibitions, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Adams-O’Keefe show last year, because it “allows the public to focus on Adams, specifically, not juxtaposing him with someone else. To see so many iconic images in one place is extraordinary. It’s like seeing a great Picasso exhibition. You see more than you would if you went to the local museum and just saw one or two paintings.”
Although some doubters, including Adams’ biographer and former assistant Mary Street Alinder, have questioned the amount of time and energy he devoted to the museum set in later years, the new exhibition serves as testimony to the grandeur of his achievement.
Meanwhile, the Monterey County community is maintaining its reputation as a photographic center with two additional exhibitions.
The Weston Gallery celebrates its 35th anniversary through Aug. 14 with a show featuring works by Adams, Steiglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Edward and Brett Weston, and Andre Kertesz. And John Sexton, one of Adams’ former assistants, is having a retrospective at the Center for Photographic Art, opening July 10, through Aug. 27.
But the MMA show stands above the rest, as it should. Bridging the gap between art and commerce, Adams’ success in no way diminished his art. Seeing familiar images, along with less-known ones, with fresh eyes, is a compelling coda to an astonishing career.