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Booth Museum exhibit shows Ansel Adams’ true nature

By Howard Pousner
hpousner@ajc.com

CARTERSVILLE — There are pages upon pages of posters of Ansel Adams’ Old Faithful photographs available for sale on the Web. But none capture the wonder of that natural wonder quite as well as the potent 1942 image — a furious white eruption cast against a foreboding black sky — in a just-opened exhibition at the Booth Western Art Museum.

Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1937, Photograph by Ansel Adams, Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, © 2010 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Courtesy of Booth Western Art Museum Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1937, Photograph by Ansel Adams, Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, © 2010 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Winter Sunrise, the Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, California, 1944, Photograph by Ansel Adams, Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, © 2010 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

Courtesy of Booth Western Art Museum Winter Sunrise, the Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, California, 1944, Photograph by Ansel Adams, Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, © 2010 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

Rose and Driftwood, San Francisco, 1932, Photograph by Ansel  Adams, Collection Center for Creative Photography, University  of Arizona, © 2010 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Courtesy of Booth Western Art Museum Rose and Driftwood, San Francisco, 1932, Photograph by Ansel Adams, Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, © 2010 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

That’s because the photo, like all 131 included in “Ansel Adams: A Legacy,” was printed by the master himself during the 1960s and ’70s, when he was at the peak of his darkroom prowess.

At any time, there are almost as many Adams exhibits touring the country as there are calendars and note card sets for sale featuring images by the popular photographer, who died in 1984. But the Booth is boosting “Legacy’s” photos as a rare treat: images from throughout his career printed by Adams, rather than by an assistant, in precisely the way he wanted them to be seen.

The photographer donated the pictures over a period of years to the Friends of Photography, an organization that was founded in his Carmel living room in 1967 and that he expected to carry his legacy forward after his death.

“There had to be a lot of tender love and care that went into the creation of every one of those prints,” Booth executive director Seth Hopkins said. “So to see that collection all together in one place is pretty unique.”

Especially after the group’s plans to build the Ansel Adams Center in San Francisco crashed in construction cost overages, causing the Friends to disband in 2001 and put what essentially amounted to a self-curated retrospective by the great photographer up for sale.

In 2002, former Dell Computer Corp. chief financial officer Tom Meredith was planning to purchase several Adams photos for his wife Lynn as an anniversary gift when he discovered the collection was available.

The Merediths took the plunge and, through their foundation, have loaned “A Legacy” to several American museums in a low-key manner, without a long tour itinerary or the usual glossy accompanying catalog. In fact, for conservation’s sake, they insist that the images be stored in the dark for six months between showings.

What comes out of the crates is an intriguing mix of the familiar and unfamiliar.

“You get the greatest hits, but you also get all the B-side singles too,” Hopkins said. “You get it all.”

The exhibit commands 6,000 of the 60,000 square feet of gallery space in the museum (which mainly shows historic and contemporary western art, Civil War history and presidential memorabilia). There are multiple exposures of Adams’ beloved national parks, especially Yosemite, where he took his first photos in 1916. And there’s perhaps his most famous photograph, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941), taken weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor, showing a modest Rio Chama Valley village bathed in moon glow, the white crosses of a graveyard glistening in the foreground.

But there are also images that display different dimensions of the celebrated landscape photographer, such as “Itinerant, Merced, Calif.” (1936), a Walker Evans-style portrait of a drifter with his winter coat folded over his arm in front of signs advertising “Rooms” and “Hot Cakes & Coffee, 15 cents.”

Eternally cowboy-hatted Adams is also shown to have an eye for the cityscape, especially San Francisco’s gridded streets. One image conveys (for Adams) a rare harmony of the natural and the man-made: a pulled-back portrait of the Golden Gate Bridge that makes the span appear merely a graceful detail amid a nature-dominated composition of cliffs and shore.

But “A Legacy” is not content to portray Adams as the bard of the great outdoors in eternal search for nature at its most pristine. In fact, the Booth has gone to great effort to show that Adams was quite willing to manipulate what he witnessed through darkroom techniques and tools, many of his own invention.

Especially for members of the digital generation who’ve never fumbled while stretching a roll of film into the back of a camera, the museum has created a full-scale darkroom mock-up to show steps of photo developing. The exhibit also details the Zone System the photographer helped to invent, a coding of black to white gradations ensuring that light and dark values the photographer visualized at the moment the shutter shut were rendered in the darkroom as desired.

“To Ansel Adams, the negative was like the sketch,” Booth curator Jeffrey Donaldson said. “Then he brought it back into the studio to paint the real work of art.”

A Booth lecture on Adams’ darkroom wizardry last week left some in the audience “disillusioned,” Hopkins acknowledged. They had thought the photographer a purist and found out that he pioneered techniques akin to Photoshop.

The Booth executive director saw it differently.

“He was thinking: How can I be inspired by the natural world to create a work of art that is truly my own, that is my response to the world around me, not merely capturing the world and showing it back to you,” Hopkins said. “To me, that’s the true genius of Adams.”

Exhibit preview

“Ansel Adams: A Legacy”

  • 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays; 1-5 p.m. Sunday. Through Feb. 20. Adults, $10; 65 and over, $8; students, $7; 12 and under, free (with parent or guardian). Booth Western Art Museum, 501 Museum Drive, Cartersville. 770-387-1300, www.boothmuseum.org.
  • Members-only opening reception 5 p.m. Saturday, with 7 p.m. lecture on Adams’ life and art by photography scholar Susan Todd-Raque. Memberships available at the door.

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