On one of these dog days of summer, treat yourself with a refreshing visit to the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, for a dip into the featured exhibition: Ansel Adams: At The Water’s Edge.
Even if you think you know all about Ansel Adams (1902-1984), one of photography’s most familiar and reproduced artists, it’s likely that at least a few of the 100 or so images assembled by Curator of Photography Phillip Prodger will surprise you with something new. That’s because Adams is regarded primarily as a western landscape artist. His images of Yosemite and Big Sur are iconic. But he visited New England several times and the exhibition includes his rarely seen pictures of this region. Except for his home state of California, it’s the only coastline he ever photographed.
Prodger points out that “throughout his life, Adams was drawn to the water for its visual potential, exploring where elemental forces meet… As an innovative Modernist, he explored seriality, motion, and time, using a range of techniques to capture a definitively fluid and elusive substance.”
His fascination with water may be traced to his childhood. Adams grew up in a house overlooking San Francisco Bay. His favorite photograph, which is in the exhibition, shows dramatic cloud formations over the bay before the bridge was built. He hung it over his desk. And, the first picture he may have taken is of water. When he was 14-years-old, an almost daily visitor to the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair, he photographed a pool at the Panama Pacific Exhibition. That image, too, is at PEM.
The PEM exhibition includes images from public and private collections. Some have never been shown publicly before. They range from a 3 X 5-inch print to a large format 10 X 12-foot mural. Like Monet and his haystacks, Adams often photographed a subject – a waterfall, a mountain, etc. – at different times of the day, from different perspectives, in different kinds of weather. Then he’d retreat to his home darkroom and work with the negative until he achieved the effect he desired. “Every so often I emerge,” the environmentalist/photographer wrote in his autobiography, “reaffirm the splendor of the world, then return to the caverns of my particular creativity.”
In contrast to early photographers who aspired to achieve a painterly effect with soft images, Adams strived for sharp black-and-white images that we now call “modernistic.” He famously said, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” Labels beside his photographs reveal his keen thought process.
“Ansel Adams At The Water’s Edge” will be at PEM through October 8.
Photo: Barnacles, Cape Cod, 1938; Photograph by Ansel Adams; Collection Center for
Creative Photography, The University of Arizona; ©2011 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.