In the zone

Ansel Adams at 100

Ansel Adams is the premier photographer of the Wests’ most beautiful natural places.

Ansel Adams is the premier photographer of the Wests’ most beautiful natural places.

After the introductory shows in July, most galleries close down for the month of August to refresh for the upcoming season, but this certainly doesn’t mean you can’t still see good art. If you are an intrepid, courageous type, and can’t live without an art fix, broadening your scope is your best bet this month.

August is the perfect time to visit San Francisco, where not only the fog, but also SFMOMA, can keep you cool while viewing Ansel Adams at 100. Curated by John Szarkowski, who was director of the Department of Photography at MoMA in New York for nearly 30 years, the show commemorates the centennial anniversary of the birth of one of America’s most popular and beloved photographers. For those die-hard Adams enthusiasts, this show is unique and should not be missed.

Szarkowski’s vision of Adams is a personal one; it seeks to demonstrate why Adams is not only a great photographer and avid environmentalist, but also why he is one of the great modern artists of the 20th century. This extensive vision is crucial, as it seems likely that much of the general public’s experience of the prolific Adams has been through the mass marketing of a limited number of images that have appeared over and over again in calendars, posters and cards. These images have not addressed Adams’ full range of artistic clarity and sophistication as an artist. Because of this, many of us may view the artist solely through the lens of the objective photographer or as a Californian environmentalist, which altogether bypass the sensitivity and complexity that an artist, and not a mere photographer, can offer an audience.

Located in a number of galleries within the museum, the exhibition has been intelligently broken down into categories that are clear, descriptive and help give shape to the artworks. The first gallery, titled “Context,” displays pieces of various disciplines by several artists and serves as a device for peer comparison. The next gallery features a selection of works that display the artist’s process of self-education. “Motive” investigates Adams’ need to bring form to his desire to express his vision, which leads to “Reconsideration,” an evaluation of how the artist related to his own work. The last two rooms, “Responsibility” and “Further Possibilities,” discuss the function of such artistic pursuits and what other artists have gleaned from Adams’ oeuvre.

The show’s galleries and environment are pleasant and appealing, with the walls having been washed a deep and soothing gray. However, visitors will want to select their visiting time wisely as the show is slightly cramped—a disservice to the presentation. Unfortunately, there will be times when viewers will be shoulder-to-shoulder, sneaking peaks at the pictures rather than being afforded the space to truly investigate Adams’ mastery. This ultimately detracts from the importance of the photographs as very specific artworks of the highest merit; instead, it begins to cause the viewer to read the images in a more typically journalistic display, rather than allowing them to see the artwork as sublime modernist images like Szarkowski intended.

Even so, spectators will still be impressed; there are stunning pieces in the show. “Rocks, Baker Beach, San Francisco California ca. 1931” is one of them, and although far less majestic and ostentatious than some of the grand Yosemite Valley pictures we have become so accustomed to, it is a wonderful example of Adams’ more abstract compositions and conveys his sensitivity to movements, passages and progression through the investigation of light, shadow and texture, all of which are captured on damp rocks and sand at the ocean’s edge. Szarkowski’s endeavor to re-examine Ansel Adams as modernist artist is a commendable achievement and worth a visit to the Bay Area.