In 'Early Years,' changing images of Ansel Adams

ART REVIEW

June 03, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

There are few names in the history of photography that conjure up such instant images as that of Ansel Adams. His photographs of the West have given us a vision of the magnificence of the American landscape that even the real thing must have a hard time living up to.

Fewer know the diversity of Adams' work, especially early in his career, but now we have "Ansel Adams: The Early Years," which opened at the Baltimore Museum of Art yesterday. Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the show contains about 75 images tracing Adams' career from "Wind" of about 1919 (when he was only 17) to what may be his most famous image, "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" (1941) when he had achieved his mature style.

There are three main thrusts to the exhibit. First, it demonstrates that if landscape was always dominant in Adams'work, it was by no means his exclusive preoccupation. Here we have the extreme close-ups of the "Shipwreck" series (about 1932), which resemble still lifes; there are people photographs, including a single portrait, of "Charis Weston" (1937). There is the rare cityscape, "R.C.A. Building, New York" (about 1940).

The second thrust, discussed in the show's catalog essay, is Adams' gradual jettisoning of the trappings of pictorial romanticism in favor of what was to become known as "straight" photography, while still retaining the basic romanticism of his vision of landscape.

One of Adams' best-known images is "Monolith -- The Face of Half Dome" (1927), which is shown here in two prints, one from 1927 and one from 1950-1960. The later one is larger, slightly differently cropped and printed in much starker contrast than the earlier, warmer version.

The later version is not necessarily better than the earlier one,however. It's more dramatic and harder in feeling, but it loses a certain air of mystery that endows the 1927 version with an extra layer of richness.

What's also extraordinary about these early works is how much Adams was experimenting in these decades; time after time these images leave the impression that the artist is trying out several different things at the same time. His pictures are never less than beautiful, but they're often about formal issues as much as they are about the scene that is their ostensible subject.

"Residents, Hornitos, California" (about 1935) at first glance looks like a character study, but it's also a study in grays. In his "Surf Sequence" (about 1940), Adams plays with the issue of the two-dimensionality of the picture's surface vs. the image's illusion of three-dimensionality; depending on how you look at the picture, depth is either there or not there.

And there's a symbolic element in many of these pictures. In "Old Wreck, Cape Cod, Massachusetts"(about 1936), what's left the ship strains so hard at the sky that it's impossible not to see in it a symbol of fortitude in the face of death. "Long Beach Cemetery" (about 1941) at first looks like it's simply a loving picture of a memorial statue, but the oil derricks in the background give it another meaning altogether -- it's a statement of mourning for the loss of the unspoiled landscape Adams so loved.

ART REVIEW

What:"Ansel Adams: The Early Years"

Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near North Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; through Sept. 12

Call: (410) 396-7100

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