The paradox of attempting to re-create a specific moment in the past is clearly, beautifully and fascinatingly demonstrated in the exhibition, "Ansel Adams: An American Place, 1936," at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
The exhibition contains the 45 images, in many cases the very same photographic prints, that made up Adams' first and only solo exhibition at An American Place, the renowned New York art gallery owned and operated by Alfred Stieglitz.
The re-created exhibition has been thoroughly researched and handsomely installed. But it dramatically demonstrates that no matter how hard we try, regardless of the purity of intention and the depth of knowledge we bring to the enterprise, the reconstructed event is colored inalterably by the time that has passed between then and now.
Adams is an artist whose very name conjures up a cohesive, majestic view of the natural world and man's place in it, and this exhibition opens up a fresh, unfamiliar view of his work.
Our well-nigh monolithic impression of Adams' work, as if each piece of it had been chiseled from the same stone, is based upon nearly two decades of intensive exposure to his heroic views of mountains, trees, sands, rivers and skies. We have seen these impressive images repeatedly in museums, galleries, auction houses and books and, for one fortunately brief period, we were even treated to the spectacle of the gnarled figure of Adams himself on our television screens, looking like central casting's version of the last mountain man while promoting conservation and selling new cars.
The photographs in this exhibit from his show at An American Place are different. The exhibition is a sort of portrait of the photographer as a young artist. Adams was in his early thirties when Stieglitz offered him a show. He had been photographing seriously, full time, for just about five years. The crucial artistic experience in his early career had taken place in 1930, when he had encountered works by Paul Strand in Taos, N.M. Two years later Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and others banded together to form "Group f/64," a loose organization of kindred spirits devoted to the doing away with orthodox pictorial conceptions of artistic photography.
Still, the range of subjects is so broad, so atypical of the later Adams, that the show comes as an eye-opening surprise. There are a few pure landscape images that foretell something of the spaciousness of his later work, but these are greatly outnumbered by other subjects ranging from still-life compositions to photographs of buildings to portraits to billboards.
There is a difference, too, in the spirit behind many of these images. We see Adams as a coldly objective observer in a set piece with scissors and a thread, attending to what he referred to at the time as "the microscopic revelation of the lens." We see him as a deadpan humorist, using happenstance juxtapositions such as political and circus posters upon a corrugated metal wall to make a point. We see him as an experimenter with abstract forms and compositions, focusing as clearly as possible upon minute changes of textures and surfaces.
Even the size of the images contradicts conventional notions of Adams' lifework. The prints are made on 8-by-10-inch paper as contact prints or slight enlargements--very different in effect from the 16-by-20-inch prints he began to make in 1960, at the beginning of the boom in Adams' imagery. But if there is an aspect of this work that unites it to his later achievements, it is the photographer's early insistence upon clarity and subtlety of tone.
Adams worked hard for two months in the darkroom to make the prints for his exhibition with Stieglitz, and the best prints in this show, like the best of his later works, are extraordinary realizations of the slightest changes in the life-giving play of light upon surfaces.
The exhibition was organized by Andrea Gray, who as an assistant to Adams from 1974 to 1980 often heard him "refer to the exhibit as the finest he had ever had." This is puzzling, despite the excellence of so many of the images, for Adams did not often exhibit these images after the show was over and he did not really discover his mature artistic vocation--the one we know so well --until several years after the exhibition at An American Place.
Gray concludes that the principal value of the show, for Adams, was his association with Stieglitz. After the show, she says, Adams found the strength to dedicate himself "to developing my work within the limits of my capacities."
For most of us the value of the re-created exhibition is the opportunity to contrast the known Adams with the unknown, more experimental, young artist in an extremely condensed way. There was no way of predicting, back then, the direction Adams would take--Stieglitz once wondered if Adams would ever again produce "a finer group" of photographs--but of the several directions suggested by the evidence the least predictable is the one he actually decided upon.
This explains the freshness and the fascination of the reconstructed event. Anyone interested in directly comparing the achievement of the young to the work of the mature Adams can do so by going from the Corcoran to the Lunn Gallery, 406 Seventh St. NW. Dealer Harry Lunn, who has done so much to extend Adams' reputation as an artist, has organized a show of some of the photographer's best known later images in a fitting finale for his Washington gallery.
The Corcoran exhibition was organized under the auspices of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona and funded in part by a grant from the BankAmerica Foundation. It continues through July 31. The Lunn exhibition continues through July 16. CAPTION: Picture 1, 'Sutro Lions" (Lion at Entrance), circa 1932; Copyright (c) 1982, Trustee of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust; Picture 2, Adams "Scissors and Thread," 1931. Copyright (c) 1982, Trustees of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust