entrance to the National Maritime Museum

entrance to the National Maritime Museum

It takes me four hours to reach the National Maritime Museum from my home, a journey involving 6 trains! The building is impressive, set in Greenwich (billed as the prime meridian of the world) on the southern bank of The Thames, not a part of London I know well yet one with an obvious history.

There is a charge for the exhibition, only £6 for a student, and I buy the catalogue, another £20 (no student reduction!). The desk is at the entrance to the museum and information about the exhibition is illuminated on the walls with a poignant quote by Ansel Adams … ”

Ansel Adams was considered the master of black and white photography and not without good reason for although his artistic approach is now rather dated (one OCA tutor has referred to his school as “anally retentive”), he did help to evaluate a system of correct exposure that made it possible for him and many others to make accurate exposures and hence record what they wanted to on film; known as the Zone System, his approach transposed did help to evaluate and process digital images although his understanding of film is now largely redundant. When I began photography, I learnt much of the basics from the approach of Ansel Adams.

entrance to the exhibition showing a list of points drawn up by Ansel Adams

entrance to the exhibition showing a list of points drawn up by Ansel Adams

The exhibition itself is housed in a basement gallery; outside there is a shop selling Ansel Adams bric-a-brac (I succumb to an Ansel Adams mug and a pen since my other pen is not functioning) while inside white walls merge with occasional flashes of pink. I do not find myself thinking much about the many walls and alcoves of the gallery space since I am immediately taken in by the magnificent quality of the prints. This is what I had come for – to see prints by Ansel Adams in all their tonal glory!

The prints are drawn from prominent collections across the U.S. and many of those on display are famous images; only one image is not an Ansel Adams original namely Diamond Cascade, Yosemite National Park, 1920. Although not a particularly impressive image, Ansel Adams’ thought process about it is as he attempted to … “in some way, interpret the power of falling water, the light and airy manner of the spray particles, or the glimmer of the sunlit water.” Around this time he wrote to his father that “photography is limited, you know, but I am hoping for results.”

They images are all connected to water which for Ansel Adams was “mysterious, ephemeral, and transitory” and he photographed it repeatedly.

Ansel Adams’ images can be dismissed as being pictorial, modernist in a post post modern age, yet any apparent triteness might seem irrelevant when one sees such work as original art objects where one can not help but see differently. Magazine even art books can not do justice to such work and although the catalogue that was produced for the exhibition is good quality, it does not accurately evoke the vision of this master photographer – in fact, glancing at the images in the book they seem flat in comparison.

One of the first photographs that engages me, if I had only seen this one image and spent my whole time looking at it my visit would not have been wasted, is titled “Mirror Lake, Mount Watkins, Spring, Yosemite National Park” and was made in 1935. There is a full range of tones here with some deliciously black trees in the centre (the exhibition surprises me by the use of what Ansel Adams would presumably have referred to as Zone 2 and Zone 1 – dark areas where detail is barely visible) and glowing mid-tones where the water reflects the sky. I notice a few spots … so Ansel Adams was not perfect but then art does not have to be since it points to something beyond.

The next print is of Surf, Point Lobos State Reserve, California and was made in 1963 – this has a wonderfully abstract feel with deep blacks and bright whites.

On a wall facing these prints is a map of the United States showing the places where Ansel Adams photographed – almost all are in the West but he did visit a few locations in the North East such as Cape Cod.

As an artist, Ansel Adams tends to be viewed as a photographic modernist who broke free from the constraints of the pictorialist tradition. The brutality of the Second World War which was photographed much more extensively than the First World War and made pictorialism seem rather too idealistic – photographers like Ansel Adams adopted a more modernist approach with it’s emphasis on contrast.

As a teenager, he found school increasingly difficult and was not responding; this lead to his father sending him to see the “Panama – Pacific – Exposition” for a different kind of educational experience. A print he made at this time is exhibited – it shows the pictorialist influence since it is soft focused almost abstract yet recognisable as a record of a physical space. Although Ansel Adams occasionally made photographs  such as Rainbow Falls (1929) like those of the pictorialists who believed that photographs should look like paintings, he abandoned and rebelled against this art form when he became a photographer.

A photographic print from 1918 of Helmut Rock, Land’s End, San Francisco was made when he was only 16 and although the breaking waves are soft in rendition, the rock itself is not and stands out from the swelling sea around it.

An early innovation was “Parmelian Prints” (a fictional term) for a special kind of paper that gave fine art results and lead to a book by Ansel Adams of prints from the High Sierras (1927) in which can see the beginnings of Ansel Adams’s highly developed style of image making.

The exhibition is divided into sections of which “Sea and Surf” is the second (the first being referred to above is called Beginnings). Ansel Adams writes that “In capturing bursting spray from rocks … the photographer must be hair-trigger alert for the moment … ”


As I move through the exhibition I become aware of the quality of the prints which is really while I have come as there is more than one book of Ansel Adams in my home. One thing that strikes me is the presence of deep blacks; what makes them so effectively deep is the whisper of detail that makes one feel one is looking at something rather than staring into space. One reassuring fact about this exhibition is that since the prints were made by Ansel Adams, he must have been reasonably happy with them although he was constantly reworking negatives to different effects.

In Foam (1960), one is initially attracted by the design of this natural subject, yet what makes the picture so attractive is the full range of tones and detail amidst the blacks; there are times when the contrast in Ansel Adams’s work seems to contain too much contrast, to be rooted in the late Modernist approach, but original prints help to allay this emphasis. Ansel Adams was of course faced with the limitations of technology and although he worked with Kodak in his time to develop it, there must have been times when it held him back in his creativity.

An interesting series of photographs was made from the same position at the top of a cliff looking down at the sea; these are called Surf Sequence, San Mateo Country Coast, California 1940. One might recall the time and motion studies of another photographer, Edward Muybridge, yet what is striking here is the interweaving of abstract design and the physicality of the scene.

Another section is “Coast” about which is written … “what I am trying to do in pictorial photography … is the representation of material things in the abstract or purely imaginative way.” He has made a series of close up photographs of ruined artefacts in Shipwreck Series.

There is a section of giant mural like photographs; one might assume that these are digital blow ups but in fact, they were made by Ansel Adams using an enlarger projected horizontally across to paper hanging on a wall; since there was no paper large enough, this work was printed on more than one piece of photographic paper. While the joins are visible on the large prints they are not obvious.

In the “Rivers” section, there is quote by Ansel Adams that says “I can look at a fine art photograph and sometimes I can hear music.” One of the exemplary images here is called Maroon Bells, Near Aspen, Colorado 1951 in which there is a balanced range of tones from black to white.

Equivalents form a kind of sub-section along one wall. Equivalents refer to the ability to express personal experience through photography, an approach initiated by Alfred Steiglitz and developed through his horizon-less cloud photographs made between 1923 and 1934. The emphasis is on making an emotional statement rather than a mere record of the real. An example of this from Ansel Adams is Nevada Fall, Profile, Yosemite Valley in about 1946; this image graces the cover of the exhibition catalogue. Apart from the development of photographic aesthetics, Ansel Adams was also concerned with technical innovation in the development of the Zone System which helped in the ability to create accurate exposures with a controlled gradation of tones such as in the glimmering grey of some mid tones. One can see this in a classic Ansel Adams photograph called Mirror Lake, California circa 1950.

“Waterfalls” another section starts with the following quote which is also to be seen advertising the exhibition … “A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed” …this also references the notion of equivalents.

Ansel Adams’ photographs are full of natural power particularly in images containing waterfalls – there is often a strong contrast between the soft falling water and the solid gnarled rocks.

Although I do not own an Ansel Adams original, I do own a print made from one of his negatives by someone else. This is “Early Morning, Merced River” which seems here to be much less contrasty than mine; the reproduction in the catalogue lacks the necessary bite of contrast seen in the original.

There is mention of f64, a group of photographers that included Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham to which Ansel Adams also belonged; it only lasted for 3 years during the 1930s and was concerned with an extended depth of field in which both near and far objects could be seen simultaneously in detail. It was an attempt to picture the world as the camera sees it rather than the human eye.

Another section is called “Rapids” and here Ansel Adams is quoted as saying “I want to take pictures. I am tired of moving my fingers up and down under the smug rules of past ages … I want to express myself freely, individually … ” The one that catches my eye here is titled Cascade, Yosemite National Park and made in about 1968; the water seems to sparkle with light and the stones in some parts are jet black although this image is in fact included in the next section called “Surfaces and Textures”  wherein Ansel Adams is quoted as saying “no one has ever approached the full possibilities of the medium” which presumably refers to the extraordinary power of a tonally adjusted image.

The section “Snow and Ice” shows more evidence of incredibly rich tones enhanced by careful composition; for instance, “Frozen Lake and Cliffs”, a favourite of Ansel Adams which he describes as a poorly developed negative.

Of “Geysers” Ansel Adams says the “Geyser steam is vague in shape and texture … it should be treated with delicacy.”

“Clouds and Reflections” is another section about which Ansel Adams writes “Water, while quite transparent, has considerable reflective powers as everyone who has stood by a still pool must know. “Grand Prismatic Spring” is an image that strikes me for it’s wonderful balance of tones and was made in about 1942 while the well known “Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite NP, California” made in about 1937 is another extremely impressive print and image.

The photographs by Adams are not perfect (for instance, one can sometimes see softness at the edges resulting from the design of lenses from that time) yet they possess amazing qualities of both composition and execution.

A photograph of the Golden Gate before the bridge was built is an interesting image since it was taken shortly before construction began in 1933. For Adams, this image was a favourite since it reminded him of childhood years spent in the Bay area.

The photographic images of Ansel Adams grow on one. It can take time to work out what they are actually about and when one does, one perhaps experiences something that might be called art. His prints are more than just images, they are also art objects and in this Adams perhaps confounds critics like Walter Benjamin.

Personally, Ansel Adams was a photographer who inspired me to “make” rather then “take” photographs and even though his modernist black and white approach is now dated, it is still encouraging.

entrance to the National Maritime Museum

entrance to the National Maritime Museum

A blog by someone else of the exhibition can be read here

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