SALEM — The photography of Ansel Adams is so sturdily composed, so enduringly right that it can feel like the aesthetic equivalent of granite. Unbudgeably there. Non-porous. A waste of time to take issue with.

These feelings emerge from qualities inherent in the photographs (the sharpness of their focus, their encompassing breadth of vision, their preternatural balance) as much as from their best known subjects, the mountains of Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks.

But Adams was more protean and more various in his moods than is often acknowledged. And so it was a clever move by Phillip Prodger, the curator of photography at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, to build a major Adams show around a theme that is the very opposite of granite – a theme that suggests movement, flux, metamorphosis, and transience.

That theme is water.

“Ansel Adams: At the Water’s Edge” contains more than 100 original photographic prints by Adams – some of them very large. In all of them, water appears – or manifests – in various forms.

In a 1929 image called “Thunder Falls,” for instance, falling water forms a tremendous curtain of cascading lines, blurred by their own velocity. Adams makes these flying striations both rhyme and contrast with the crinkled vertical striations of the adamantine rock face that makes up the picture’s other half.

Historians of photography like to emphasize that around 1930, Adams shifted away from the Pictorialist style of soft-focus, fine art photography he had favored until then, and took up modernist precepts: crisp focus, clean lines, dynamic composition, dramatic contrasts of light and shade.

And so he did. But it’s interesting to note that more than 20 years after “Thunder Falls,” the mature Adams is still delighting in the contrast between blurred water and crystalline rock in such photographs as “El Capitan Falls, Yosemite Valley.”

Here, a sun-shot spray of mist and falling water splits two sections of towering cliff. Water and light threaten here to undermine the permanence of rock. The spray of the falls rises high above the cliffs, like incautiously poured champagne, conjuring a triumph of the insubstantial and evanescent over gravity and weight.

But, as always with Adams, it’s the sturdiness of the composition that counts. In “El Capitan Falls, Yosemite Valley,” one can only marvel at the way the diagonal line formed by the tops of the trees echoes the contour of the cliff over on the right, while the vertical trunks of the trees reinforce the edge of the cliff at far left. The whole arrangement holds together as tightly as the cables of a suspension bridge.

Waterfalls were a favorite subject for Adams. But water, of course, does not just fall: it freezes, crashes, sprays, pools and swells. It also reflects. And there are many images here where Adams makes inventive use of the mirroring effects of lakes.

In “Maroon Bells, Near Aspen, Colorado,” for instance, the optical reflection of iced up trees and snow in the lake at the bottom of the picture almost effaces the transition from land to water: It all seems like one flat and continuous scrim.

The effect is even bolder in photographs like “Mirror Lake, California” or “In the Lyell Fork of the Merced River, Yosemite National Park,” where increasingly large fractions of the image are made up of reflection. In the beautiful, mind-stilling “Reflections at Mono Lake, California,” the expanse of water reflecting clouds takes up four-fifths of the image.

In “Submerged Trees, Slide Lake, Teton Area,” Adams uses reflections to toy with principles of Japanese aesthetics – not only flatness and dynamic asymmetry, but a kind of crisp, poetic minimalism.

Adams’s aesthetic is so appealing, so crystalline, so classical, and so essentially bulletproof that it’s not surprising that his influence has been vast. If his vision has grown increasingly susceptible to cliche, that is not his fault. That’s simply what happens to great classical art. (Is it the Parthenon’s fault that the entire Western world is filled with buildings that mimic and bastardize its forms?)

What is true is that many of Adams’s images are so in thrall to nature’s majesty that they lack a feeling for human intimacy. This is as true of his close-ups of reeds and barnacles as it is of his distant, majestic landscapes.

Again, this is a symptom of his classicisim, and I find it strangely refreshing. It’s certainly interesting that, of all the special qualities inherent to photography which Adams adapted so brilliantly to his purposes, the one that he rarely touched upon was the one we indulge most frequently when using our cameras today: the longing for human intimacy, a longing that has since become inseparable from the kitsch of constant recording, of sentimentalizing our personal relationships before they have even had a chance to grow.

Adams remained gloriously aloof from all this. Which is just one more reason to like him.

Last Updated on February 5, 2020

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