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Art Review: Silver Eye displays famed photographer Ansel Adams' one-of-a-kind polaroids

Saturday, December 02, 2000

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

Ansel Adams. His name is synonymous with majestic and reverential images of the sovereign features of the American West, framed by an observant and simpatico eye and given eloquence through mastery of the effects of light that came from a near-obsessive pursuit of new technologies and the perfection of technique.

If you go...


Where and when: At Silver Eye Center for Photography, 1015 E. Carson St., South Side, through Jan. 27. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and until 9 p.m. Thursday; 412-431-1810.

Other events:

Thursday, 7:30 p.m. "Ansel Adams: Contributions and Controversy," by Linda Benedict-Jones, executive director of Silver Eye and exhibition curator.
Jan. 19, 7:30 p.m. "Highlights of the Polaroid Collection,: by Barbara Hitchcock, director of cultural affairs, Polaroid Corp.
Jan. 20, 10 a.m. "My Visit With Ansel Adams," lecture with brunch by Boston based photographer Jan van Steenwijk. Cost per lecture: $8 members, $5 others. Refreshments will be served. Because space is limited, reservations are recommended but not required.
Portfolio Review: Jan. 20, between noon and 4 p.m. Barbara Hitchcock will give critical feedback to photographers interested in having their work considered for inclusion in corporate collections. Limited to eight individuals. Reservations required; $50 per session.
Poetry Reading, Dec. 16, 2 p.m. Readings by Pittsburgh poets, Judith Robinson and Michael Wurster of works by Ansel Adams' favorite poet, Robinson Jeffers; $5; members, $3.
Chatham College Lecture, Jan. 11, 7:30 p.m. "Ansel Adams and the Conservation Movement" by Dr. Susan Schrepfer, Rutgers University environmental historian, co-director of the Industrial Environments project of the Rutgers Center of Historical Analysis, and author of "The Fight to Save Redwoods: A History of Environmental Reform, 1917-1978"; Welker Room, Laughlin Music Building. Free, sponsored by the Sierra Club, Allegheny Group.


A very special exhibition -- "Ansel Adams: Photographs From the Polaroid Collection"-- at the Silver Eye Center for Photography, South Side, is the first to be held in Pittsburgh devoted to this seminal figure in fine art photography, who was born in San Francisco in 1902 and died in 1984.

The link that brings this sterling body of work to the diminutive nonprofit gallery is the person at its helm, executive director Linda Benedict-Jones, who made her first privileged plunge into the Adams archives when she was curator of the Polaroid Collection in Cambridge, Mass. She was researching an exhibition that would commemorate the long working association between Polaroid founder Edwin H. Land and Adams as part of the corporation's golden anniversary celebration in 1987.

What she found, along with copious correspondence that gave insight to Adams' character, was an extensive body of one-of-a-kind Polaroid photographs by the artist that hadn't previously been exhibited. She pulled many of these for the exhibition, after which they traveled only to the Ansel Adams Center in San Francisco before being returned to storage. They resurface here and are gems, including two unusual color photographs, an abstract work that is for Adams atypically unrevealing, and a shadowed self-portrait that similarly conceals.

Others, like "Mission San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Arizona," the first image in the exhibition, are stylistically Adams. In it, the spans and broad walls of the mission are given the same considerations that he gave to the open and closed spaces of canyons, resulting in a marvelous composition of spaces, shadow and light.

The more than 60 vintage prints (all printed and signed by Adams) also include many signature works, which invite comparison to the history of painting and photography.

In the 1941 "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" a sumptuous band of luminous clouds form a protective bunting over the humble Southwestern village that appears tiny within a vast landscape of prairie against a backdrop of toothed mountain range. Almost two-thirds of the composition is given over to a black sky interrupted only by a nearly full moon that hovers low near the land. It is the transcendent moment of the Hudson River School painters, with man, when he enters the scene at all, barely perceptible within the vast grandeur of nature. To add emphasis to the transitory place of humans, Adams has given the town's graveyard foreground prominence, its multiple white crosses standing out of the shadows.

Man's presence is uncommon, though, in Adams' work, as Benedict-Jones points out, which makes his images quite different from those taken in the 19th century by early photographers who accompanied expeditions and usually inserted a person in the landscape to give a sense of scale. Still, the connection with American painting, as in Thomas Cole's argument for the American landscape as worthy subject; the extravagant, near-documentary depictions of the expanding frontier by 19th-century artists like Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran; and the Hudson River painters' commentary on the effect of civilization's advance upon that frontier, may be seen, and perhaps more so felt, in Adams' oeuvre.

In "El Capitan, Winter, Sunrise, Yosemite National Park, California," of 1968, the patriarch dominates the scene, softened by a wrap of cloud, the shaded detail of the foreground equally quieted by the mood of the snow-covered moment, yet articulate. In contrast, the nearby "Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park," of 1960, is so excruciatingly clear it is as though the universe stopped, breathless, to pose for the man and his camera.

But this is not an exhibition of the predictable by any means. The "Pinnacles, Alabama Hills, Owens Valley, California" rear up in the forefront of the composition like trapped stallions, causing the viewer to step back to gain space before looking past them across an equally focused valley and hilly background. The flat geometry on the 1958 "Petroglyphs, Monument Valley, Utah" calls to mind contemporary painting, while the curving lines of "Sodium Sulfite Crystals (Evaporated in Tray)" look like an engraving plate.

There are also several portraits, as interesting for their historical as for their aesthetic value. Among these are well-known contemporaries like Edward Weston, shown in 1945 enthroned appropriately within the gnarled limbs of an ancient eucalyptus tree, and of Margaret Bourke-White, taken in 1958. The latter's photograph of Adams, taken a decade later, is one of four of him by prominent figures.

It's not well known that Adams supported himself by doing commercial photography until the 1970s, and the 1932 "Still Life" with kitchen implements and eggs is a revelation. The overall subject may appear mundane, but his inclusion of nature's perfect form is pure artistry.

Benedict-Jones gives a welcome peek at Adams the man by including some of the archival materials that she spent six months reviewing. Post cards, letters and other communications show that he was bright, organized, inquisitive, observant, eclectic, at peace with his world and in possession of a great sense of humor. Adams had trained as a concert pianist but left music for photography and the outdoors. His first job, begun in 1916, was as a custodian for the Sierra Club.

She will relate more anecdotes from this engaging life in a lecture beginning at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Silver Eye that promises to be animated and fascinating. (Reservations are recommended, as space is limited, but not required.)

Whether or not a visitor attends complementary events, he should find this an extremely worthy and satisfying exhibition.

A minishop offers books, a calendar and post cards featuring Adams' work. An excellent gallery guide accompanies the exhibition.

In the Members Gallery, beyond the main exhibition, are works by two notable local photographers. Paul Wiegman, a naturalist who knows whereof he "speaks," shows intimate black-and-white slices of nature's patterns. William Real's color photographs of expansive landscapes have an effective new palette of warm blues. An abstract foursome constructed of cliff, wall and gravel pile are especially fine.

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