T.O.P. Ten: Number 5
When I was young and new to photography, I worshipped Ansel Adams and revered his work. Now that I'm older and jaded, I seldom return to it for pleasure. Thus, Adams has taught me one of the most important lessons to learn about art: tastes change.
Art is volatile. Its meaning changes with context, in time, and depending on the cultural "lens" through which it's viewed. For instance, you could say that Ansel Adams was in the vanguard of 1930s modernism, what with his participation in Willard Van Dyke's "Group ƒ/64" and his heroic, forward-looking outlook. Or, you could see him, as I do, as the apotheosis of the 19th-century photographic explorers of the American west, of Watkins and Jackson et al. He has more in common with Albert Bierstadt than he does with the irony of the "New Topographers."
Still, he was undeniably at the height of his powers when he made this astonishing landscape at Tenaya Lake, 8,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada, in the late 1940s. All too often, photographs suggest that "anyone could have taken them" if they had only been there, confronted with what the photographer found himself face-to-face with; and in a backwards way, this is a good proof of just what an original photograph this is: it looks virtually nothing like any other picture of Tenaya Lake ever made, or at least that I've ever seen. (Compare it to this more usual snapshot of the place—photographer unknown—at left). Adams's picture is just full to the scuppers, of lake, granite, and of clouds, which Adams treated as a pictorial element as massive and as worthy as mountains. He manages to convey scale—not an easy trick in a photograph, in which a strawberry can be made to be bigger than Uluru. He even manages to convey the cold, vivid clarity of the mountain air. It's a picture of great balance: notice the way the strip of lake at the bottom is mirrored by the strip of sky at the top, the way the slash of deep shadow at center left is balanced by the patch of sunlit cloud at center right. And the sheer texture of the great granite slabs bring to mind the native American name for the lake, Pie-we-ack, "lake of the shining rocks."
Still, it's a vision that for me contains a fair bit of imagination. Adams's Yosemite was a nearly empty preserve for him and his intrepid fellow hikers in his day compared to the crowded playground it has since become. But it was already a National Park twelve years before Ansel was born. The imagination comes in when we consider it, as Adams no doubt wanted us to, as pristine, unsullied wilderness—the way the Earth might have been if humankind had never been. It is not so much as a record of a real place that the power of this picture resides, but in our happy thrall to this wonderful—and undeniably magnificent—idea of nature.
Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON