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Ansel Adams – Early Modernist

Group f/64 – Pivotal Role in 20th Century Photography

Modernism is a slippery word. When we hear this term, many of us think of sky scrappers or avant-guard furniture. The timeless beauty of a snowy Half Dome at Yosemite or or El Capitan as captured in the photographs of Ansel Adams may not be the first images that leap to mind, but increasingly scholars are considering Adams as an early modernist.READ ENTIRE ARTICLE

Modernism is a slippery word. When we hear this term, many of us think of sky scrappers or avant-guard furniture. The timeless beauty of a snowy Half Dome at Yosemite or El Capitan as captured in the photographs of Ansel Adams may not be the first images that leap to mind, but increasingly scholars are considering Adams as an early modernist.
Ansel Adams: Mills College, 1931

Ansel Adams: Mills College, 1931

It is ironic, but the immense popularity of Ansel Adams’ work has at times limited new examinations of his work to that of a conservationist. Simply put, for years, curators felt they knew Adams’ motivations and themes, and many overlooked the breath of his achievements. Traditional analysis of Adams began to change in 2002 when The San Francisco Museum of Art organized Adams at 100, an exhaustive exhibition curated by John Szarkowski, the influential former curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
A definition by Encyclopedia Britannica: “Modernism in the arts is a radical break with the past and the concurrent search for new forms of expression. Modernism fostered a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, particularly in the years following World War I. In an era characterized by industrialization, rapid social change, and advances in science and the social sciences Modernists felt a growing alienation incompatible with Victorian morality, optimism, and convention. New ideas in psychology, philosophy, and political theory kindled a search for new modes of expression.”
Edward Weston: Chambered Nautilus, 1927

Edward Weston: Nautilus, 1927

One of the most important moves away from Victorian ideals was the break with pictorialism, which emphasized soft focus pictures that drew on the imagination and emotions found in painting and Japanese woodcuts, towards what we now call straight photography. This crucial shift was manifested in Group f/64, a small group of San Francisco photographers, including Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston, who were devoted to photography that was sharp focused and carefully framed. The group was interested in applying modernist aesthetics to the natural world around them. Group f/64 is associated with western photography.
Their name is derived from the smallest f/stop on a view camera, which gives its user the sharpest amount of space in photographs. This name signaled the groups’ intention to show the world as it was, rather than a romanticized version. Adams and Weston referred to pictorialist photographers as belonging to the “fuzzy-wuzzy” school.
Naomi Rosenblum, a photography historian, expands this idea. “What surrounded them in such abundance: the landscape, the flourishing organic growth and the still viable rural life. Pointing their lenses at the kind of agrarian objects that had vanished from the artistic consciousness of many eastern urbanites – fence posts, barn roofs, and rusting farm implements – they treated these objects with the same sharp scrutiny as were latches and blast furnaces in the East. However, even in California, these themes look to a vanishing way of life, and the energy contained in the images derived in many instances from formal design rather than from the kind of intense belief in the future that had motivated easterners enamored of machine culture.” To see more photographs by Cunningham, Weston and Adams please visit their artist pages.
Imogen Cunningham: Magnolia, Tower of Jewels, 1925

Imogen Cunningham: Magnolia, Tower of Jewels, 1925

The group’s first major exhibition was held at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco in 1932, following the success of an earlier Edward Weston show at the same venue. Group f/64’s manifesto called for frequent exhibitions and for group members to promote photography as its own art form. The constraints and advantages of working with cameras and lenses – optics – were to be celebrated.
Though the importance of Group f/64 is well established. Sometimes Adams’ concentration on subjects found in nature, obscure the modernist viewpoint imbedded in his work. Group f/64 only lasted a few years due to the increasing hardships of the Great Depression and the relocation of several members, but its influence was vast. Straight photography eclipsed pictorialism in short order.
Adams’ close ups of nature: pine cones, roses, the crevices between rocks are examples of modernist work that are not as well known as his pictures that reveal a wider view of the landscape.
Curator Trudy Wilner Stack, writes about this body of work. “Experimenters and modernists, Ansel Adams and his fellow California photographers developed a straight and highly formal, sometimes even abstract, approach to their subjects. Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and others shared Adams’s interest in photography’s ability to capture nature’s most intimate details, those aspects of form and texture, as realized through light and shadow, which parallel actual experience in nature—the appreciation of what is close enough to touch and smell. These elemental, personal interpretations are not offered in contrast to Adams’s exalted distant views, but stand as complements—allowing for a truer understanding of the photographer’s complete vision of the natural world.”
Though Adams’ work is not avant-guard, like some art of this period, his methods and ideals are firmly rooted in the overall tradition of modernist thought. The success of Adams as a poet of the majestic west can obscure his origins. Ansel Adams: Before and After, was on view (Nov 2015 – March 2016), at the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville GA, it gave viewers the chance to see the master through many lenses, including modernism. Other early modernists, such as Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz were also featured in the exhibition.
This is the second article in a series of four providing a Deeper Look at the work of Ansel Adams.

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