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Ansel Adams: MFA Review

by Riley Lane

photography courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts Instagram

The exhibit “Ansel Adams in Our Time” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston explores the work of the pioneering photographer and environmentalist, as well as numerous contemporary artists that continue to build off of his legacy of environmental awareness. Sticking to a tight theme of American landscapes, the exhibit highlights the vast expanses and natural wonder of California and the American Southwest. The collection holds some of Adams’ most iconic prints, such as Clearing Winter Storm and Moon and Half Dome, as well as more than 20 present-day photographers who have continued his themes of wilderness and vast natural spaces.

Born in 1902, Ansel Adams was an American photographer, environmentalist and activist known for his black and white images of Yosemite and the American west. The exhibit moves both backward and forward in time in relation to Adams’ work, showcasing contemporary landscape photographers as well as nineteenth century government survey work that greatly influenced him. Adams introduced the American public to the large, uninhabited wilderness of America, and he used the beauty he captured to fight for environmental protections.

The exhibit also features contemporary photographer and artist Trevor Paglen, whose work spans from investigative journalism and writing to sculptures and engineering. His ‘Drones’ series was particularly inventive, juxtaposing reaper attack planes against breathtaking skies. A large puff of cotton candy clouds the small plane, placed in the bottom left corner of the frame. The contrast of natural beauty and the danger of the drone was inventive and breathtaking, and the physical prints exemplified this by being by far the largest in the gallery.

Artist and photographer Catherine Opie was also included, with contemporary fine art imagery of the crossing of ‘mainstream and infrequent society.’ Focused on dealing with sexual identity, cityscapes and landscapes, the UCLA professor’s images were perfected to a point. Her series of blurred out landscapes was an interesting take on natural beauty, having almost the complete frame blurred and essentially obscured of detail. This, in some ways, would inspire the viewer to construct an image that they can almost recognize in their mind but can’t quite make out, exploring the relationship between our mind and our sight.

It seemed as if the contemporary artists were drowning out Adams’ work at some points, being more inventive and colorful than Adams’ seemingly simple landscape shots. The exhibit creators realized his simplicity, however, is his greatest strength. Taking time with Adams’ prints reveals his concise composition, every careful second waiting and planning out a shot.

While the exhibit may initially seem sparse, the lack of a multitude of content leads the viewer to focus on select works. Focusing on the carefully curated prints, the exhibit prompted viewers to really spend time with each piece.

Annie Millman (CAS ’22), who also serves as the Director of Photography for Off the Cuff, a BU fashion magazine, found the exhibit to be inspirational from an artistic standpoint.

“As a photographer, the experience of getting to see these prints inspired me to get back into film photography,” Millman said. “Going back to the original format of film and printmaking and seeing it in person was inspiring.”

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