Blog USA / In Defense of Ansel Adams: The Carlsbad Caverns Photographs

Ansel Adams is probably America’s best-known photographer, but I doubt that many young artists would openly cite him as an influence. Celebrated by previous generations for his technical innovations and unprecedented imagery of American landscapes, Adams retains a distinguished place in the development of modern photography. For all of his popularity, however, it’s difficult to argue for his relevance to contemporary conversations. There are a few different reasons for this – chief among them, I would argue, being the very prevalence of the work itself: Adams’ style has, at this point, been so thoroughly integrated into the vernacular that his images have been effectively rendered blank to us, seeming more in line with stock advertising and calendars than with the ideas driving contemporary art. As such, works that once revolutionized the field stand for many today as the source and embodiment of clichés in landscape imagery: embarrassingly earnest, staunchly modernist, offensively sentimental, mind-numbingly perfect.

I myself have never been particularly interested in Adams’ work. As an artist, I’ve found much to appreciate in his images, but very little I could actually use. To my own surprise, however, I’ve recently become quite enamored with one of his lesser-known bodies of work. Here’s how it happened: During a visit home a few months back, I was flipping absentmindedly through a book of Adams’ prints. For the most part, the sequence of anonymously pristine mountains and misty lakes simply blurred together – beautiful, certainly, but also a bit boring.

I paused, though, when I saw this:

 

 

The image comes from a series of photographs taken in the cave systems of Carlsbad National Park, New Mexico in the early 1930s. There, working in confined spaces and with artificial lighting, Adams was decidedly out of his comfort zone, struggling in vain to achieve the tonal sensitivity and sense of expansiveness for which his work is known. In the end, Adams was so unhappy with the photos that he destroyed many of the prints. The series remains among the least known, least exhibited works in his catalog.

What Adams dismissed as a failure, however, is to my eye perhaps his most fresh and interesting set of images, fascinating in their imperfections. Adams’ lighting setup here all but erases the depth of field and, combined with an uncharacteristically shallow tonal range, produces a flattening effect that can at times be strangely disorienting. Note also the quality of the prints: where his images are typically known for their clarity and depth, the Carlsbad shots are rougher, harsher, dulled and sometimes blurry. Combined, the results introduce the element of abstraction into Adams’ landscapes – something he’d flirted with elsewhere, but not nearly to this extent – and take on a compelling graphic quality. Along those lines, my favorites in the series function basically as studies in texture, at times reading almost like xeroxed collages. It’s a neat effect – and all the more remarkable for having come from the same artist who brought us “Tetons and Snake River”.

 

 

In both subject matter and appearance, these images strike me as decidedly contemporary. There is, for one thing, a veritable movement of young photographers currently incorporating a nature/cave/hiking aesthetic into their work – a conversation from which Adams has been largely absent, but to which these images would easily lend themselves. As a point of simple comparison, for instance, we might consider images from the Carlsbad series alongside recent projects by two of today’s most notable art photographers: Ryan McGinley’s Moonmilk series and Peter Sutherland’s book Even In The End.

 

(above: Ryan McGinley, below: Ansel Adams)

(left: Peter Sutherland, right: Ansel Adams)

Whether the Carlsbad series influenced these more recent works or simply anticipated them, it’s interesting to me that what Adams considered to be among his least successful photographs arguably stand as the most relevant to current threads of art photography.

View the series HERE.

Christopher Schreck is an artist/writer based in New York City