Sunday 7 April 2013

Call of the Land: a winding river (Ansel Adams, and the Landmark Exhibition)


 Edward Burtynsky: Nickel Tailings no.34

This Easter break, I have managed to see two exhibitions on the theme of landscape, both of which finish towards the end of this month.
They are worth a quick mention, although both have been on for a while, in case like me you have a tendency to make a note of an exhibition you want to visit, only to find you nearly leave it too late. Or, worse, you miss the deadline and can only kick yourself for being so stupid.

I am glad I did not miss "Landmark: the Fields of Photography" at Somerset House, until 28 April (free) and the big one, "Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea" at the National Maritime Musem, Greenwich, also until 28 April (full adult price £7). The first is a wide-ranging, large, and eclectic group of landscapes, representing photographers from many countries. Which, considering the great venue, and the non-existent entry free, is a good place to start. From Lee Friedlander, to Simon Roberts, Amy Stein, to Toshio Shibata, to Susan Evans (to name but a very few). From the sublime to the ridiculous, from representative to dreamworld from narrative to stark warning about the damage suffered by our planet, by us. It sounds a cliché, but there is probably something for everyone, although, inevitably, not "everyone" is represented (Fay Godwin, sadly, is notable by absence). One of my own favourites is My Philadephia 1996, by Ray Metzkera (silver gelatin print), a sombre but brightly side-lit composition of tree branches in front of (I believe) an apartment block, so the tree filled the page and the evidence of human presence was duskily felt, more than seen, behind it, almost obscured. Another magical little gem is Self-Portrait with Swan, Foster's Pond 1999, by Arno Minkkinen (silver gelatin print). But there are many inspiring widely differing photographs.

There are many humans in the landscapes of "Landmark", and many trails and traces of the human race, including in a negative way, but also in a more positive metaphysical sense. There are no such directly visible traces of humanity in Ansel Adams' works, only in the all- present eye and being of the photographer, whose unseen presence gives interpretation and mood to the scene, and his emotional response at that particular moment, which, Adams believed, we the viewer can either "get" or not. (Whether we "get" it or not is not his responsibility, or even his concern). Although a concern with environmental issues was also, of course, a prime motivating factor for Adams. 

Ansel Adams: The Tetons and the Snake River, 
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming 1942

A confession: I've always been a bit wary of the work of Ansel Adams, a bit on the fence. I'm not sure why. Possibly simply because so very much is made of his work, and in a technical sense, so very much emulated. I haven't been sure about all that. Or that I went along with the f/64 crowd, possibly not liking at all the idea that as much as possible of a scene should be in focus, or connecting with the seeming obsession with craft, the nitpicking over separation of tones. Not, may I add, that I do not respect the role of the craftsperson, quite the reverse, or that I am not particular in my own work, because I am, and that itself warms me to Adams. I also found a lot of his work was different from my narrow-minded view of it, and I loved his more abstract and especially, close work, which he himself termed 'extracts' rather than 'abstracts' (a differentiation I like a great deal). In any case, I liked pretty much all of it.

I don't want to say much about Adams' work, so very much has been said already. Suffice it to say that no, I will not and would probably never be able to make pictures like AA, but that is irrelevant. I was completely blown away by his work. I found the experience of seeing his photographic prints, all sizes, and so very close, quite emotional, and certainly uplifting. Perhaps because I am right now looking over landscape photos of my own that I have made in recent years. Made, often in a casual way, as I have never really thought of myself as a landscape photographer. And that I am beginning to feel the loss of the family connection with East Anglia where most of these photos were made. I don't know why I have not considered myself a landscape photographer, as the land has always been of utmost importance to me, and I have always included a concern and preoccupation with it in whatever I've been doing, the writers and books I have chosen to study, the essays I have written at Uni, years ago, the writing I have toyed with in the past. And of course, I have included a preoccupation with landscape in my photography. In fact, the name of this blog itself refers amongst other things to landscape, and and how we define ourselves within it.

Now I have to reflect where that preoccupation has already taken me, and where it will lead.

So I am including one of my own offerings from 2008, which I was oddly put in mind of when I saw the above two photographs. This is not to put myself in the same category as some of the greats, it is more to do with the subject matter. A winding river, a concern for the environment in which it is placed. Concern and fear of further loss is a part of any landscape photography now, whether explicit or not, and Adams was a pioneer as far as that goes. 

I add my photo simply as a footnote to myself to remember that, and also to remember a little pile of photos that, as yet, I have somewhat neglected. 

But Ansel Adams can have the last word:

 “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. 
 When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence”
                                                                                  Ansel Adams