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Illuminating the West

Ansel Adams Exhibition Comes to the Fralin Museum

Yosemite National Park is one of those places whose breathtaking natural beauty is impossible to capture with a camera lens. Yet the photographs of Ansel Adams do more than simply reproduce monumental views; their extraordinary compression and manipulation of light and contrast encourage a deeper look at the natural world.

Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California, 1940 Photograph by Ansel Adams, courtesy of the Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona

Through October 13, the "Ansel Adams: A Legacy" exhibition at the Fralin Museum of Art will display more than 80 works in two rotations. The exhibitions include well-known images such as Moon and Half Dome and Moonrise, Hernandez.

Revolutionary in his own time

In response to earlier impressionistic landscape portraitists and the romantic softness of their images, Adams opted for technical precision and a commitment to recording the world as it was. While Adams' early works show the relationship between humans and their environments, he turned his eye in later works almost exclusively to nature and advocacy and often cropped human references out of the frame.

Self-Portrait, Monument Valley, Utah, 1958 Photograph by Ansel Adams, courtesy of the Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona
The earlier period particularly interests William Wylie—photography curator at the Fralin, professor in the McIntire Department of Art and a landscape photographer himself—who appreciates the spare and understated qualities of Adams' images. But the later images made from early negatives are what most resonate with Wylie. "Adams was an outstanding technician and he got better as time went on. In 1980, he was able to go back and print negatives he made in the '40s."

Adams, a trained concert pianist before establishing his reputation as a photographer in the late 1920s, wrote in his book The Negative that a photo negative was like a composer's score. Every photograph Adams reprinted offered the chance for a new performance, an opportunity to explore different elements of composition. For example, in a later reprint of Winter Sunrise (included in this exhibition), the foreground is darkened with just a trace of light on the horse, creating a more mysterious effect.

Adams' negatives themselves are usually 8 inches by 10 inches, which allows for extraordinary sharpness in the prints. "We're used to experiencing Adams as a giant poster on a dorm wall," says Wylie, "but that is not the way he tended to work. His prints were usually on a smaller scale, from 8-by-10-inch contact prints to 20 by 24 inches. All of the information gets compressed into an image and the tonal relationships are really rich. This is what makes seeing the original prints such an important thing."

The Adams legacy

As artists of the next generation took an interest in environmental questions, they also started looking at the West in different ways and presenting more complex views of it. "We now understand that the concept of a pristine wilderness is a myth," says William Sherman, founding director of UVA's OpenGrounds and an architecture professor. "The human impact is there. Adams was part of a generation that was starting to recognize the impact of modernity on the natural world and the consequences that people weren't paying attention to," Sherman says.

Looking at the New West, another exhibit at the Fralin organized in coordination with the Adams exhibition, features black-and-white prints by six contemporary landscape photographers whose work tends to be more confrontational than Adams'. "What were issues for Adams in the '60s are not the same issues for artists now," Wylie says. "Beauty is still important, but you can't just show someone a beautiful picture and hope that changes the world."

Golden Gate Headlands from Lincoln Park, San Francisco, California, 1952 Photograph by Ansel Adams, courtesy of the Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona

Additional events

An interdisciplinary initiative of the Office of the Vice President for Research, OpenGrounds is a studio located on the UVA Corner where students and faculty can tackle big ideas through collaboration.

OpenGrounds will host a forum on perception and action on September 27, which will feature a publication of essays and images, as well as a local photography competition concerning wilderness in everyday life, and a Student Scholars Program offering three $10,000 scholarships for projects dealing with art and environmental action. OpenGrounds hopes to turn what could have been simply a museum exhibit into a program that has a direct and tangible impact on the University and on Charlottesville.

At Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Monument, California, 1942 Photograph by Ansel Adams, courtesy of the Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona

"Adams wasn't trying to preserve photography as the obscure domain of the artist," says Sherman. "He wanted to democratize and share it. He wanted to get people to look at the world in new ways, which is really what photography is all about."

Adams initially left this collection to the Friends of Photography for advocacy and fundraising purposes. But the group went bankrupt and sold the collection to businessman Tom Meredith, who had been hoping to buy a few prints for his wife. The Merediths are now able to show the collection in its entirety, as Adams initially intended. With a daughter at UVA and through coordination with several organizations in town, the Merediths have made it possible for their collection to be shown at the Fralin this summer and fall.