Reno, NV 89501
It’s hard to go wrong if you put a bunch of Ansel Adams pieces on the walls. Here’s the man who ranks among the likes of Thomas Cole, Henry David Thoreau, Albert Bierstadt and John Muir in creating the ideal American vision of our frontier. Here also is the embodiment of the American myth of the rugged individual, striking out into nature—that monstrous, beautiful, untamed sublime—in pursuit of his inspiration and his passion. He lobbied for the preservation of the landscapes he photographed, served on the board of directors of the Sierra Club, and even photographed for the Interior Department. And his specter looms large in the field of photography: a founding member of the Group f/64 with Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston, an advocate for photographic modernism and “straight photography,” a founder of Aperture magazine with Minor White and Dorothea Lange, and the author of several technical books on the subject. And his pictures are pretty, too.
Ansel Adams: Distance and Detail, through Aug. 14 at Nevada Museum of Art, displays 30 of the photographer’s prints from the Bank of America collection. It’s part of the bank’s effort to get its collection out and about in support of institutions like NMA. (And though this program was started a year before the financial collapse, it might also help us to hate the bank a little less. Wink.)
On view are works covering 45 years of the artist’s career, from an early church facade in the New Mexican desert to a late tree stump surrounded by Washington mist. It’s not the greatest collection of Adams’ work ever, seeming to focus more on calendar stock than the man’s wider output, but such was the quality of that output that even a weak grouping offers plenty to appreciate.
“Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941) and “Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, California” (1944) are two of Adams’ most iconic images, both found here accompanied by written glimpses into his process. On another wall you’ll find “Orchard, Early Spring Near Stanford University” (1963), a beautiful, subtle study of crossing lines of ruts and trees amidst flecks of white blossoms receding into shallow space. And still further on is “El Capitan, Sunrise, Winter” (1968), in which a gauze of clouds hangs low about the rocky monolith, lit and distant and embodying the mystical, fantastic chimera of the national parks.
The show’s title, Distance and Detail, is meant to draw attention to Adams’ predilection for both vastness and minutiae, but vastness is plainly the dominant theme. Despite examples of each, the artist’s pursuits of architecture, formalism, even those botanical studies that are meant to represent the Detail all seem relegated to a minor role. Just a single example, “Boards and Thistles, San Francisco” (1932) represents Adams’ great series of more abstract images which he drew from both man-made and natural structures. And even though “Trailside, Near Juneau, Alaska” (1948) opens the show, it’s a little flimsier than most. Still, there is something here for everyone, be they outdoorsmen or modernists or grandmothers; it’s just a bit of a circumscribed view.
Closing the exhibition is a print called “Mudhills, Arizona, 1947,” printed in 1970. It’s the antithesis of an ideal landscape, this undulating mass of crackled earth filling the frame as though nothing else lay beyond. But the presentation of this presumably dull and perhaps even ugly scene is perhaps the exhibition’s greatest testament to Adams’ genius, for from mud he’s given us a simple, ample, undeniable beauty that glows before our eyes.