By Ansel AdamsIfthere'ssomethingprettymucheveryoneagrees on—snooty, pissy avant-garde types of course excepted—it's that Ansel Adams' photos are really, really nice! Wow, look at Half Dome! That's some God'sfinest,right there!
And the old Santa Ana Courthouse has gone and put up a retrospective of works by Adams, his forebears, and some folks he's influenced, and it's purty! And nice! (But horribly installed; you know how these nice civic museum folks are.) Fo sho!
It's always better-than-nice to see shots from Eadweard Muybridge, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange—a recent tragically humdrum photography show at the Getty was only saved by a concurrent exhibit of these same old masters, particularly some luminous Weston photos of nude blond boys. Seeing these heavies can make one feel positively virtuous for one's simultaneous love of history and appreciation for the shock of the then-new.
And the Adams photographs do as well; they really are exquisitely rendered in their hard-silver light. There aren't just the iconic Half Dome shots, but others too like AntelopeHouseRuinfrom 1942, wherein a huge, striated rock hundreds of feet tall dwarfs the teeny little crumbling brick edifice segregated in the lower right hand corner. Each of the thousands of layers of shale in the mountain are visible, billowing and windswept, and each brick in the ruined house even though it's shot from hundreds of feet away. His WomanBehindtheScreenDoor,Independence,CAfrom 1944 makes plain each tiny square of mesh; it looks not like a photograph but like a graphite drawing by a meticulously methed-out speed freak. Mudhills,Arizona,from 1947, looks painted by a pointillist, all those thousand points of light.
But the longer one looks at the workmanship of Adams' brilliantly formal images, the more one sees the snow-gilded evergreen up his butt. Around him are free and breezy works by Judy Dater—her ImogenandTwinkaatYosemitewas featured in "Woman: A Celebration" at the Orange County Museum of Art last year, a tiny troll woman in knee socks and tourist camera coming upon a nude Swedish sylph in the trees—and Stieglitz, whose TheTerminalshows such life and motion, you can see the steam coming from the horses' mouths. There's Dorothea Lange's Payday,Richmondfrom 1942—an uncharacteristically foggy shot of a gaggle of Rosie the Riveters standing in line, two colored ladies smiling and jawing and holding welding masks, the pug-nosed, gap-toothed white girl behind them free and happy. Adams' DogwoodBlossoms,conversely, is beautiful, but beautiful like a waxy corpse. His stillness sucks life from the most majestically alive places on earth.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the wall text beneath William Mortensen's Salome,a bangled, barebreasted, Clara Bow brunette with one hand in what's either a dish of flowers or a plate of mashed potatoes, and the other squeezing her round left tit.
"He was and has remained synonymous," Adams said, "with the opposite of everything I believe in and stand for in photography." You know: lewd, crude and rude.
But somehow, with all the life left in.
"Ansel Adams: Inspiration & Influence" at Old Courthouse Museum, 211 W. Santa Ana Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 973-6605. Open Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Through May 2.