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Art Review

Find Paradise Through the Lens of Ansel Adams Photographs On Display at Museum of Fine Arts

By W. Victoria Lee

Ansel Adams Exhibit

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Through Dec. 31, 2005

Mon., Tues., Sat., and Sun. 10 a.m.–3:30 p.m.

Wed.–Fri. 10 a.m.–8:30 p.m.

Adults: $22; Seniors: $20; Students: free

Audio Guide $6

A blooming rose on a heavily textured driftwood.

Such an unlikely combination brings out an unexpected tenderness and a moment of serenity not easily experienced in everyday life. This is a photograph taken by one of the most beloved American photographers, Ansel Adams. You’ve probably seen this piece, entitled “Rose and Driftwood,” on a calendar, a postcard, or even a coffee mug. Now experience it up close and personal at the Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Ansel Adams (1902–1984) was not born a photographer. The only child of an affluent family, the home-schooled Adams was shy and found sole companionship in music and nature. A native of San Francisco, Adams was an avid hiker and joined the Sierra Club at an young age. The Yosemite Sierra became his second home. Amid the mountains and forests, Adams discovered a paradise and met life-long friends, as well as his wife, Virginia Best.

Adams fell upon photography accidentally when his parents gave him a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie, which had just come into fashion and affordability, to document his hiking trips. The rest was history. However, Adams’ distinct style was not an overnight development. From the earliest “Pictorial” photographs, whose blurry images and soft edges mimic an impressionist painting; to the mature, practically unmanipulated works done a la “straight photography,” Adams was influenced by a circle of photographer friends, including Alfred Stieglitz. The exhibit at the MFA, drawn from the world’s largest private collection of the photographer’s works, shows the artistic progression of this American icon.

Covering works form the 1920s up to Adams’ death, the exhibit showcases both the well-known works and the lesser-seen. Hanging side by side are images of the American West, Southwest, as well as some of the East. Among the familiar pictures of precipices and mountain peaks lie the rare pieces of portraits and cityscapes. But regardless of the subjects of the photographs, the pieces are not merely precise and beautiful recordings of the land and its people; they are also powerful captures of feelings. All it takes to release the emotion is to stand in front of the photographs.

Although all of Adams’ works are in black and white, the tonality and choice of angles can speak loudly and clearly by themselves. Armed with a light meter and knowledge of dodging and burning techniques, Adams did not record with a camera; he created with light. There was little need to manipulate the subject or anything else. Adams’ lens unleashed in the two-dimensional realm the splendor, majesty, and awe that sometimes can only be felt through physical encounters with nature. Colors would be superfluous here; anyone with sight can see the natural environment, but it is the experience of nature that only Adams was able to recreate on paper.

Recreating may be an understatement, as among the masterpieces are many that not only recreated but also perpetuated the fleeting moments of nature’s beauty. An example would be “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941), a fortuitous capture of the instant when the sun and the moon exchange places in the sky. The day this photograph was taken, recalled Adams’ son, Michael, who was sometimes his father’s non-technical assistant, Adams was not able to find his light meter and therefore could not precisely calculate the exposure time. Fortunately, he was able to remember the luminance of the moon and perform a quick mental calculation. As the shutter was released the sun went below the horizon. The one and only take of this rare moment then became one of Adams’ most beloved images.

Adams’ capture of the still landscape proved to be equally moving. A gelatin silver print of aspens at the exhibit is exemplary of the enchanting eloquence Adams’ photographs reveal. The trunks of a group of aspens are prominently picked out against the darker woods behind. A mysterious ambience seems to veil the picture, yet at the same time a spiritual sense of serenity is inevitably evoked. One cannot help but be moved, if not captivated. Although most of the prints in the exhibit are not large enough to saturate the viewers’ eyes, the emotional immersion prompted by the images is nonetheless overwhelming.

In addition to photographs, the exhibit featured footage of Adams’ mountain climbing shot by Virginia Best, some cameras of his time, a few books he published, and a short video about Adams’ personal life and work environment. The audio guide, available for six dollars, features Adams’ reflections of his own work, as well as interviews and commentaries by Michael Adams, his son, and the collector, Sandra B. Lane, who has had the pleasure of meeting Adams in person.

This exhibit is on display through Dec. 31, 2005. For more information, go to the Screen— By The Tech Arts Staff —