Saturday, February 10, 2007

Ansel Adams

So last week in class we watched an American Experience documentary on Ansel Adams. It seemed like a good follow-up to the Muir reading and very relevant to the course's main theme--the tension between utopian and dystopian representations of California. There are similar tensions in other parts of Adams's life: between his urban San Francisco scene and his more rustic one in Yosemite, between his family life and his intense feelings for his assistant, and between the natural landscapes he photographed so famously and the decidedly artificial technique he perfected for doing so.

Let me pull the curtain of charity before the mass-marketing of Adams's photographs. But I have to note that they were on display at the Bellagio in Las Vegas when I was there last month. Is any single venue more antithetical to the spirit of those photos?

This is a pretty good documentary, but I thought it would have been stronger at two-thirds the length, and I noticed an unresolved tension in the presentation itself. The talking heads, especially Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, speak at length about wilderness, its unpredictability, and how important it is to the American spirit. But the documentary itself, including the score, is solemn, predictable, pious ... in a word, tame. It seems to accept the idea that whatever is sacred or sublime (in this case, wilderness) must be sublimated. But maybe that's closer to Adams's overall effect on American culture, if not his intention.

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