Work by the 20th-century photography titan Ansel Adams is so familiar to so many people that it can be taken for granted. Nevertheless, relatively few gallery-goers have seen more than a few images from Adams’ sole foray into the southern Appalachian mountains in the fall of 1948. Sight and Feeling, a newly opened exhibition at the Knoxville Museum of Art, running through May 4, offers up 23 Adams prints, including a stunning portrait of Edward Weston, a Colorado townscape, and a rare still life, as well as photographs from various national parks.
Organized by the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in Michigan, Sight and Feeling reveals a level of artistry beyond the technical innovation and mastery Adams is famous for, represented in the exhibit by a glass-enclosed, ca. 1920s view camera. Also on display are the letters sent by Adams from Gatlinburg to art historian Beaumont Newhall and his photography critic wife, Nancy. What’s more, the exhibition marks the first-ever showing, albeit on a monitor screen, of 47 photographs from Tucson’s Center for Creative Photography—Adams’ complete Smoky Mountains National Park portfolio.
Numerous pictures in Sight and Feeling exemplify Adams’ notable ability to make space appear simultaneously limitless and frontal—that is, with composition reinforcing two-dimensional boundaries. His is a dance of both boundlessness and containment. For instance, Adams’ “Maroon Bells, near Aspen, Colorado” (1951) is an almost dizzying scene, with lines and angles going in all directions. The bowl-like banks of a lake reflecting dark fir trees, although in the foreground, appear to tilt toward us, as if holding back distant snow-streaked mountains.
Adams’ photograph of Yosemite Valley’s “Vernal Fall,” shot in California the same year he visited the Smoky Mountains, likewise seems to condense space. The blurring of moving water juxtaposed with boulders in mist and the stark silhouette of a single tree looming against a massive monolithic backdrop somehow contradict our usual notions of such a place. The degree of detail in Adams’ images of the American West lends them a particularly dramatic quality, producing a version of reality that’s actually quite unreal in terms of the human eye’s perceptual capacity. It brings to mind the oft-repeated remark that nothing looks quite as amazing as an Adams photograph of it.
Adams, who died in 1984 at the age of 82, started out as a concert pianist. By the late 1920s, however, he was gravitating increasingly toward photography. Adams initially made “pictorial” images, adhering to a style that imitated painting, often with the goal of legitimizing photography as fine art. Before long, though, he became drawn to the New Objectivity movement and its emphasis on a more straightforward approach. In 1932, Adams began his involvement with a number of West Coast photographers, Weston and Imogen Cunningham among them. Together, they formed Group f/64, an alliance whose name alludes to the camera lens aperture that permits the greatest detail via depth of field.
Wallace Stegner linked Adams’ experience as a musician to his later work as a photographer. “His training in music … taught him to think of the negative as the score, and the print as the performance, and he transferred from music to photography the effort to achieve the purest clarity of tone,” Stegner wrote.
I hate to say it, but I find much of Adams’ work from this region rather lackluster. In fact, in one of his letters to Beaumont Newhall, Adams wrote, “The Smokys [sic] are ok in their way, but they are going to be devilish hard to photograph.” One stand-out is “Dawn, Autumn, Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee,” on view in print form. Purportedly one of only two images that Adams was truly satisfied with following his five-day excursion, the photograph shows a row of spindly, nearly aligned trees. Their wispy foliage sweeping across the picture plane like scattered feathers loosely resembles notes on a staff.
Although Sight and Feeling is not the most coherent or imaginatively presented show (the lighting was even a bit dim when I saw it), it does express the extent to which Adams’ technical prowess was more than matched by what Stegner called his “hymns to the strength, delicacy, and beauty of the earth.” He was, according to former Museum of Modern Art curator John Szarkowski, an optimist who “saw the forces of environmental responsibility as ascendant, and the minds and hearts of the people moving steadily toward the understanding that something similar to reverence for our planet [is] the essential precondition to ethical life on it.”
Behind the camera, Adams responded to his subject matter from a strictly visual and intuitive perspective. Yet his profound connection with this country’s unspoiled places and the celebratory aspects of his efforts have done much to encourage conservation. And Sight and Feeling not only conveys Adams’ remarkable talent, it allows us to see our own surroundings through the eyes of a master.