Photography from the Mountains to the Sea takes a historical overview of Ansel Adams long-standing interest in photographing water, particularly around the Yosemite National Park in California – an area known for its cliffs and water-falls. The exhibition which has toured from the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts is suitably located within the Maritime Museum in Greenwich. At the weekend, particularly busy with markets, pubs and cafes full with day-trippers visiting the newly renovated Cutty Sark by the river – the Ansel Adams show feels particularly still. In these photographs, the water and landscape is not populated by boats, ports, the bustle of industry and tourism, it is captured unspoilt as if discovered by Adams for the first time.

The photographs shown here, mostly gelatin silver prints printed by the artist Adams himself,  are loosely grouped  thematically within the downstairs gallery space in the museum – Beginnings-Pictorialism vs Modernism, Sea and Surf-Time and Motion, Coast, Monumental- The American Trust murals, Rivers, Waterfalls, Rapids, Surface and Texture, Snow and Ice, Geysers, Cloud and Reflections.

Beginnings-Pictorialism vs. Modernism exhibits some of Adams earliest works – Panama-Pacific Exposition, San Francisco (also called Portals of the Past) was taken when Adams was just 13 years old. The image, showing a pavilion (the Palace of Fine Arts) reflected in a pool of water behind a tree was taken at the San Francisco World’s Fair. According to the guide, Adams had found it difficult to settle in school and so his father had bought him a season ticket to the Fair with a view to continuing his education in other ways, if only every parent was this accommodating!. The Fair had been staged to both celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal and also to showcase San Francisco’s recovery from 1906’s devastating earthquake and featured a vast array of art, architecture and industry from around the world.

Adam’s first accompanied his parents on vacation to Yosemite a year later when he was just 14. His parents bought him a Kodak Box Brownie camera and there are several images from this very formative Yosemite period on display. Lake Washburn, Yosemite (circa 1918) taken on what was to become one of Adams favourite sites, up on the High Sierra Loop. Another from this time, China Beach (1919) taken in the Sea Cliff area of San Francisco is an example of Adams experimenting with the earlier pictorial style. During this time, an important shift was occurring in the theory and debates surrounding photography. Previously, many photographers had been working in a way that was loosely called Pictorialism, using methods such as soft-focus and coloured emulsions to evoke atmosphere and mood, often related to literature and mythology, instead of working with the straight mechanical process. During the early 1900’s a new style, Modernism, was developing which sought to shed all these romantic connotations and ‘let the camera speak’. China Beach is a good example of these older methods in its use of soft toned paper and the narrative image of a lone sailing ship at sunset. This was to be one of very few images, however, that Adams would make in this style. After making the photograph Diamond Cascade, Yosemite National Park (1920) Adams wrote to his father saying that this image represented a new direction in his work and that he wanted to somehow ‘capture the spirit of the little cascade’.  This time the camera was to do the talking. Adams would go on to reject Pictorialism and embrace Photographic Modernism, however many of the stylistic alterations in mood and composition would remain present in his work and Adams would still labour over and alter the photographs during processing. The last gallery at the Maritime Museum shows a video interview with the artist and delves into the mechanics of his picture taking processes. Often Adams would print the same negative again and again in order to achieve the exact tones and colours of the landscape he wanted, he says he would know what the photograph would look like before he took it, that he would “visualise” the image. He describes this mechanical process as “the manipulation of values” within the camera to get a desired effect (for example the use of f-stop 64 – the smallest aperture – to achieve sharp-focus). Contradictorily, water is an interesting subject in terms of how Adams talks about his work as it does have variability that often cannot be predicted, the constant movement and flow would mean that there was always a slight surprise in the processing of the negative.

A thorough knowledge of the landscape around him was very important, knowing when to take the photograph, what season and what time of day to make the photograph “before the feeling disappeared”. In the resulting images, predominately of the landscape, this manipulation results in mountains which are blacker than the sky, water that looks too deep to be probable. This could perhaps be termed Mechanical Pictorialism rather than acting as a compete rejection of the Pictorialist values.

Adams in this interview seems charmingly gleeful about the career he has ended up with and recounts how his pictures from his early years, before around 1927, he saw as “visual diaries” not so much as photographs in their own right. In 1927 he met the photographer Paul Strand and seeing Strand’s negatives turned out to be the key moment in which he side-lined his previous career as a concert pianist and turned full-time time to making photographs. This documentary, made for the 1983 BBC Master Photographers series can be found in full on YouTube (a link is provided at the end of this article).

The largest prints exhibited in Photography from the Mountains to the Sea are the American Trust Murals. These images, made by hanging large sheets of unexposed photographic paper and then projecting light from an enlarger, are made from several sheets of paper. The size of commercial paper needed to make these landscapes (Point Lobos in Monterey, Gravel Bars on the American River and Whalers Cove at Carmel Mission) was not available at the time and there is a magical hand-made quality to the images. You can see the joins where the perfect landscape is slightly peeling away from itself at the paper joins. These images are ‘egg-yolk’ brown, a tone which Adams has said makes the images last longer and the effect is like sepia, the images fading or seeping back into themselves. These epic landscape scenes, although making up the main bulk of the exhibition, have an interesting counterpart in the smallest and perhaps most surprising photographs that make up the Surface and Texture section. Here submerged trees (Slide Lake, Teton), Logs, Sea Anemones and Seaweed (like a star-nosed mole poking out of a rock, fat with liquid and life) are captured in detail. These show a different kind of landscape, a different layer. These bits of natural flora and fauna are the minutiae that build up the larger sweeping landscapes.

The Ansel Adams gallery in Yosemite is a good resource to find biographical information on Adams and his involvement with Yosemite which is important in understanding that Adams was not a tourist – Yosemite was home. In 1901, a landscape painter and political cartoonist named Henry Best visited Yosemite to camp and paint. During his time there he met and fell in love with Anne Rippey, who worked as an assistant in the photography studio in the valley and they married that same summer. The two went on to open their own photography studio in Yosemite and had a daughter, Virginia, in 1904. Ansel Adams, although coming to Yosemite first for family holidays would later return here to work in 1920. He was also, during this period, busy establishing his photography career with the publication of his first portfolio Parmelian Prints of the High Sierra (Marion Lake, Kings Canyon National Park, California from 1925 is on show in this exhibition). Adams began to visit the Best’s photography studio regularly, married Virginia in 1928 and the couple would go on to live between San Francisco and Yosemite for several years before settling in Yosemite permanently.

Even after the artist’s death in 1984, Adams continues to define the image of how we see Yosemite and this region of America. The relationship between the exhibition and tourism is clear, the exhibition guide is sponsored by Visit California and the back of the guide serves as almost a travel guide to this area.  Somehow, with Adams, this relationship seems appropriate.  Adams was a resident, a fan, an advocate and active conservationist for this area.  One of the reason his photographs still have such a deep resonance is that they represent, not only the majestic beauty of nature, but a knowledgeable and most importantly, enduring, relationship with the landscape.

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AuthorSacha Waldron