Caught in the Act

Ansel Adams Water Photos at PEM

By Jared Bowen

August 6, 2012

BOSTON — The summer show at the Peabody Essex Museum is an exhibition of Ansel Adams photography. It’s the legendary photographer’s work as you’ve never seen it before.
We can be reasonably excused for thinking we’re all too familiar with the often over-exposed Ansel Adams. But in its new show Ansel Adams: At the Water’s Edge, Phillip Prodger, Curator of Photography at the Peabody Essex Museum shows us reasons to reconsider.
“There are pictures of water that are almost violent, the muscular energy of some of these pictures of cascades tumbling over waterfalls, swelling with water. Then there are other moments that are more meditative or contemplative, a little more withdrawn.”
In a riveting show, Prodger wades into Adams’ lifelong relationship with water—going all the way back to the beginning—when the seaside San Francisco native was lured by the landscape at age 13.
“His first memories were hearing the slapping of the waves on the sand and smelling the salt air. So something that was very deeply engrained in him. And as our exhibition shows, it is something that he carried with him throughout his career, ” Prodger said.
Adams had a lifelong romance with nature, including recurring dalliances throughout New England and especially Cape Cod. At the onset though, Adams’ work was radical. It was the 1920s and Adams had no allegiance to Victorian tradition.
“Those pictures tend to be very nostalgic, soft focus. Often the pictures are very colorful, deep sepia color often in the prints. Ansel did away with all that,” Prodger said.  “He was part of a generation that felt things in a picture should be sharp focus, the things in the picture should be neutral black and white and really created a sort of unconventional, confrontational and direct style of photography that we now know and love so well.”
What’s more, he challenged himself—especially with water.
“With a waterfall or a raging rapid or crashing waves on a shore, you never know exactly what you’re going to get. Ansel didn’t know exactly what he was going to get. So I think it was more of the virtuosity of anticipating the scene before it happened, and of knowing where to be finding the right place and right time to fire the shot,” Prodger said.
The show frequently reminds us that photography we might easily take for granted today was staggeringly complicated for Adams. In 1953, he invented the developing process for these 10 by 12 foot murals.
“He had to stitch together three different sheets of paper because the commercial papers available then didn’t reach that scale. So it was really a technical feet. Shooting across the room, on three separate sheets of paper, developing them rolled up in troughs mounting them together perfectly so you couldn’t see the seams, they’re really something special,” Prodger said.
Always versatile, Adams worked with an array of formats and equipment. Consistent, though, was the emotion he brought to his work and hoped would be conveyed in return.
“When Ansel took a picture of, say, a waterfall, if he was happy or sad or full of energy or was dragging that day, he hoped that an element of his experience of that scene would enter into that picture. And then he further hoped that later on when we looked at it, we would get some of that feeling back out of it,” Prodger said.
And what we get from this show is a refreshing look at a legendary photography we only thought we fully knew.
About the Author
Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 


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