National Maritime Museum travels from the Mountains to the Sea with Ansel Adams

By Ruth Hazard | 12 December 2012
A black and white photo of a dramatic landscape with mountains under clouds
Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California (circa 1937). Photograph by Ansel Adams. Image courtesy David H Arrington© The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Exhibition Review: Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea, National Maritime Museum, London, until April 28 2013

Ansel Adams was 14 when he first visited Yosemite on a family holiday. His parents, worried about their shy and sickly teenager, decided they would buy him a Kodak Box Brownie camera so he could take pictures of the trip.

Over the next few years the young Adams would spend much of his spare time exploring the seascapes of his native California; trailing the coastal paths around his home in San Francisco where he became fascinated by old shipwrecks.

Although he would go on to become one of America’s greatest landscape photographers, the images he took over the course of his career retain that same sense of boyish excitement from his teenage years; Adams’ ability to marvel at his surroundings enabled him to find beauty in places that others might miss.

The pre-Adams era of landscape photography was largely pictorial, using soft focus and coloured emulsions to give the finish of a painting or drawing.

In contrast, the sharp focus of Adams’ work illuminated the landscape in new, unseen detail - a radical departure from what had gone before.

These pictures made it possible to see the individual grains of the sand, the ripples moving across the water, the markings of the tide on gnarled rock faces and the wind moving in the trees.

Powerful, dramatic and provocative, it’s easy to see why these photographs are among the most celebrated in the world. But Adams was interested in more than just aesthetics. With each picture, he tried to express something more personal.

Self-labelled as a "creative photographer", he believed his work should not only show the landscape, but also give an impression of how he felt about it.

Envisaging the shot as it should look in his mind, Adams would use equipment and technique to "create" it, camping out for hours, sometimes even days, waiting for the moment that his vision would become real.

He often returned to the same scenes to capture them in different seasons or from altered perspectives. As a result, many of the pictures in the display are almost anecdotal, charting changes in Adams’ own emotional state as much as the changes in nature.

Whether it’s the erupting Yosemite geysers that mark the photographer’s joy at returning to California or the sullen later works that reveal his bitterness over the destruction of the natural world, it’s clear that, for Adams, a photograph is always inextricably linked to its photographer.

What made - and continues to make - Adams so inspiring is his passion for capturing moments of wild beauty not only as he saw them, but as he felt them too.

As such, these images are incredible, genre-defining works of art. They are also intimate expressions of the man who created them.

  • Open 10am-5pm (7pm Thursday, closed December 24-26, 10am-3pm December 31, 12pm-5pm January 1). Admission £2-£7 (family ticket £7.25-£14). Follow the museum on Twitter @NMMGreenwich.

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