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By Elin Spring
When you take in the pristine grandeur of an Ansel Adams landscape, perhaps “revolutionary” is not the first word that comes to mind. Well, the exhilarating new MFA, Boston show Ansel Adams In Our Time should change your mind about that. By considering not only Adams’ photographic forebears, but the contemporary artists he continues to influence, this exhibit illuminates just how prescient and pertinent Adams remains today. Featuring nearly 200 works, split almost evenly between Ansel Adams and work by other photographers, this animated and enlightening show will be on view only through February 24th, 2019.
Each of the eight galleries presents renowned and rare works by Ansel Adams drawn from the MFA’s Lane Collection, infused with revelations in engaging text and videos from Lane Curator of Photographs Karen Haas and Curatorial Research Associate James Leighton. Landscapes by 19th century predecessors such as Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge offer rich historic context for Adams’ pictures. Even so, the shining achievement of this exhibit has to be the inspired integration of work by over twenty contemporary photographers, such as resident Bostonians Laura McPhee, Abelardo Morell, Stephen Tourlentes and Sharon Harper. Never has Ansel Adams been contextualized like this and never has his work seemed more meaningful.
Did you know that when Adams began, he emulated the warm-toned, romantic pictorialist images of 1860’s California land surveyors like Carleton Watkins? Sometimes, he even re-created the exact view and you’ll see a large side-by-side example on view in the first gallery. Compare them to a neighboring photograph by contemporary photographers Mark Klett & Byron Wolfe, who go so far as to insert segments of both Watkins’ and Adams’ black and white images into their panoramic color print in a stunningly mindful contrast of “then and now.”
An analogous “conversation” takes place between a grid of fifteen of Adams’ early, lush and exalting 8”x 10” contact prints and a grid of similarly sized B&W prints by Mark Ruwedel depicting past incursions carved into the land for railways, “where,” Ruwedel states, “the land reveals itself as being both an agent of change and a field of human endeavor.” The contrast between constant natural geological evolution and the alarming environmental changes within our lifetime is artfully inferred in Sharon Harper’s color “portrait” of a boulder created by rockfall and presented with a vignette reminiscent of 19th century stereo cards. This is just within the first two rooms, the start of a truly remarkable experience.
Subsequent galleries explore Adams’ photographic transition into modernism, adopting infinite focus and sweeping panoramas with dramatic skies that have made images like “Clearing Winter Storm” (feature image) and “Moonrise” (above) iconic. This change parallels the awakening of Adams’ environmental activism, championing the Sierra Club and popularizing the National Park Service through strategic sales of his prints to a burgeoning tourist population. Lesser known images of his native San Francisco are accompanied by spectacular “past and present” panoramas of the city by Eadweard Muybridge and Mark Klett. Adams’ black and white view across San Francisco Bay is paired with four glorious color prints from the same vantage point by Richard Misrach.
Photographs that Adams made for a commissioned book on the Taos Pueblo are accompanied by Navajo Will Wilson’s contemporary tintype portraits and David Emitt Adams’ tintype landscapes printed on rusty cans discarded in the desert. Together, these works pique questions about our cultural and environmental impingement on native lands. Throughout the subsequent galleries, Adams’ activism takes many forms, from his famous visions of our national parks in dramatic sweeps and serene soliloquies to the cultural advocacy of his startling photographs of Japanese-Americans interned at Manzanar during WWII.
My favorite aspect of this provocative exhibit is how Adams’ photographs from decades past – which remain dazzling in their own right – continue to fertilize the contemporary imagination. One example is Adams’ moody B&W “The Tetons and Snake River” which neighbors Abelardo Morell’s similar viewpoint made with a Tent-Camera on the ground. It is an expansive, textural color image whose layers integrate historical and current visions.
Others like Laura McPhee draw comparison to the once natural and restorative forest fires that now rage out of control in her field of summer flora reclaiming a devastated forest floor. Oil rigs peppering the dark background of a pondering statuary by Adams are contemporized in Mitch Epstein’s artificially irrigated desert golf course, presumably financed by the wind farm beyond.
Whether it is Trevor Paglan’s surveillance drone miniaturized against a radiant sky, Stephen Tourlentes’ serene nocturnal desert set against a horizon shimmering with prison lights, or Meghann Riepenhoff’s luscious cyanotypes created in a warming, debris-strewn ocean, the contemporary photographers in this exhibit truly echo Ansel Adams in Our Time. Their stirring images adopt a similar mission of stewardship, today serving not only as beacons of beauty but as harbingers of disturbing global changes.
For more information about this exhibit, go to: https://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/ansel-adams-in-our-time