Visiting an Ansel Adams exhibit, I am unable to fully focus on the largest prints, distracted by the reflections in the glass behind which they are imprisoned. Is this how the photographer intended his work to be seen, with the world of the gallery imposed like a double exposure over El Capitan or the New Mexico cemetery in the moonlight?
The exhibit explores the decades-long relationship between Adams and Edwin Land, the founder of the Polaroid Corporation, for whom Adams worked as a consultant. Fascinating material — especially the many snapshots Adams generated as he tested the various films and cameras. But given the fact that the exhibit was sponsored by Polaroid, and not knowing much about Adams other than what I can remember from an art history course I took 20 years ago, I am unable to exorcise the demon of distrust. How really central was Adams’ experience with Polaroid film to his overall career as an artist?
They quote a couple of sentences from Adams’ autobiography: “Many of my most successful photographs from the 1950’s onward have been made on Polaroid film. One look at the tonal quality of the print I have achieved should convince the uninitiated of the truly superior quality of Polaroid film.” The uninitiated, yes — that’s me. I am able to relate to the many test snapshots on exhibit far better than to the iconic Western landscapes, in part because their small size requires close viewing, where reflections on the glass are not nearly so distracting. And the subjects are casual and domestic: the corner of a porch. A woman standing on her front stoop.
And at any rate, as a very amateur digital photographer and blogger, I am most struck by how this artist renowned for his long exposures celebrated the instantaneousness of the Polaroid. “To have a print and a negative from the same exposure is a tremendous assist in the creative process,” Adams wrote in 1961. I had also always associated the Polaroid with low-quality color snapshots of family gatherings, but the docent tells us the film was in fact designed for nature photography. All of Adams’ Polaroids in the exhibition are in black-and-white.
The docent talks about Adams’ difficult relationship with color. He spent the last years of his life trying to master color photography, but finally gave up, she says. His whole approach to photography was shaped by his early training as a classical pianist; he was a composer, not a mere finder, of images, and he couldn’t handle a lack of total control over colors and values. Moreover, he found the medium’s promise of verisimilitude deceptive:
Color photography is a beguiling medium in that it offers some apparent simulation of reality, to which the majority of the public respond. Because of economic necessity, the development of color has been keyed to popular demand (much more than black—and—white photography), and the approach to professional work has focused on “realism ” of color and fail—safe technology.
The taste—makers in color photography are the manufacturers, advertisers in general and the public with their insatiable appetite for the ‘snappy snapshot.” I have come to the conclusion that the understanding and appreciation of color involves the illusion that the color photograph represents the colors of the world as we think we perceive them to be. The images are, at best, poor simulations, but the perceptive alchemy translates the two—dimensional picture into the common world of experience. Picture reality is a philosophical and psychological impossibility. Color pictures are so ubiquitous that the casual viewer comes to accept them as the true “reality”, the color process reveals for them the real world, which is not hard to understand because the “real world” is, for most people, an artifact of the industrial/material surround. The colors of the urban environment are for the most part far more garish and “unrelated” than we find in nature. The Creator did not go to art school and natural color, while more gentle and subtle, seldom has what we call aesthetic resonance.
Among the large prints in the exhibit, the one that most impresses me has an industrial subject, “Pipes and Gauges, West Virginia, 1939.” The composition of curved white pipes and small gauges, with its frank sexuality, is far warmer and earthier than any of the landscapes, “artifact of the industrial/material surround” though it might have been.