Ansel Adams at the Maritime Museum

‘Mirror Lake’, 1935

In a display of over 100 original prints, the National Maritime Museum presents Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea. From muffled, vaporous clouds to sharp plumes of waterfall or geyser, water is the theme for an exhibition that celebrates the formal lyricism of Adams’ inspiring photographs. There are striking images of the curl of foam and ripple as the sea skims shores of dark sand, including a series of Surf Sequence (1940) frames on the beach at San Mateo (County Coast, California). There are expansive views of the rugged mountains and crisp snow-lined valleys of Yosemite National Park and Grand Teton National Park. There are also intricate textured details in photographs of seaweed, ice and floating grasses.

Given such a homogenising theme, it can seem unnecessary, even impossible, to move beyond the magnetism of such technically accomplished photographs: Adams undoubtedly has, and is widely celebrated for, a style with articulate and refined compositions, dramatic contrasts and an all-pervading sharpness of focus. When he formed, along with six others, Group f/64 in 1932, it was to promote photography that celebrated the camera’s clear vision, needing no other introduction. Yet, for Adams, it was also a way of seeing that suggested the immediacy of nature, along with the unhindered capacity of the mind’s eye to be a part of this immediacy.

Adams’ work presents the apparent contradiction of an isolated inhuman perspective on the world with that of complete absorption and identification with(in) it. Enlarging on his friend and colleague Alfred Stieglitz’s well-known term ‘equivalent’, Adams thought that his photographs presented not just a view, but an equivalent in terms of the emotions he felt at the time. He said that “a great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.” As well as emotional meaning, his work has also become resonant with spiritual meaning, one concerned with our connectedness to the land and environment. In the early 1920s, Adams is known to have converted to Edward Carpenter’s monism, celebrating the wholeness of the universe, where for Adams, nature in its entirety was “the vast expression of ideas within the Cosmic mind”. Later in life, Adams’ assistant of nearly 10 years said of his work, it is “a kind of visual [John] Muir, a symbol of conscience, of reverence, of caring for the land.”

If the photographs themselves are only implicitly cosmological, rather than explicitly so, it is because Adams is always intuitively engaged with picturing what he calls ‘configurations’, not ‘integrations’. He does not seek to impose on the image, but rather to find a synthesis, an extraction from/of nature, in which he himself is implicated. There is, in the varied sizes of his prints from the 6-foot murals for The American Trust Company to the 6-inch enamel-like jewels of the Merced River, a sense of corporeal engagement with the image. Adams famously described the printing process as being like that of the performance of a piece of music, of which the score was the negative. Such an attentive position bears out his precise articulation of a holistic, embracing vision, which owes more to a spiritual conception of beauty than the aesthetic conception more readily expounded in the ‘purist’ canon of photographic history.

Quotes from: the Exhibition Guide; Anne Hammond, “Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe: On the Intangible in Art and Nature,” History of Photography, Vol. 32, No. 4, Winter 2008, p.307; Andrea G. Stillman (ed.), Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs (New York & London: Little, Brown and Company, 2007), p.9; and terms used by Adams in the exhibition’s films – two short interview excerpts from: BBC Masters: Ansel Adams, 1983 (dir. Peter Adams), and Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film, 2002 (dir. Ric Burns).

Tidal timing and razor reflections

Baleen Bridge

Pencil Bridge

The Severn Estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world. Last Wednesday and Thursday were the perigean tides for the autumn – meaning that point in the year (another in the spring) when the greatest difference can be observed due to the moon’s closeness to the earth. In this case, nearly 14 metres difference between low and high tides. At the Severn Estuary, where I’ve spent a lot of time watching the water, I love the dramatic effect of these extremes, and this week I went at night to try some shooting in the dark.

Baleen Bridge and Pencil Bridge express the differences I also feel between the Second Severn Crossing and the old Severn Bridge. The first is a construct of concrete lumping through the waves to Wales, something about it is imposing and solid, a transverse trunk of manland. It seems to filter the elemental water and air through a baleen wall of stone. It’s humanity solidified in vehicle, crane and train hidden on the underside of the road surface. Pencil Bridge is, by contrast, a thin line of luminescence, white-winged over the world, with the arch of a transport that is more spiritual than earthy. You feel this when you drive over it, it’s incredibly uplifting. This is humanity etherealised in space, light and curve.

Purple Tide
Blue Tide
As for a high tide, these are for my Mum, that butterfly view under the canopy at a morning and evening swell…

Eadweard Muybridge reflections

Eadweard Muybridge, ‘Tutokanula. Valley of the Yosemite No. 11’, 1872

Muybridge: a 19th century, postmodern photographer. Comparing his work to that of his contemporary Carleton E. Watkins, Rebecca Solnit (with acknowledgement to Mark Klett’s remarks about the ‘composed’ modernism of Watkins’ photographs) writes:

Muybridge, even when photographing almost exactly the same subjects, could not be more different. In his sensibility, the world is all but discomposed, constantly in flux. Even something as solid as a government building reveals itself to be a creature of change; the water we think we know becomes eerily unfamiliar whether seen too slowly, as ghostly films, or too quickly, as leaping beasts; his late portraits are not portraits of human beings but of their actions, of movement itself; some of his landscapes, via their clouds, are really two different moments spliced together; and his panoramas often promise a single sweeping glance while actually being made up of several nonconsecutive moments. Even his taste in surfaces and textures runs to the intricate, elaborate, dense, and tangled: they are not smooth, stable, or easily deciphered. Finally, his tricksterish moments of subversion of the supposed truth or continuity of a given work of art render more uncertain and less stable the subject at hand.

(from Eadweard Muybridge, Philip Brookman, Tate Publishing, p.187). This is the prevailing reflection on Muybridge from all 5 contributing essays in the book – that he destabilises the picture plane, the norms of picture-making, the solidity of people and place, the assumptions of perception. His work is ‘an exercise in impossible seeing, transcending the bounds of ordinary human vision’ (Rebecca Solnit, p.185). Corey Keller notes the continuous interest in ‘effect’ (p.217), that specific attention to the format and display of images so prevalent in Victorian times which links the spectacular image with the bodily involvement of the viewer – through stereoscopy, his zoopraxiscope, and pull-out book panoramas (and may also include the presence and authentication of the creator himself). A similar theatricality is detected by Marta Braun in the composition and manipulation of the supposedly sequential images in Animal Locomotion, Muybridge’s seminal publication of 1887.

Perhaps this ‘mixing it up’ of image practice and publication, crossing art and science, is uncomfortable for today’s high art world because it seems like a muddying of the waters of a distilled, pure ideology of the photograph. Such an ideology does not exist. It’s like the clear, sharp, focussed presentation of a window on the world which turns out to be an upside-down reflection, a magical mirage. (Incidentally, the image above, on display in the 2010 exhibition in its original published album, is deliberately printed the ‘wrong’ way up among the sequence of mammoth plates. In the exhibition catalogue, it is ‘corrected’ by the Tate publishers and turned around.) There is, rather, a constant rupturing of any synthesized whole, and the suggestion instead of a subliminal turbulence and uncertainty about the world and the way we picture it: both in terms of individual images and in terms of Muybridge’s career as a whole.

A Monet tribute – happy birthday Steve!

The original image
Starting point (as commissioned by my brother): A reflection piece, has to be portrait format, incorporating ‘upside-down-ness’ and water’s reflections. This photograph was taken at Monet’s waterlily pond at Giverny, in 2008 on a family holiday. The day was sunny with a few clouds, my camera was a Nikon D50. We had some fun trying to recreate a family photograph taken in 1989 (?) of my dad, my brother and I standing with the pond and a bit of willow tree in the background. This is important because it’s like our shadow on the scene, and also like the one existing photograph of Monet’s shadow on the pond’s surface: time’s slippage becomes a surface slippage.

First attempt
This is a segment of the original photograph cropped and turned upside-down. I used feathered selections to highlight an over-sharpening of the lower section of willow reflection, and a surface-blurring of the lily area. This section also upped the cyan/blue balance, which had the effect of ‘dissolving’ both the edges and colour of the lilies – notice the white flower is completely camouflaged.

Changing horizons
I wasn’t happy with the proportion of horizons in the previous image, nor the gradient of space suggested by sky/lily/willow. So here I’ve extended the segment of the original photograph, to get a greater profile of dark to light on a vertical axis. The lilies weren’t working to produce the effect of surface ambiguity that I was after either, so I attempted a small visual trick in cloning the flower and turning it the right way up. It’s a small, interesting interruption to the plane of view, but hasn’t enough resonance to carry the whole piece.

Enter another image
On paper, I thought the previous image was finished, and took it to the printers. However, I got it back, and realised the surface blur in the central section had taken out too much detail in the lilypads, and left a strangely unreal matt effect with the odd black grain. It’s a lesson I always forget to learn – filters in Photoshop usually aren’t a good thing. Thankfully, the printers had made a mistake in the format, so I had the chance for a reprint, and took this as a second start. How to salvage a not-quite-popping middle ground? Get another image in. This one is another upside-down segment from Monet’s pond – this time with lily pads in sharp relief and some detail in the depth of the water, with nice trails of grass, bubbles and weed.

Image merger
Having added a vignette effect to the previous image, and upping the cyan/blue balance, I carried it into the original segment and overlaid it with a slight transparency. This time, the surface blur filter on the second layer worked a bit better, working to effect the sense of something seen blurred by water – much more subtle and working only on the details. I also flipped the original segment to fit the pattern of lilies in the second layer, adding another ‘tier’ of willow to raise the proportion of colour, since the lilies had become much more invisible. The metallic glint in the bottom right was a happy effect, though the transition from willow to lily above this hasn’t quite worked.

Tenom I
The final image – here I’ve flipped the whole image again, feeling that the proportions suited a heavier left edge. I also increased the visibility of the lilies in the top half of the image by soft-erasing the layer of the second image. Doing this with a sharp-edged brush on the lower-section lilies that have a striking shadow or underside was also effective. I hadn’t wanted to lose these dark-looking saucer shapes, as they add to the abstraction, and the erasing also helped to pick out a green tint that balances the movement from blue to yellow. I particularly like these, and also the sparkle of the floating details, which I brightened. From a distance, they look like they could be stars in the sky.

This is the start of a new series of pieces using photographs from Monet’s garden. His waterlily paintings are justly famous – he knew about mesmerising worlds, about shimmering colour spectrums, about serene consistency and abstract intangibility. I wish he had taken more photographs.