It’s rare for a photographer to become a household name, but mentioning Ansel Adams often conjures up images within the mind’s eye of most people, not just photographers.
Adams’ most iconic works, including Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, the Yosemite landmark or Tetons and the Snake River, have been said to be the photographs that shaped the way Americans perceive their nation’s wilderness. He influenced a generation of photographers during his lifetime, and more than 30 years after his death in 1984, his legacy perdures through the work of many living photographers inspired by his vision.
This is precisely why the exhibit on view at the Booth Western Art Museum through March 20, Ansel Adams: Before & After, is relevant. The museum joined forces with Lumière gallery to put together an impressive collection of images by 24 photographers who either influenced Adams or whom have called themselves influenced by his legacy.
By connecting and contrasting Adams’ work with that of others before and after him, the show provides a distinctive and contextual experience on his work.
On January 23, as a booster to the exhibit, the museum invited eight of the featured photographers who, for most of them, had personal encounters with Adams, for a symposium. Like the exhibit’s opening reception back in November, it was a sold-out event, even if some registered participants were reluctant to drive to Cartersville, one hour north of Atlanta, in the wintry conditions, which left numerous seats empty.
Personal observations and amusing anecdotes surrounding Adams’ life punctuated the all-day series of lectures. Meg Partridge, the director of the Imogen Cunningham Trust and a noted filmmaker, recalled the time her father, Rondal Partridge, worked as Adams’ driver, lugging his heaving equipment and assisting him in his darkroom. She told how he was fired on three occasions, including the time he tied Adams’ shoelaces together while he was half asleep on his chair and made him fall on his face.
Robert Glenn Ketchum, well known in the field as an photographer-environmentalist, and a recipient of the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography, remembered when Adams showed interest in his Cibachrome technique for color printing and asked to see his prints.
“He thought the colors were spectacular but he could not understand what the subject was,” said Ketchum with a smile.
Peter Essick, a National Geographic contributing photographer, shared the thrill of meeting Adams for the first time, as a then young photojournalism student at the University of Missouri. The brief encounter had such a lasting effect on him that in 2014, Essick felt compelled to pay tribute. He revisited the wilderness area in the Sierra Nevada named after Adams, some 75 years after his photographs made him famous, and photographed the place with the same monochrome aesthetics.
Most photographers, though, even if Adams influenced them early in their career, kept pursuing a vision of their own.
“I went to catalogue everything Ansel Adams did so I was not going to repeat it,” commented with humor Bob Kolbrener, who in 1973 joined the Ansel Adams workshops in Yosemite as an assistant and later became a full instructor.
The session “Photography in the 21st Century” concluded the day by raising interesting questions about the impact of new technologies, which would have merited more time and attention.
In an era of “post-visualization,” as photographer and Adobe Evangelist Julieanne Kost coined it, with digital manipulation and integration of high-volume data, does the concept of pre-visualization, so dear to Ansel Adams, remain pertinent?
And what to think about the future of the print, at a time in history when more pixels can be recorded in a camera that the eye can see?
Adams once said, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance.” One is left to wonder if that thought is still valid today. To be reassured that it is — at least for a few more decades — consider paying a visit to the Booth Museum’s first floor and experience for yourself the physical beauty of the prints on view.
Ansel Adams: Before & After will be on display at the Booth Museum in Cartersville through March 20, 2016.