Straight Shooter

The Center for the Visual Arts is celebrating its first anniversary this summer in an expanded space on Wazee Street. The CVA, which operates under the auspices of Metropolitan State College of Denver, was originally located around the corner on 17th Street, in the building that is now occupied by the Common Grounds coffee shop. Marking the gallery's milestone is a major solo show that features one of the most important figures in the history of photography -- the legendary Ansel Adams. Building Form: Ansel Adams and Architecture is a comprehensive look at the late photographer's images of buildings. It is an unexpected approach, since Adams is best known for his famous and beloved shots of the natural environment.

It's also the first time the CVA has presented a solo show by a photographer, though others are planned. Building Form was put together by CVA director Sally Perisho, who borrowed more than fifty photos from the Ansel Adams Archive at the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography; staffers at the archive made the specific selections. "I asked for a body of work on architecture," says Perisho. Additional photos were loaned by the Denver Art Museum and the Camera Obscura Gallery.

Adams is one of the most famous and highly regarded photographers in history. "I'm amazed at how many people are familiar with Adams's work in depth," says Perisho. But people know the most about his landscapes, "which have been shown and shown," she adds. "That's why I decided to focus on his less well-known architectural photographs." Perisho also notes that the photographer's considerable popularity has led to heavier-than-usual foot traffic in the CVA's galleries.

But it was Adams's influence on the course of American photography, rather than his popularity, that led Perisho to organize this show. "Here are the originals by Adams that led to thousands of copies," Perisho says. "In many ways, he was really the first. He's the reason museums collect photography today. He talked and wrote about photography, addressing the public, museum directors, dealers and other artists."

Born in 1902 in San Francisco, Adams was only fourteen when he was given his first camera, a No. 1 Brownie box camera. Photography was just a hobby for him at first; his real ambition was to be a professional pianist, a course that he seriously pursued. In 1920, Adams took a summer job as a custodian at the Sierra Club's headquarters in the Yellowstone Valley. It was here that his naturalist and environmental views were forged and he began his lifelong association with the Sierra Club. Adams often lent his images to the organization, which used them for promotional purposes, most notably those ubiquitous posters from the 1970s and '80s, which were a big moneymaker for the group.

In the 1920s, Adams became more serious about photography and took some of his most famous images, including those at Yosemite National Park and those of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Working with author Mary Austin, he went to Taos Pueblo in 1929 to photograph the architecture and the residents. Still in New Mexico the following year, he met New York photographer Paul Strand; it was Strand who convinced him to give up the piano once and for all and to pursue a career as a professional photographer.

Back in San Francisco in 1932, Adams became a founder of f64, an informal group of photographers that included Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston. The name of the group referred to the small aperture setting of the large stand cameras that used glass negatives preferred by f64 members. The group advocated "straight" photography, in which scenes were recorded in an unaltered condition as opposed to the staged scenes and darkroom manipulations that pictorialists and others were using at the time. Adams and the other members of f64 felt that the composition of a photograph was a pre-existing condition, and the photographer's job was to find it in nature. This direct approach came to dominate fine-art photography, so much so that by the 1970s, artists searching for a fresh vision rejected it and reintroduced photographic manipulations and alterations.

Adams became widely known in the 1930s. In 1934 he got a big break when he met Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and dealer who is considered to be the father of twentieth-century fine-art photography. Stieglitz gave Adams a one-man show at his New York gallery, An American Place. In fact, Adams's work was exhibited in prestigious galleries throughout the United States and Europe, but his fame was also the result of his influential books. In 1935 Adams wrote Making a Photograph, in which he laid out his ideas about the value of unretouched, untoned photographs. He went on to publish more than twenty other books over the next fifty years.

The CVA show is set up so that visitors first see Adams's classic and familiar landscapes. These photos, which are in the entry, are the ones on loan from the DAM and other local sources. They give us a grounding in Adams's signature style. The less well-known architectural shots, on loan from the University of Arizona, fill the rest of the multi-space CVA. All of the photos in the show are gelatin silver prints.

First in view are a series of large-format mountain shots. In "The Tetons and the Snake River," taken in 1942, Adams captures the mountain in the background and the meandering river in the foreground. The river leads the eye from the bottom of the photo directly to the top of the mountain and above it to the sky. Adams placed the mountain in the center of the picture, just as painters do. The black forests are set against the shining white river. Above the valley, the dark-gray mountain is capped with light-gray snow; above that, the clouds roll and boil across the sky. The scene is pure Adams, but it's the kind of style that has led some critics to label his work as "Wagnerian." Adams himself saw his photos based on music in general, if not on Richard Wagner's compositions specifically. (Maybe it was all of those piano lessons?)

Orchestrating the scenery into a cogent picture is an Adams specialty. In "The Tetons and the Snake River," he uses the natural environment as a design element, and he carefully crops the scene. This practice lets his photos operate on both a representational and abstract level, a quality that can clearly be seen in "Winter Sunrise -- Sierra Nevada." This 1944 piece shows tree-covered foothills -- black and in the shadows -- running across the middle of the photo. Just above are the brightly lit snow-covered mountains, with the sky black like the forest. This creates a series of horizontal stripes that alternate between dark and light and are the dominant pictorial element.

Adams's use of the darkest, most saturated blacks, next to bright silvery whites, created a problem with gallery lighting, however. "The blacks just absorbed light, and we had to use a meter in order to properly illuminate the photos," Perisho says. The light needed to be dim enough to reveal the different whites -- but bright enough to show the black-on-black details. It was a difficult balance to strike.

Somewhat different from his scenic vistas is "Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite," circa 1942. It is a detail shot of Half Dome under a three-quarter moon on a cloudless night. The quiet mood that Adams captures functions abstractly, like his landscapes, but it's anything but Wagnerian.

Two photos of snow-covered trees, "Half Dome, Orchard, Winter" and "Oak Tree, Snow Storm," are also more lyrical and less bombastic than his shots of the mountain scenery. Both were done around 1935, when Adams was in Yosemite. In these photos, he takes portraits of the trees, which he has placed in the center of his view-finder.

The photos loaned by the Ansel Adams Archive begin in the large back gallery of the CVA. They have not been arranged historically or chronologically. Rather, the archive associates photos in groups of three according to subject matter and composition elements. Perisho has kept the photos in these groupings.

A few of them are actually landscapes, as opposed to architectural photos. In the familiar "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," of 1941, the small town in the mid-ground is hardly noticeable, as the real action in the picture is above the horizon. Adams does the opposite in 1953's "San Francisco from San Bruno Mountain." Here, the city can barely be glimpsed in the distant background.

More of a surprise to those who think of Adams only in terms of his landscape photos are his visual essays on the built environment. In these poetic photos, nature is visible only in the sky and in the natural light. The buildings, or parts of buildings, occupy most of these compositions. The architectural photos are quite different from the landscapes, in that they feature a rigid sense of the horizontal and vertical -- inspired no doubt by the buildings themselves.

"Ghost Town, Bodie, California" is a full frontal shot of a pair of abandoned nineteenth-century storefronts taken in 1938. The vertical sides of the building are aligned with the vertical sides of the photo. One of the buildings is made of dark brick; the other is a light-colored clapboard. The effect is to create a vertical line down the center of the picture. It also allows Adams to use his characteristic light-to-dark contrast. Next to "Ghost Town" is an undated closeup of a door that is also seen in "Barn, Mining Town, Sierra Foothills." In "Ghost Town," Adams takes a formal portrait of the two buildings, but in "Barn" he has cropped the building in order to make it more abstract. The door in the center is flanked by two small square windows that are mirrored by two small squares of sky visible on either side of the false-front building's facade. The final image in the first three-photo grouping is 1939's "New Jersey Relic, Interior," a picture of an altar in an abandoned Victorian church.

Though old buildings were a favorite, Adams also took shots of New York City's skyline. These photos are in the niche at the back of the CVA gallery. Particularly striking is "The RCA Building From the Roof of the Museum of Modern Art." This 1942 work shows the office building looming in the mist, towering over a jumble of old buildings in the foreground.

As viewers make their way through Building Form, they will be struck by the wide variety of approaches that Adams has taken over the years, from all-encompassing panoramas to tight details. Many of his pictorial devices were so widely copied, and his influence so great, that single images led to thousands of imitations. Take a look at "Door, Old Church, Chinese Camp, California." Taken in 1957, it's a closeup of a portion of a weathered portal complete with antique knob and key hole. This is the kind of image we've all seen a thousand times before by other, less-inspired photographers. Also influential in the same way is an untitled piece from 1932 in which Adams takes a detail shot of several rows of fish-scale shingles on a old building.

The amount of material in Building Form is daunting, and it may lead to visual exhaustion for many viewers. Be sure to catch your second wind for the last part of the show, however. Here, in the north gallery, Perisho has installed several groups of photos that feature Adams's work from New Mexico. Some of these are his most impressive accomplishments.

From these spectacular photos, it's easy to see that Adams's mature style developed early on. Two standard features of his later work -- the dramatic play of lights and darks and theatrical composition -- can already be seen in "Saint Francis Church, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico." This photo was taken in 1929, one year before he devoted himself to photography full-time.

Interestingly, Adams's approach to buildings, in which the sculptural character of the structure is recorded, had an impact on architectural photography as a separate field. Today, all documentary photos of buildings owe him a debt.

The impressive Building Form gives Denver viewers a rare opportunity to see a large body of work by a major historical photographer. And perhaps since so many of the photos are uncharacteristic, it will silence those who see Adams as a photographic Johnny One-Note. Instead, the show reveals that at one time or another, Adams has played every instrument in the orchestra.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia