Ansel Adams at Greenwich, London: Three of the wall-sized prints which were produced for the American Trust Company Building

Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

The National Maritime Museum is not the obvious venue for a major exhibition of this seminal photographer of American landscapes. This exhibition features more than a hundred original Ansel Adams prints, including three of the wall-sized prints which were produced for the American Trust Company Building in San Francisco. These three alone justify a visit to the exhibition, add the opportunity to see the detailed and dynamic original prints of some familiar images of Yosemite and this exhibition becomes a must-see despite the disappointment that it is not displayed in an "Art" venue.

The exhibition’s curator, Phillip Prodger of the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, Massachusetts, USA, has chosen to feature images of water in all its forms. My impression is that this selection says just as much about Ansel Adams’s appreciation of light as it does about his appreciation and use of water. The images presented show Ansel Adams had an almost perfect sense of composition even from his first photographs made with a classic but primitive Box Brownie camera. His use of water in his compositions adds an element of  texture and the possibility of reflection which are missing from dry landscapes.

The exhibition shows how Ansel Adams went on to perfect the water component, with what Mike, my companion for the visit, describe as “almost sickeningly perfect compositions”, referring to the pictures of Mirror Lake, Mount Watkins and Marion Lake, Kings Canyon National Park.

The exhibition features a selection of Ansel Adams’ images categorised as Sea and Surf, Monumental, Coast, Rivers, Waterfalls, Rapids, Surface and Texture, Sow and Ice, Geysers, Clouds and Reflections. Also a couple of portraits of  the photographer, including a very early one with a Box Brownie camera. The curatorial point being made is that Ansel Adams’s work represents a significant step in the progress of photography from Pictorialism to Photographic Modernism. This is a considerable simplification neglecting both the reasons why Ansel Adams took individual pictures: some were commissioned by the National Parks, others, his close-up images, his “extracts” from nature, were initially for private satisfaction but eventually were in commercial demand because of his eye for a perfect composition.

Representing Adams in this way neglects his origins as a photographer of record, his commissions to record the West to raise support for the National Parks movement were typical of the urge of the time to record the features of the homeland. Ansel Adams recorded the American West in a similar way to how, in the early twentieth century, the French Bureau des Monuments Historiques produced an inventory with photographs of the archaeological sites in French. The technique for both is initially scientific photography, objective and complete. Ansel Adams’ great contributions to developing this style were to perfect both composition (based on his instinctive talent) and technical methodology of photography.

The exhibition mentions the f64 group and highlights two stunning examples of Ansel Adams’ zone system of exposure (The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1942 and Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California, about 1937). However there is very little mention of manipulation of the image during printing or of chemical modification of the negative, both techniques which Ansel Adams used extensively.

Many of the prints are only full-plate (10"x8") or smaller, which was a surprise and maybe slight disappointment. But the photographic prints do full justice to the image in a way that reproductions never do. The exhibition’s poster is a prime example, the storm in the Tetons looks stunning as a photographic print but on the poster it looks flat and drab. A major advantage of seeing original prints is that the colour of the paper varied widely. Ansel Adams followed the fashion to use cream papers to avoid the scientific look associated with pure white paper. However a large number of images appear to be relatively recent printings on bright white paper in the high contrast style which Ansel Adams preferred towards the end of his career so in many cases we are seeing the photographer’s own later versions of his earlier work.

It's also worth commenting that Ansel Adams's very persuasive compositions are all (except one, of Hawaii) presented in traditional format aspect ratios, either 5x4 or square. It's salutary to remember when composing shots that more radical formats were introduced initially by the movies seeking to offer a  more immersive experience to their audiences: landscapes can be very effective even in a square frame.

Update 10th February 2012

Revisiting the exhibition Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea with an American photographer friend, a convinced fan and collector of vintage Ansel Adams prints, opened some more questions.

Was Ansel Adams simply the photographer who was in the right place at the right time with the right equipment?

Why are Ansel Adams' colour photographs relatively unremarkable whereas other renowned photographers who grew up in the monochrome era, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, were more successful with colour materials?

What was the influence which provoked Ansel Adams’ interest in what he called “extracts”, meaning photographs of close detail of natural scenes?

There weren’t any simple answers supplied by the photographs exhibited nor the relatively simplistic commentaries provided. However we did enjoy some interesting discussions over coffee, despite the resemblance of the cafeteria at the Royal Maritime Museum to the kiddie hell-hole in the Yosemite Valley that is Camp Curry in the modern day National Park.

Seeing the prints again also threw some light on Ansel Adams’ exposure technique, in particular the increased sparkle he wrought from the negative emulsions by using the zone system of exposure which devised.

I also started to notice his technique of composition of offsetting textures, water with rock, rusting iron with stone, surf froth with clouds and so on.

Seeing a large original and authentic print of Ansel Adams’ renowned image of  “Yosemite: Clearing Winter Snow” and comparing with the printing and dodging diagram in one of the books showed just how much of this photograph was constructed in the darkroom. And the result, prominently displayed, was a visual delight, showing how far Ansel Adams had developed his craft and made it an art. So much so that a print of that image recently sold for about as much as the valuation on my house!

So worth a second trip, both to further analyse and deconstruct but equally to enjoy these images that in some ways resemble a photographic trip to the Garden of Eden. But I think I enjoy more the photographs my own Father took with his 35mm Leica when we visited Yosemite in the snow, the first weekend the Valley was open to automobiles in May 1959.


The exhibition Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea is organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts, USA with support by David H. Arrington and the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona and continues at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London until 28th April 2013. There are currently no queues.