The Waterscapes of Ansel Adams

On a family excursion to World’s End, a peninsular park on Boston’s South Shore, my husband and I shared an age-old pleasure with our toddler son Ilan. We showed him how to throw rocks in the water.

Ilan carefully selects the best stones to launch into the bay.

We picked up the palm-sized, flat stones that covered the beach. We skipped them (ping ping ping!) and we launched them up high in the air (plonk!). Ilan was hooked. For the next half an hour (which I think translates to about seven hours in toddler attention span time), I relaxed on the beach, emptied my mind of thoughts, and gazed out at the horizon. Ilan threw stones, one by one, rhythmically, into the bay. Plonk. Plonk. Plonk. Plonk.

Ansel Adams: At the Water’s Edge,” just opened at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and while viewing the gorgeous black and white waterscapes, I couldn’t help but reflect back on that day at World’s End. Water is captivating — its movement, its changing colors, its hidden depths. It was beautiful to see my son’s innate fascination with the ocean, as well as his desire to interact with it and understand it.

As the title suggests, this exhibition has a specific focus on works of Ansel Adams that depict water, in all its forms. Adams may be better known for his stunning photographs of mountain and desert landscapes, but here we are treated to views of gushing rivers, spouting geysers, and crashing waves, as well as icicles and snow. He captures water in rapid motion and water that is so completely still it more closely resembles a glass mirror than a lake.

The exhibition also includes the beautiful print, The Golden Gate before the Bridge, that hung at one time above Adams’ desk in San Francisco. Soon after this was taken, construction on the famous bridge began.

The Golden Gate before the Bridge, San Francisco, California, 1932. Photograph by Ansel Adams

Adams’ tremendous influence on the art of photography and his enduring popularity is, of course, only somewhat based on his choice of subject. After all, many people can snap a shot of a stunning coastline. After visiting the exhibition and doing a bit of complementary research, I learned that Ansel Adams pioneered a number of technical innovations that allowed him to express his creative vision in a new way. He belonged to a group of photographers called the F/64 who experimented with sharp, precise focus. Also, he created a method called the Zone System, which essentially involves manipulating the film exposure and development to produce an image that more closely reflects the artist’s view of the subject. Here’s a rather poetic description from American Photography: A Critical History 1945 to Present by Jonathan Green:

“Thus a sand dune seen at sunrise could be transformed into an almost abstract composition of hard-edged black-and-white forms, a lone tree branch on the shore of Mono Lake could be made to stand out as if spotlit against a luminescent, floating background, and the north sky beyond Yosemite’s Half Dome could be rendered a rich, velvet black…By using the Zone System, the photographer can darken those areas that in actuality provide an overabundance of distracting detail, lighten areas deep within natural shade, and intensify, simplify, or almost utterly obliterate the relationships between land, clouds, sea, rocks, foliage, and sky. Adams found in this system the answer that pictorialists in photography had long been seeking: a means of controlling the optical, mechanical medium with the same finesse the painter managed with the brush and palette.”

Reflections at Mono Lake, California, 1948. Photograph by Ansel Adams

Thus, through his technical genius, Adams can show us the magnificence and elegance of water, not as he recorded it, but as he saw it. If only we could now invent a method that would allow us to capture the world as a toddler sees it. I am so often curious about what my son is thinking as he encounters a new sight, taste, or texture. What was going through his mind as he threw those rocks into the water at World’s End? In order to express his unique vision, I might need a lens of wonder and a filter of awe.

– Marta Brill

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2 responses to “The Waterscapes of Ansel Adams

  1. Pingback: How to entertain your tot on a wet, cold Saturday: A guide in progress « Connect Shore·

  2. Pingback: One Year Later: Part Two | Connect Shore·

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