Ansel Adams: The Politics of Contemplation @MoMA PS1

JTF (just the facts): A total of 50 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in a series of three connected rooms. All of the works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made between 1932 and 1968. The show is part of the larger EXPO 1: New York show which fills the museum. Other photographers included in the larger exhibit include Matthew Barney, Agnes Denes, Mitch Epstein, João Maria Gusmão, Taiyo Kimura, Zoe Leonard, and Mikhael Subotzky. The Adams micro show was organized by Roxana Marcoci, Klaus Biesenbach, and Lucy Gallun. (Installation shots at right, courtesy MoMA PS1. Images taken by Matthew Septimus.)

Comments/Context: Roughly a decade ago, the Ansel Adams at 100 show blanketed the nation, making stops in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York (along with a few foreign venues as well), and basically set the permanent standard for Adams scholarship. It was a comprehensive, chronological, and exhaustively researched retrospective, with plenty of surprises and treasures. I particularly remember seeing multiple prints of the same iconic images from different decades, showing how Adams’ printing style had evolved over time. With this show as a singular example but just one of many great Adams exhibits over the years, it’s hard to imagine that there is anything more to say about Adams that hasn’t already been said better by someone else previously. And yet, the curators of this small show stepped up to that challenge and tried something radical, their approach bringing an entirely fresh perspective to Adams and his work.

The larger EXPO 1: New York exhibit of which this show is just one module takes on a variety of contemporary environmental and ecological issues and explores how artists are addressing these issues in their work. Adams’ passion for environmental preservation and his involvement in the Sierra Club and other organizations is now old hat, so his inclusion in this survey is at first glance an odd and awkward choice; he’s not exactly a current voice on climate change or global warming. The interest here comes not from a tired rehashing of his greatest hits, but from an unexpected conceptual what if exercise as posed by the curators. What if we sliced through Adams’ prolific career and pulled out specific subjects he returned to again and again? And what if we filtered his whole aesthetic through the mind of the Bechers, paring him back to a documentary exploration of changing natural forms and landscapes? The result is Adams turned into a hard core detail tracker, a conceptual series maker and systematic watcher, and I have to say, it’s a fascinating transformation.

This selection of photographs proves that Adams returned again and again to the same subjects, often placing his camera in nearly the very same spot year after year, taking basically the same picture from the same vantage point, the details and atmospheric moods changing through the seasons. Half Dome is alternately decorated with cottonwoods, thunderclouds, and white billowy clouds, while El Capitan is seen at sunrise, in shadow, amid misty winter haze, and set off by the silhouette of a winter tree. It’s almost as if he was intent of making typologies, capturing these landscapes in every potential state. The plume of Old Faithful in Yellowstone runs the entire spectrum from white to black (with several intermediate grey steps), while various waterfalls are framed with deadpan clarity, their differences of angle and splash captured with the same precision as a series of Becher water towers. Moons, cliffs, rivers, aspens, firs in snow, every one becomes a set of subject matter motifs, a fugue of theme and variation. Adams’ famous surf sequence seems perfectly matched to this way of thinking, a series of images of the same set up, the natural ebb and flow of the white bubbly waves providing the elements of chance and change.

So while nearly all of these pictures will be familiar to most, the way they are presented in this show turns the bombastic natural drama of Adams into just one aspect of a broader and more structured vision. Each image is no longer a virtuoso stand alone performance exactly, but a part of a larger whole, a variant of the underlying reality, or in musical terms, a different way to play the natural score. The hanging points to discipline and organization in his thinking, to his technical prowess channeled into an equally formal way of approaching the land. In a certain way, it makes Adams look much more boldly contemporary than we normally give him credit for. That’s an entirely out-of-the-box way to see Adams, and proof positive of some smart curatorial thinking.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are, of course, no posted prices. Adams’ work is ubiquitous at auction, with dozens of prints and portfolios coming up for sale every season. Given large edition sizes, some of the prints are still very affordable (finding buyers for a few thousand dollars) while large vintage images of iconic works routinely stretch well into six figures (a few as high as $600-700K).

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Read more about: Ansel Adams, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)


  1. Federico /

    Hi, according to the link you provide, this exhibit finished last week…

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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