BOSTON — Until recently, I would have said that nothing could be more boring right now than looking at photographs by Ansel Adams. Sacrilege, I know. I would never say this was Adams’s fault — he was a pioneer, a mythmaker and clearly a photographer of genius. He was also indefatigable. He deserves his fame.
But Adams’s well-thumbed vision of the world — and especially of Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Sierra Nevada — felt increasingly false to my eyes. Yes, he helped secure the sacred status of many areas of American wilderness. He also helped establish the art credentials of photography in the first half of the 20th century. In this era of unfolding environmental catastrophe, however, Adams’s images — so pristine, fastidious and preposterously hygienic — simply deflect my eyes.
That was my view. Happily, “Ansel Adams in Our Time,” a new show at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, breathes unexpected life into Adams’s work. There’s something mesmerizing about the spectacle — like watching your family’s resident pyromaniac resuscitate a dying campfire. Not only does the show remind us how much more there was to Adams than Half Dome, the Grand Canyon and Cathedral Rocks, it makes a powerful case for his ongoing relevance by hanging his work together with a host of living photographers — all of them energetically engaged with his legacy.
The 100 or so Adams photographs here include more than just the majestic pictures he referred to as his “Mona Lisas” — images such as “Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite” and “Monolith” that were so loved that he printed them repeatedly throughout his career. They also include his modernist — and sometimes mournful — photographs of San Francisco during the Depression; of the Taos Pueblo people, who he believed were under threat of extinction; of the Japanese internment camp at Manzanar, in California, during World War II; and the ghost towns, wildfire-ravaged trees and spaghetti junctions of California.
All these Adams works are made to chime with images by contemporary photographers, among them Catherine Opie, Trevor Paglen, Victoria Sambunaris and Binh Danh. They all address themes in Adams’s work with an enlivening blend of skepticism and reverence.
The long struggle to have photography recognized as an art form was, in part, an argument over what to make of the medium’s limitations. One obvious limitation: the camera receives an image of the world mechanically, in an instant (give or take), unedited, whereas a painter transforms the world over an extended period through countless creative decisions, both conscious and unconscious, putting things in, yes, but more often leaving them out at will.
Limitations can be a good thing aesthetically. And even as Adams milked the medium for all it was worth, he embraced the constraints of black and white photography, distilling the ingredients he inherited like a French chef making a perfect sauce reduction. But his progeny, on the evidence here, have transformed the sauce into a minestrone-like soup. They have stretched the medium out and plumped it up, throwing in new ideas, politics, storytelling and whatever else is at hand.
The first section of the show looks at the role Adams, and photography in general, played in the mass marketing of the American West. Adams was following in the footsteps of other photographers — most notably Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge and Timothy O’Sullivan. Like them, Adams was conscious that he was promoting a particular idea of wilderness — and a particular idea of photography.
Just outside the show, curator Karen Haas has covered the wall with a magnified photograph of Adams and his tripod perched on a platform on the roof of his Pontiac station wagon. He’s in Yosemite. The reason he needs to be up high is that he wants no evidence in his photograph of the human presence all around him.
Already in those days, in other words, the idea of Yosemite as an unpopulated wilderness was a fiction. Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe remind us of all that Adams’s visual rhetoric omits in panoramic collages combining archival prints with recent views of the same places. They show kayakers, campers and — intense surprise! — color. A wall label quotes Klett saying: “Anyone who has ever visited the site of one of Adams’s photographs knows that the romance of his landscapes is often best experienced in the photographs themselves.”
Other contemporary photographers have tried to bring Adams’s distilled vision into line with our more fraught and complicated times. One Adams image taken during the Depression shows a cigar store Indian outside a San Francisco tobacco shop. The next room includes several of his evocative pictures of Pueblo people, including dancers, isolated from any context.
Two magnetic, large-scale photographs by Will Wilson, a Diné (or Navajo) artist born in 1969, riff on Adams’s attempt to document what he thought was a vanishing race. One is a self-portrait, with Wilson presenting two versions of himself: one wearing Native American jewelry, the other got up as a cowboy. It’s titled “How the West Is One.”
The other shows Nakotah LaRance, a six-time world champion hoop dancer. The black-and-white inkjet print is made to resemble a 19th-century photograph, with evidence of spilled emulsion and mysterious blurring. The Diné dancer, meanwhile, wears headphones around his neck and holds a gaming console and a book of Japanese manga. There is nothing “threatened” or mired in nostalgia about this young man.
Two extraordinary photographs by Stephen Tourlentes recall both Adams’s photographs of the internment camp at Manzanar and “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” one of his most famous images. Tourlentes’s photographs have a similar look — they’re extremely artful — but instead of a pristine wildernesses, they show prisons nestled into the landscape at night.
Displayed here are a supermax federal prison in Colorado and a state death-house prison in Wyoming. Both are lit up against the landscape by a dazzling glow that Tourlentes — remembering the first time he saw such a prison, newly erected on the outskirts of his hometown in Illinois — described as having “changed my perception of the horizon.”
These prisons never go dark. Their warehoused humanity is obscured. And as such facilities multiply in this era of mass incarceration, Tourlentes quietly demands that we rethink our response to the rhetoric of freedom that landscapes with big skies and stretched-out vistas have long represented in the American imagination. More simply, they ask us to reconsider what we elect to see (and perhaps whom we choose to elect).
Nearer the end of the show, I loved Laura McPhee’s large-scale photographs of trees in Idaho in the aftermath of a devastating forest fire, caused by human error. With the same kind of camera Adams used (an 8x10 Deardorff), McPhee photographs tree trunks with blistered and blackened bark. Returning a few months later, in midsummer, she photographed lupine and fireweed blooming from the forest floor — a straightforward but unaccountably powerful expression of renewal.
Abelardo Morell is represented with three astonishing photographs made using a camera obscura. Morell sets up a camera obscura (a darkened box or room with an aperture that acts as a lens) using a tent with a small opening at the top, a periscope and an angled mirror. This puts him physically inside the most basic form of a camera. Then, using a digital camera, he photographs the inverted image of the landscape outside as it is reflected on the ground.
The two overlaid images — sublime landscape in Yellowstone, Grand Teton or Big Bend and textured, stony earth at his feet — are woven together in large-scale color images that are unlike anything I know in art.
Morell grew up in Cuba and watched a lot of westerns. His hero was John Wayne, and he loved the cinematic grandeur of the Western landscape. When he came to the States and finally visited those landscapes, what struck him most (he says in a touch-screen video that is part of the show) was not the grand views but the more proximate texture of things close at hand, or even under foot.
Marrying far and close, large and small, Morell’s bewitching images are also a way of looking at the “Adams landscape” indirectly, thereby catching the cliche off guard, discovering the image anew. Suddenly, “that Ansel Adams mountain is yours, not his,” Morell says in the video. “You take ownership of looking at it again.”
Confronted by great images, we too often recoil from their rhetoric, and perversely censor the creativity they stimulate in us. Artists — and even non-photographers leery of visiting places (Niagara Falls!) that have become cliches — should, therefore, heed the words of this eloquent artist, who came to America with his family, fleeing persecution, when he was 13: “No one stopped you at the gates saying, ‘Sorry, Adams did this already.’ ”
Ansel Adams in Our Time Through Feb. 24 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 465 Huntington Ave. mfa.org.