Photography from The Mountains to The Sea

Given it’s focus on water, it’s fitting that the Ansel Adams exhibition Photography from The Mountains to The Sea was held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The pictures in the exhibition covered Adam’s very varied career, but the one thing that tied the pictures together, apart from all being made by the same photographer obviously, was that water focused prominently in the vast majority of images.

Ansel Adams took this photograph while employed by the United States Government, see http://www.archives.gov/research/ansel-adams/ for more information on copyright status.

Ansel Adams took this photograph while employed by the United States Government, see http://www.archives.gov/research/ansel-adams/ for more information on copyright status.

Before visiting the exhibition I knew the name Ansel Adams and knew that he is a famous photographer who spent many years taking amazing pictures in Yosemite National Park in northern California. I had seen a handful of his pictures on websites, and thought that they were “nice”. Yes, I know that sounds like blasphemy, but in the interest of honesty I have to say it. I wasn’t particularly impressed.

This changed dramatically on seeing the exhibition. Why? Because pictures are meant to be seen LARGE (imho), not as small thumbnails made up of 800×600 pixels (if you’re lucky) on a computer screen.

While looking at the book “At the water’s edge” that was sold as the official catalogue of the exhibition, I get the same feeling. Many of the pictures are dramatic and beautiful, but many also lack the oomph, the clarity, the in-your-face feeling of seeing the same pictures in the exhibition. As well as being a great photographer who took amazing pictures, Adams was also a great photographic printer. He could do things in a dark room that was truly amazing, and I think that in a way is the “problem” with the reproductions in books: The printing press simply does not have the contrast and the amount of detail that Adams could tease out of a negative.

There was a series of ceiling-to-floor prints which almost took my breath away. The tonality was amazing. Even in the darkest shadows it was possible to discern vague details, and even in the brightest highlights there was still details as well. Surely the profession should have learnt this lesson in the nearly 88 years since Adams as a young man participated in a two-month camping trip to King’s River Canyon in the High Sierras. And yet I see so many pictures, particularly my own, where the highlights are blown and the shadows completely blocked. If Ansel Adams could do it with wet plates and chemistry, trial and error then so should I be able to with all the modern technology available these days.

I would like to critique individual photographs and explain which ones particularly made an impression on me, but as I’m writing this six months after visiting the exhibition (I know… long hiatus while I was getting ready to move and then while I was settling in in my new house), I don’t remember the individual pictures. But what I do remember is the clarity of Adams’ prints, and the huge contrast between the originals and any reproduction I have seen before or after. So let that be the lesson I have taken away from the exhibition.

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