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Review of Ansel Adams: Eloquent Light at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park, Texas by Ansel Adams, 1947

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park, Texas by Ansel Adams, 1947

Ansel Adams: Eloquent Light
Amon Carter Museum
Through November 7, 2010

Quick, list the top things that come to your mind upon mentioning the name Ansel Adams. Landscapes. Black and white photography. The American west. All are accurate descriptions of Ansel Adams. But what about portrait and still life photography?

The Amon Carter Museum of American Art’s exhibit Ansel Adams: Eloquent Light provides art goers with an unconventional view of Adams’ legendary work. On display is a collection of Ansel Adams photographs created between the early-1930s and 1970s. He may have garnered the most fame for his stunning landscape photography, but the Amon Carter exhibit shows the true depth of Ansel Adams.

Each Ansel Adams photograph in this exhibit displays an uncanny ability to capture raw beauty. Contrary to preconceived notions about Ansel Adams photography, viewers will see a much different body of work hanging here – portraits, detail shots and even a still life – perhaps the most interesting elements of the exhibit.

Ansel Adams: Eloquent Light provides a brief history of Adams’ work and its progression through the years. Eloquent Light starts in the early-1930’s with images like Alfred Stieglitz, American Place taken in New York. Steiglitz, a mentor and friend, sits at a window with light pouring in like water, creating that stark contrast. A quiet, calm moment and a wonderful portrait.

In 1948 we see Adams photographing a Mormon Temple in Manti, Utah. His perspective is what makes this photo so successful. The photograph is shot from just outside an ornate gate with the temple majestically illuminated atop a grand hill. The viewer is trapped outside of this barrier and is left curious of what the temple holds beyond the gates.

Continue the walk through the exhibit viewers will happen upon Still Life taken in San Francisco in 1932. Here sits a couple of stark white eggs with a collection of kitchen equipment. Adams draws the eye in with the perfectly round eggs, their shape echoed in each piece of kitchen equipment. Although the image seems to be a mundane assortment of kitchen items, Adams is still able to create a fluid composition that can be compared to his more famous landscapes with rolling dessert dunes of meandering rivers.

Also setting this body of work aside is the size of these prints which are much smaller than Adams’ more well-known work – those well know and loved oversized landscapes. This exhibit allows viewers to see the progression of Adams’ fascination with photographing the natural world. In these earlier photographs Adams seems to be focusing more on the nooks and crannies in nature with leaves and tight shots of waterfalls rather than the vast landscapes. These photographs may feel a little more claustrophobic than his usual work, but Adams is able to provide room to breath with the fluidity and smooth lines of his subject matter. Viewers are reminded of vast ravines, flowing rivers or wandering snakes when looking at Roots taken in Honolulu in 1948 at Foster Garden. Adams’ perspective makes even this detail shot of roots slithering out from a tree trunk seem like a birds eye view of a landscape from far above. This image seems confined yet still reminds us of the colossal beauty of the natural world.

While Adams’ subject matter and print style may have changed over his long and wildly successful career, Adams’ vision and skill never wavered. There is a constant throughout his work, even from the beginning: Adams’ ability to draw the eye in with his unique perspective.

Now what comes to mind when I say Ansel Adams?

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park, Texas by Ansel Adams, 1947

Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park, Texas by Ansel Adams, 1947

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