Exhibition: Ansel Adams, Greenwich

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EXHIBITION
Ansel Adams: Photography From The Mountains To The Sea
National Maritime Museum
★★★★✩

IN A NUTSHELL
America's photographic pioneer receives a rare British outing focussing on his studies of water.

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REVIEW
So that's one big US question sorted. (A. Barack Obama.) But there are plenty more that remain unresolved - about the changing character of America and whether global decline should be managed or rejected in the face of economic uncertainty and China's dominance.

The traditionalist Republicans are licking their wounds, wondering how the "white establishment" - products of the founders and the pioneers - will fare against the growing coalition of minorities who are increasing vocal in their demands and less attached to the nation's Euro-centric backstory.

Little wonder then, in a nation where the journey is still a significant metaphor, that the chronicling and conquering of the landscape has an extra resonance, suggesting permanence and progress at a time when there is little evidence of either.

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) was a pioneer in the field of photography and, to a lesser extent, in conservation. He was just such a maker of icons.

His name stays in the pantheon because he comfortably reflects the best of America back to the Americans.

Adams captured the contrasts - the unyielding rock against the ephemeral spring - and, in doing so, impressed upon the unruly landscape a sense of conquest, pattern and purpose.

Adams is not so much known in Britain but that may change with a rare compilation of 100 original prints on display in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

He is best known for his rugged landscapes but the "maritime" theme is evoked with the movement of water, the capturing of moments beyond the reach of the painter.

Waterfalls, geysers, rapids, ponds, seascapes - he pointed his camera wherever water worked, perhaps inspired by the view of the San Francisco bay from his childhood home.

Something of a misfit, the precocious Adams found school impossible and he was sent with an open pass to the year-long 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco which was a hotbed of new cultural thinking. Cubism, Picasso and the possibilities of a new century percolated in his young mind.

Guest curator Phillip Prodger said: "One of the things I wanted to do was get at some of the radicalism and the experimentalism of Ansel Adams when he came on the scene.

That he wasn't just a maker of pretty pictures but he also contributed philosophically to the advancement of photography as an artform."

Adams' first picture - found by Prodger in the archives - was taken when he was 13 and was of the world's fair itself. Although made in the classic Victorian "pictorial style" - soft and sentimental - he labelled it Portals Of The Past suggesting he, too, was hungry to embrace radical concepts and progressive interpretations.

His journey, through his life and captured in this exhibition, showed he was in the forefront of the Modernist movement - taking photos that were hard, uncompromised, sharp and uncontrived.

This austerity of style encompassed the Group f/64 movement (named after a lens aperture that tightens depth of field) whose manifesto rejected any ideological notion of art and aesthetics.

However, he was restless, artistically and geographically. He became a perennial retoucher in the darkroom.

He would say the negative was the equivalent of a music score and the print, the conductor's performance.

In fact, he was, in his later years, as much a print maker as a photographer and the vast American Trust murals of the '50s, on show in the exhibition, demanded innovative thinking and precise execution, revealing a craftsman and perfectionist at the height of his powers.

He said: "A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels in the deepest sense about what is being photographed."

This exhibition is the fullest expression of Ansel Adams - a restless life in search of moments, of beauty and order in a reckless landscape.

Ansel Adams: Photography From The Mountains To The Sea, until April 28, £7, rmg.co.uk.

Image: Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California, about 1937 Photograph by Ansel Adams. Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

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