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).

Jacob’s Ladder – a view to look at art from

'Jacob's Ladder' by David Mach
'Jacob's Ladder' by David Mach

We all know that the image-saturated world we live in is invested with meaning – if seeing is believing, there’s a lot of faith circulating in 21st century culture, from high art to popular screen culture. But this believing is in a very obvious sense ‘religious-free’ – it’s not about the doctrine or creed of an explicit theology, but more about authentic experience and the perception of truth (small ‘t’). Spirituality is a good word for talking about it. This image is a focus for some of my ideas about the spiritual in art – David Mach’s ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ was part of his solo show in Edinburgh that I reviewed in October.

Spirituality here is found to be exaggerated in a dream state – Mach’s figures are not just sleeping, they are transported to an other-worldly state, they have a lack of grounding against the watery background. Jacob’s dream opens the door to a vertical dimension where encountering God means seeing his transcendence, and awe-inspiring ‘otherness’. The ladder or stairway becomes symbolic of the elements of religion that are about distance, the separation of man and God, of nature and the super-natural.

Art’s purpose has often been to point this out, even to volunteer itself as a medium for realizing (but not closing) this distance. So we have the long history of art that, by being self-effacing, ascribes to a morally superior mode of instruction in things religious. But the big story of modern art is that self-effacing can, ironically, only be an illusion, a pretence that covers up art’s limits and very specific materiality. The myth of this transcendent aspect of art is a bit like being showered with coins from above, and not waking up to their solid, even base, reality.

Three women in Mach’s image lie in a flurry of coins or diamonds, and a fourth in the stars peeling from the American flag on her shirt. It evokes Titian’s ‘Danaë with Eros’ (first of 5 of the same subject, 1544-46), where Zeus appears to Danae in the form of a shower of gold and seduces her. The women in Mach’s image are similarly posed – as if the transportative experience of the dream, or as I’m talking about, the spiritual in art, is ultimately about seduction and ecstasy.

The seduction is important, since the transcendent in art proved difficult to eliminate with modernism – even through the reclaiming of art for art’s sake, a greater holiness if you like, was found in the end of the image. From Kandinsky to Reinhardt, ever increasing abstraction only led to a greater sense of the mystical and the divine, increasingly removed from reality.

A rebuttal to this nihilism comes in the form of immanence, where the God who reveals himself to Jacob promises to be with him, to bless him with descendents and land. In the biblical text, the dream moves from a visionary state to an auditory promise. The Word permits a multiplication of signifiers in a horizontal plane – Jacob’s life expands with God’s presence. I take this to be the effect of the multiple figures and multiple ladders in Mach’s picture – the encounter ends up being a shared experience, and spirituality in art is peopled with others, with the everyday, with heterogeneity.

Magritte’s ‘Golconda’ (1953) exemplifies this – the wondrousness of an other-worldly encounter is still there, but by the expression of ordinary-ness taken to literally new heights. That which is mythical and transcendent is diminished to a discrete reference by the title (Golconde refers to a ruined city in India, famous for its legendary wealth) – Magritte of course being well-known for the subversive questions he brings to textual referencing.

Surrealism, of which he was part, opened the door on that which was repressed in modernism – the multiplicity of human desire, a fracturing of ideals, and the relocation of spiritual experience within the body. It’s the beginning of the post-modern story, where mystery in art is erased through the embracing of popular culture, and the linguistic appropriation of signs, from Pop Art to Brit Art.

What happens next is the big question. Does a plethora of verbal association in images allow for the spiritual in art, or is it forever to be coded in a sea of relative forms? Are Mach’s figures drowning or floating? Does the subjective state of dreaming remain locked in to the personal and individual, as suggested by the headphones and stethoscope of three of the figures? Not to mention the closed eyes.

In the Genesis account, Jacob wakes up and has an overwhelming experience of awe and humility. His life is completely reoriented on account of image and word effecting a reaction towards God. He also acts towards the material (by erecting the stone), which embodies the being-here and becoming-here of the divine. What might it mean if artists ‘wake up’ in the same way – wake up from the dream of ultimate transcendence and the dream of ultimate immanence in art? Is there the possibility of working towards God, and seeing the spiritual in the material? How can that not become just another ideal, even idolatry?

That’s what I want to explore, with my own work, some other contemporary artists (Viola, Hirst, etc.) and through the ideas of some theologians (Pattison, Begbie, etc).