Masterpiece" is a superlative that is used more often than it should be, as are words like "visionary" (either as a noun or an adjective) and "genius." There are many stunning, moving, charming, exciting, wonderfully evocative and human examples of photographic art in "Radical Vision: The Revolution in American Photography," which opened last month in the Fred Beans Gallery at the Michener Museum. Visitors strolling through the carnival of imagery shot by the photographers gathered under that somewhat problematic title might even be moved to apply the abovementioned superlatives to this or that artist or work at least until they go downstairs to the exhibit in the Wachovia Gallery, "Ansel Adams: Celebration of Genius," which opened this past Saturday. There's nothing problematic about that title, not when every wall displays works of unquestionable genius, visionary works, works that can be called "masterpieces" without a second thought.
"Works" is the right word for the massive visions of Ansel Adams. Most of the photographs in the other exhibit, however, are slice-of-life impressions of American scenes, people and places, landscapes and cityscapes (mostly in New York, a photographer's dream). A week ago, Adams held less interest for me than Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, and William Klein, not to mention Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, among others in "Radical Vision." One reason may be that my sense of his style was limited to terms like those applied in the introductory commentary for the "Radical Vision" show, which defines those photographers according to the way they challenged "the dominance of the sharply focused, pristinely beautiful print (championed by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston)." That sounded about right to me until I walked into the Ansel Adams show and realized that I had never really "seen" what this great artist was all about.
Of course it helps to take in his work up close or, rather, to be taken into it (as one critic said, "You can lose yourself in an Ansel Adams sky"), with his use of space relatively unrestricted and the levels and layers of detail clearly defined. What makes Adams intimidating, even unsettling, is knowing that the images you're seeing actually pertain to objects in the real world, not painted versions of it by a master like CÚzanne. But the more you look, the more you think Adams has painted them, that somehow, through sheer devotion to his art and all the technical challenges and opportunities it presents, he's taken photography into some other realm.
Upstairs you stand admiring this or that "radical vision," amused, excited, repelled, attracted, but it's unlikely any one image will hold you for more than a minute. With the greatest of Adams's works, you can't begin to fathom all there is to see and wonder at in a minute, and even if you could, you'd still find it hard to stop staring. My enthusiasm will probably seem naive to anyone who already knows Ansel Adams. And I'll admit that the masterpiece I spent the most time gaping at is the one he himself has said is his most "popular" work. In his book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, he simply refers to it as Moonrise. At the Michener, it's Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, the most amazing of several moonrise studies on display. I keep avoiding the word "photograph" because it seems inadequate. We need a better, larger word, except that part of the excitement of Adams is the sense that language falls short of these visions. You have to think that music alone could come close to communicating what's going on so complexly and intricately right before your eyes. But then maybe you already know (I didn't) that Adams was a classically trained pianist who was well aware of the "tonality" in his application of light and shadow and who has admitted that the discipline he learned as a musician had a great deal to do with the rigorous method behind the creation of his images. His involvement in music has also influenced the terminology he employs for his art when he compares the negative to the score and the finished print to the conductor's interpretation of it.
I considered using his best-known Moonrise to accompany this review, but decided against it for the same reason I was reluctant to reproduce any of his most astonishing prints. They have to be seen to be believed. Even the most painstaking, high-quality reproduction in book form doesn't do them justice. I decided to use Antelope House Ruin because I think it transcends the limitations of newsprint at least well enough to suggest what I mean when I say Adams is a visionary.
On the other hand, any number of works from "Radical Vision" could have been used to accompany this review. Although much of the quality would be lost, you would still get a fair idea of what you can expect to see: grotesques out of Flannery O'Connor, seedy Skid Row characters or lower middle-class strivers and losers in a frequently gross, sleazy mainstream America: the mirror held up to human dignity and human folly. As fine as Allen Ginsberg's photographs are (with the added benefit of the poet's handwritten commentaries), what makes them special is the identity of the subjects: the fact that it's Neal Cassady (alias Dean Moriarity) and his girlfriend under a San Francisco movie marquee; that it's Jack Kerouac smoking a cigarette against an East Village building; and that it's William Burroughs eyeing you out of a haze, pensive and mysterious, el hombre invisible. The tough teens in Bruce Davidson's photographs of Brooklyn gangs beg for Reginald Marsh or Isabel Bishop to come paint them. The girl fixing her hair in front of a cigarette machine mirror is wonderful enough as she appears here, and so is another girl, beautiful with attitude as she turns a cold eye on Mr. Davidson. Both these images are worthy of great art. But they aren't there yet. They're like an outline for it. The photographer hasn't taken them that far: he hasn't "painted" them.
Catching the Vision
We've all at one time or another been impressed by something in nature worthy of the word "vision," whether it was a particularly spectacular sunset or starry sky or landscape in a certain light or a stunningly vast view. We may have thought, "If I only had a camera," even knowing it would be futile.
When Ansel Adams once spoke of "chance favoring the prepared mind," he was thinking of what happened in New Mexico one late afternoon in October of 1941 as he was driving back to Santa Fe after a disappointing day's work and came upon a vision waiting to be captured. The instant he saw how the light was hitting the crosses and tombstones in a smalltown cemetery under a vast cloud-draped sky with a new moon in it, he knew, as he says in Examples, that it was "an extraordinary situation an inevitable photograph!" So he slammed on the brakes ("almost ditched the car") and rushed to set up his 8 x 10 camera. He knew what he wanted, what he'd seen, and how little time he had before the light moved on. After struggling to change components on his triple-convertible lens, he couldn't find his exposure meter. He was, as he puts it, "at a loss" when he suddenly realized he knew the luminance of the moon. Sounds a bit mad, doesn't it? Could anyone but a lunatic or a genius think he knew the luminance of the moon? Adams did; he knew that it was 250 candles-per-square-foot. And when he released the shutter, he knew he'd caught himself "an unusual photograph." He tried to catch it again, to get a duplicate negative, but before he could make the adjustment, the sunlight had moved beyond the white crosses in the foreground of the image he'd visualized.
That was only the beginning of the process that brought the scene from that first sighting to a finished and yet ever-evolving work. Again, when you read his account of how he treated the negative, you can't help thinking of a genius-alchemist trying to transmute base metal into gold, as when he talks about minimizing "the possibility of uneven sky," or of controlling "the value of the moon in development" or of "burning in" (allowing additional exposure) "along the line of the mountains" or "upward a bit to the moon to lower the values of the white clouds." And this same "romantic/emotional moment in time" he has already scrupulously restored and refined can be taken further over time as he continues to perform his "score," deepening the tonalities of "the mood" of "the original visualization." In this way, the printed image has varied over the years as the artist/composer/performer seeks "more intensity of light and richness of values as time goes on."
The scope of the Ansel Adams exhibition is truly extraordinary. It is worth a trip to Doylestown and the fairly stiff admission (an extra $4 beyond the standard $6.50), and when you decide you're ready to return to the so-called real world, you can go upstairs and wander through the crass, earthy American midway of the "Radical Vision" show. The exhibits will be at the James A. Michener Art Museum through May 14 and May 28, respectively.
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