Straight Shooter

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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.

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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