Ansel Adams (1902-1984) had a lifelong fascination with water. His photographs capture the vast landscapes of North America, lakes and rivers, huge expanses of rock and the endless rows of firs growing upon their slopes. It is a stark contrast to the perpetually gloomy skies of London, and the rows of red brick chimneys decorating its horizons.
The earliest photographs at the exhibit, now showing at the National Maritime Museum, Photography from the Mountains to the Sea, date from Adams’s early teens; the latest span all the way to the ‘70s. Despite such a long window in time, the collection is surprisingly inert. Of course, the quality of the works change; the cameras and techniques become more sophisticated and, of course, so does the expertise of the photographer. Yet, the landscapes themselves change very little.
Barring corporate intervention, the snaking rivers which Adams photographed in the mid-‘30s remain unchanged today. The rocks licked by the waves in his ‘Surf Sequence’ (1940) will likely not have eroded an inch since they were captured on film. Such a sense of permanence is, on one hand, comforting, but on the other it makes the rapid change of our own lives frightening.
The environmental subtext (Adams was outspoken for the cause) comes through most powerfully, and perhaps unintentionally, through the composition of the American Trust murals. These are enormous prints, taking up space from floor to ceiling: sepia prints of breath taking landscapes, photographed from the tallest vantage points. You can almost smell the pine and feel the breeze; all from the safety of a cement and glass building, surrounded by immaculately manicured shrubs in the middle of the industrial megapolis that is London. Here, people seem more than ever to be personified as collectors, destroying all that is free and beautiful for our own convenience, then bottling and distilling the remnants for admiration in the safety of our artificial communes.
The exhibition is a technical and visual inspiration. The photographs themselves, although visually stunning, may not phase the average modern viewer; we have become spoiled by Photoshop and CGI. Yet there is a sense of timelessness evoked here, a reminder of the beauty which transfixed and inspired us in days lost, and will continue to do so in days to come. To say that Ansel Adams’s photographs depict only seas and mountains would be a gross understatement.
Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea is showing until Sunday 28 April at:
National Maritime Museum
Image: ‘Clearing Winter Storm’, Yosemite National Park, California, about 1937 Photograph by Ansel Adams courtesy of David H. Arrington