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Famed photos by Ansel Adams now in Springfield

When Ann Fortescue was just six years old and growing up in New York City, she often paged through a coffee table art book entitled “The Family of Man.”

One photograph, in particular, impressed her. It’s one she has never forgotten.

Today Fortescue is executive director of the Springfield Museum of Art and the photo she so vividly remembers hangs in her museum’s beautiful McGregor Gallery as part of the current exhibit, “Classic Images: Photographs by Ansel Adams.”

The dramatic photograph is entitled “Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California” and was taken in 1944.

“I remember the rocks in the foreground and the way the light hit them, it looked like the rocks were gold,” says Fortescue about the famous photo. “My world view when I was a little kid was of skyscrapers, so looking at that picture without a person in it made an impression.”

The show — on display through May 11 — features 72 black-and-white images of the American wilderness by one of America’s best-known photographers. This particular collection is a Museum Set, a portfolio Adams created in the 1970s as the best images from his career. He printed these images for his daughter, Anne Helms, and the photos — primarily landscapes — also include close-up nature works, portraits and architectural subjects.

An accompanying exhibit features painted landscapes from the Springfield museum’s own collection.

“We knew the lion’s share of the Ansel Adams photos would be stunning landscapes of the American West and we wanted to show off Ohio landscape painting as well,” says Foretescue.

In the museum’s interactive art lab, visitors can explore concepts related to landscape, tone and perspective.

Access to the Adams exhibition resulted from the networking Foretescue has been able to do since the museum officially became an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It was while attending an annual conference of affiliates that she heard about the Ansel Adams exhibit being shown in Peoria.

“I knew that his name would be recognizable and draw people,” says Fortescue, who admits she was a bit worried that visitors might come with “really big expectations” and be disappointed.

But when Fortescue and other art handlers and installers began pulling the famous photographs out of the crates, she knew there was no reason for concern.

“We’d look at each one and say: “WOW!” she says. “We knew no one who came to see this exhibit would be disappointed.”

The photographer’s popularity

The 15 sections of the exhibit are arranged chronologically as well as by themes and trace Adams’ illustrious career from 1921 through 1968. His love of the American wilderness is apparent in his photographs of several National Parks, including his beloved Yosemite.

Throughout the exhibit are personal accounts from Adams himself.

Jane Alden Stevens, a professor emeritus of fine arts at the University of Cincinnati, taught photography for 31 years and labels Adams a game-changer and one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century.

“There are a lot of reasons why but the bottom line was that the pictures he took struck a number of chords with the public,” she says. “One of them was that they depict the American West and many of the most popular tourist sites and locations in a way that almost mythologises them. They are very detailed, very grand and sweeping, very uplifting and awe-inspiring.”

Adams’ technical virtuosity, she says, was also significant.

“He was a master of his medium and many, many people aspired to make pictures like that during his lifetime and for a fair while after he died,” Stevens says. “Landscape photography is a genre that’s very popular — everybody who goes on vacation makes pictures of the places they have gone to visit. His pictures somehow evoke that same sense of grandeur that you get when you go there —they trigger, for example, that same sense of awe you get when looking at Yosemite.”

Stevens says another trait that made Adams such a hit was that he spoke the vernacular when he talked about photography and that everyone could understand what he was saying.

“He had a connection with people that not every photographer has had,” she says.

Music and photography

Adams was a trained concert pianist who often correlated music and the act of playing and performing music with his pictures.

“His pictures were the performance,” says Stevens. “If you know that and then look at his pictures you can see the analogy.”

Adams, who took his first photogragh at the age of 14 with the kind of Kodak Box Brownie like the one on display at the museum, was well-known for the creation of his Zone System.

“He developed a system for calculating how to expose a negative and then develop it so that the negative could be printed in a technically magnificent way,” says Stevens. ” By magnificent I mean there are details that can be seen in the print from the deepest shadows to the lightest highlights of the print.”

The University of Dayton’s distinguished service professor Sean Wilkinson remembers giving a presentation on Ansel Adams at the Dayton Art Institute when the DAI hosted an exhibit on Ansel Adams in 1992.

“Although Adams was rigorous in his insistence on using only purely photographic means, no one was more capable than he of exploiting those means to their very limits, and of using them to create visual theatrics,” he says. “Even in his portraits and commercial work, everything is frozen in an eternal moment of absolute perfection. The world we see in Adams’s photographs is emphatically not the ordinary world, as most of us know it.

“Most of us are ready and willing to be seduced into believing that photographs record reality with accuracy and neutrality. We tend to overlook, often deliberately, distinctions between representation and expression, and between life and drama. Thus the attraction of soap operas as well as the photographs of Ansel Adams.”

Photography being taught at colleges everywhere

Stevens credits her career to Ansel Adams.

“He was a huge advocate of photography being taught on the university level as a viable art form and most photography programs at school grew out of his efforts,” she says. “So he is influential — not just as a photographer — but because so many students study photography today — even though the way it’s being taught today is quite different than the technology he was using at the time.”

Wilkinson says it’s important to note that one of the many admirable things about Adams was that he always remained open to the full spectrum of the medium.

“He believed in the value of diversity and even supported institutions that featured work of which he was outspokenly critical,” he reminds. “In my view, this openness of mind, this largeness of spirit, and this belief in the future marked him as a great man every bit as much as his remarkable photographs.”

Stevens says anyone interested in photography will be interested in the Springfield exhibit. Fortescue says that’s definitely the case — the exhibit is already attracting folks from throughout our region.

“Knowing something about the foundations of the past is important even if you’re an artist interested in contemporary approaches to photography,” Stevens concludes. “The past is important because it’s a foundation upon which the present is built.”

Arts writer Meredith Moss checks out art exhibits throughout our region that are worth your time and money. If you have an exhibit you’d like to suggest, contact Meredith:

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