Saturday, April 28, 2007

Visit to the Ansel Adams Exhibit

The Detroit Institute of Arts has had an Ansel Adams Exhibit on display for over a month, and I've been intending to see it. I finally made it there last weekend and was quite pleased. I actually learned quite a bit.

I've always known who Ansel Adams was, what he accomplished, how he was a pioneer in the field, how good he was in the darkroom, and all of that. I've seen many of his works. I knew about his involvement in the f/64 group, and all of that. However, I didn't know many specifics about his life. I'm not much of a reader (unless it's a technical guide or something) so I've never read any biographies about him. The exhibit filled me in on a lot of details about his the fact that he was a pianist before he was a photographer, and that he did both for a while before really focusing on photography.

I learned about Adams evolving philosophy of photography. I never knew that early on he preferred to take soft focus photos. It was part of the pictorial style of photography...the belief that photography needed to emulate painting to be valid as an art. The forming of the f/64 group was an instrumental part of redefining photography as an art medium of its own, rather than an emulation of another artform.

The exhibit itself consisted of over 100 photos of Adams work. What I found interesting was how much of his popular work I was unfamiliar with. I've always known him best for his work in the national parks. However, many of his works, including what is apparently his best known work (Moonrise), I'd never even heard of.

I've known that retouching photos has been done for ages, but I've never seen any specific examples of it being done in popular artwork back then. At the exhibit, there was a photo that Adams took of Yosemite Valley back in 1925. When he reprinted it in 1927, he decided that the road was too prominent in the photo, so he retouched it. Unfortunately, they didn't have an unedited version of the photo, so I couldn't do a side by side comparison, but looking at the edited version, I'd never have even known if I hadn't been told. In fact, even knowing it, I still couldn't tell exactly what had been retouched. It was impressive to see how good of a job he did 80 years ago. It was also nice having a specific example to reference from a well regarded master, for all of those people who insist that editing is the new bane of digital photography. The only problem with my "specific example" is that I wasn't specific enough...I forgot to get the name of the photo. If any of you know what photo I'm referring to, please post a comment for me.

Another surprise was seeing just how exceptionally sharp and detailed photos were back then. I realize that they used large format cameras, and thus had an advantage over modern day cameras in that respect. However, I guess I've always been of the assumption that the state of the art back then was much worse than it was. We've had all of these advances in film technology (before digital came along) and computer designed lenses with specially designed optical materials. I guess I just thought the capability wasn't there back then to capture stuff as good as they did. It was a real eye opener.

There was only one thing I was disappointed about. I've always known that Adams was an expert in the darkroom, and that over the years, he revisited some of his older works and reprinted them using his latest techniques. I was really hoping to see an example of this...a set of 3 or 4 large prints that were redone at different points in his career. The closest they had were a pair of prints..a small one, not as sharp and with a tone, and then a larger one, true black & white and tack sharp.

Overall, it was a great learning experience. Well worth the $10 per person (free audio tour included). While my wife was done looking after about 45 minutes, it took me probably twice as long to study and appreciate. If you go, I'd recommend having at least 1.5 to 2 hours to spend. If you have more time and haven't been to the DIA in a while, admission to the rest of the museum is included in the $10 fee, so you could make an all day event of it.

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