Ansel Adams in a New Light | Modern Society of USA

Ansel Adams in a New Light

Ansel Adams in a New Light

BOSTON — Ah, wilderness! It’s our answer to Europe’s cathedrals, our proof of a unique national identity.

Most citizens were first introduced to the wilderness by images. In the early 19th century, Thomas Cole placed the eastern wilderness — his beloved Catskill Mountains — on walls. Later in the century, Carleton Watkins’s 1861 photographs of Yosemite contributed heavily to Lincoln’s decision in 1864 to secure the valley forever “for public use, resort and recreation,” the first time any government anywhere set aside land to benefit the public.

William Henry Jackson’s 1871 photographs of Yellowstone helped persuade Congress to establish the first national park in 1872. Then in the 1930s, Ansel Adams (1902-1984), a staunch conservationist who had grown up near the windswept dunes of Golden Gate Park, lobbied Congress and sent the government a book of his photographs of the southern Sierra Nevada range. They strongly influenced President Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to make the Kings Canyon area a national park.

Late in the century virtually every home had a viewer for 3-D stereographs of a West that looked like a fable. Manifestly — in mind-set as well as mission — the West was our destiny.

Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Adams experienced a heightened spirituality in the wilderness that spoke to a longing for the beauties, peace and spectacle of untrammeled nature — a yearning that lingers strongly in our time, suggesting it might be innate.

He was 14 when he first visited Yosemite. He quickly took his Kodak into that stupendous valley and was so moved by the experience that it changed his life. Adams meant his images to convey the emotions he experienced while taking pictures and then heightening their impact in the darkroom. (He was a superb printer.) How lucky it is for the arts that human vision, though it does not register the world in black and white, can respond to colorless representation on a level within reach of its response to color.

Landscape tourism grew exponentially from the post Civil War years to today, but untouched wilderness has dwindled as the population increased and migrated to cities and suburbs, while mining, drilling and industrialization encroached on open spaces. Adams, though well aware of how commercialized the national parks had become, could scarcely have anticipated that on summer weekends the grounds bordering the Grand Canyon would look like Woodstock.

He preferred the parks pristine, and Eadweard J. Muybridge’s 19th-century photograph of Yosemite Valley with a logging road cutting across it is paired at the M.F.A. with Adams’s image of the same place, the road carefully retouched out.

Photographers took note of how “progress” had changed the land. In the 1960s and 1970s, the movement called New Topographics signaled a radical shift from traditional depictions of the land to the many ways we had altered it.

Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and others photographed what had once been purple mountains’ majesty — mountains now more likely to tower above rutted lanes and ticky-tacky houses. Adams took some note as well. His photograph of a housing development is at the M.F.A., as is his picture of a pensive cemetery statue that makes it clear that the cemetery borders on a forest — of oil derricks.

The New Topographers were determined to acknowledge the slow decline of wilderness, which had been trampled in part by the lingering wish to be near nature, a wish that bit its own tail. Many of the houses destroyed by the recent Northern California fires were located in what’s called the wildland-urban interface, dangerously close to forests.

In the late 1970s, a group called the Rephotographic Project figured out exactly where and in what season some important 19th-century landscape photographers had stood, then made photographs at the exact same times and places. The landscape, often enough, was quite recognizable but equally often overrun or partially obstructed by buildings.

Nonetheless, art and commercial photographers today still photograph beautiful landscapes beautifully. Landscape photographs are everywhere, thanks to Instagram, providing proof that wilderness still exists, although it may be outnumbered by its portraits.

SOME CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHERS ask a vital question of art history: What can be done with a scene that long ago became an icon and is tattooed upon our minds? The answer lies with what artists have done with icons for centuries: They have reinterpreted them.

Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe incorporated pieces of earlier photographs into their own collaboration on exhibit here, stitching a time sequence into a single image. They photographed the view from Glacier Point overlook at exactly the spot where Carleton Watkins had stood, then replaced portions of their color photograph with a fragment of Adams’s and a fragment of Watkins’s photographs of the same view.

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