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Ansel Adams

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Original author: 
Jack Lowe

Since receiving a Kodak pocket camera as a birthday present when he was a child, Hengki Koentjoro has been hooked on photography, going on to study and graduate from the Brooks Institute of Photography. It was while studying that Koentjoro became heavily inspired by the atmospheric work of influential American photographer Ansel Adams, motivating him to create similarly moody images but in his hometown of Jakarta, Indonesia. The results are truly stunning, documenting the vast oceans surrounding the country's 13,000 islands in brooding, menacing and mysterious black and white. When asked why he only shoots in monochrome, Koentjoro says: "It is more pliable therefore more freedom in expressing your idea. With the Zone System by Ansel Adams, you are in the practice of seeing things around you in monochrome or learning to see in black and white. This helps a lot in choosing your proper subject matter and forecasting how it'll look later on in post production."

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In the 1860s and 70s, photographer Timothy O'Sullivan created some of the best-known images in American History. After covering the U.S. Civil War, (many of his photos appear in this earlier series), O'Sullivan joined a number of expeditions organized by the federal government to help document the new frontiers in the American West. The teams were composed of soldiers, scientists, artists, and photographers, and tasked with discovering the best ways to take advantage of the region's untapped natural resources. O'Sullivan brought an amazing eye and work ethic, composing photographs that evoked the vastness of the West. He also documented the Native American population as well as the pioneers who were already altering the landscape. Above all, O'Sullivan captured -- for the first time on film -- the natural beauty of the American West in a way that would later influence Ansel Adams and thousands more photographers to come. [34 photos]

A man sits in a wooden boat with a mast on the edge of the Colorado River in the Black Canyon, Mojave County, Arizona. At this time, photographer Timothy O'Sullivan was working as a military photographer, for Lt. George Montague Wheeler's U.S. Geographical Surveys West of the One Hundredth Meridian. Photo taken in 1871, from expedition camp 8, looking upstream. (Timothy O'Sullivan/Library of Congress)

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by Claire O'Neill

I don't know if I can directly answer the latter question. But certain curators like Joshua Chuang at the Yale University Art Gallery are determined to answer the former: Who is Robert Adams?

Chuang, now probably the leading Adams expert, started asking that himself, back when he was a student of photography. He picked up one of Adams' books — with characteristically dense writing and arguably unapproachable photos. "It took me a couple years to really get it," he says over the phone.

But now, it seems, he gets it. In 2004, Yale inherited a huge trove of Adams' work, and Chuang has been processing it since then. "There was not a single bad image in the group," Chuang says with a genuine deference. "His standards were so high and his editing of his own work was so rigorous." The fruits of their joint labor are in a traveling exhibition, The Place We Live, now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Credit: Robert Adams/Courtesy of LACMA

The basics: Adams can most succinctly be described as a photographer of the American West. He was born in New Jersey, but his family moved westward to mitigate his issues with asthma, and he has remained there. Only after getting a Ph.D. in English did he really begin photographing, and he has been at is since, but quietly. He doesn't email, he rarely takes interviews, and he lets Chuang come to him.

Maybe it helps to set the stage. When Adams picked up his camera, the most recognizable images from the American West were those sublime landscapes of Ansel Adams. To a large degree, that's still the case.

But where Ansel had a moral mission (to conserve nature by presenting it to the public in its pristine form), Robert's approach has been more clinical: He observes the interaction of man with land as objectively as possible. Where Ansel's photos say, "Look at what we should cherish!" Robert's say: "Here is what we are doing, and make what you will of it."

Chuang elaborates: "What sets Adams apart is his utter dedication to showing the whole picture, a truthful picture. ... Every one of his photographs is really a complex mix of good and bad. He tries to make pictures that say yes and no at once."

For example, one of the photos in the exhibit shows a small cluster of trees at the edge of a steep drop-off. By all technical definitions, one might call it beautiful. The balanced composition, the quality of light — those are things that say "yes." But then there's the title, straight-forward as it is: New development on a former citrus-growing estate, Highland, California. That seems like a subtle "no."

New development on a former citrus-growing estate, Highland, California, 1983
Robert Adams/LACMA

New development on a former citrus-growing estate, Highland, California, 1983

But it's not obvious. These photos are not on a soapbox preaching the ramifications of global warming. They are trying to be more black and white. At least, that's the idea.

"Adams has tried to go out of his way to make the uniconic pictures," says Chuang. "He chooses subjects that are so banal that they almost seem hopeless."

Though curator Joshua Chuang says Robert Adams is, in a sense, trying to make
Robert Adams/Fraenkel Gallery/LACMA

Though curator Joshua Chuang says Robert Adams is, in a sense, trying to make "uniconic" images, this one stands out as one of his more memorable: Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1968

Of course, I think Robert Adams would be hard-pressed to deny that he loves the West. I actually don't think he would try to deny it. In his writings, he waxes poetic about the quality of light, and how it redeems even the most dismal of tract houses.

You might not know he loves it, just from glancing at the images, and he sees value in that. But he also hopes you'll do more than glance. For all the desolate scenes of suburban sprawl, there's still that brilliant high-altitude light. For all of Adams' apparent indifference, and he might hate me for saying this, there seems to be a bit of hope there, too. It might just take a closer look.

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Retrospective exhibits, while an enviable chance to create a cohesive story from a lifetime’s worth of work, can be a curator’s nightmare: pieces have to be gathered from all over the world, selected at a distance, organized before they even get to the gallery. Not so the new retrospective of the work of Robert Adams, the photographer famous for documenting the people and landscapes of the American West—both natural and manmade—who is approaching his 75th birthday this May. The show, which opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) on March 11, was put together at the Yale University Art Gallery (YUAG) from the master set of thousands of prints donated to the gallery by the photographer in 2004.

“We had time to work with originals and precisely strike a tone that we thought the overall exhibition should have,” says Joshua Chuang of the YUAG, who worked with Adams to curate the images that the show comprises. Adams had preserved the best prints of his work throughout his career and he was instrumental in sculpting the retrospective, which will travel for two years following its time at LACMA. “It’s a very special artist indeed who is the best editor of his own work,” says Chuang. “Adams is really exceptional in that way.”

The resulting show is not intended to be merely a collection of over 300 pictures that happen to be the work of one artist, but rather a single, epic piece of work. It includes each of his major projects, dating back to 1964, and dozens of photo books that he has produced. LACMA’s installation also includes a multimedia reading room and a variety of related programs, from a botany-themed tour to talks with local artists who have been inspired by Adams’ work.

Chuang says that, taken together, the pictures in the show demonstrate how, even though many people think that a camera captures a literal version of the world, the art of photography is one of fiction. “The way that fiction functions is very tricky because it’s using facts to tell a fiction, and it has the appearance of fact,” he says. Robert Adams’ particular devotion to those facts, especially when it comes to capturing the precise look of light that may be flat or boring or dim, was so extreme that the photographer, viewing prints of a photograph taken decades before, was able to describe to curators the exact feeling of standing in a particular spot thirty years ago, and how that feeling ought to come across in the image. Chuang says that such fastidiousness about light means that Robert Adams’ work probably captures the West more accurately than that of the other chronicler of that region, Ansel Adams. But that faithfulness doesn’t mean a lack of artistry. Robert Adams’ skill at capturing nondescript light conjures up an experience—whether it’s in a Target store or the desert—with unexpected intricacy.

“He makes smog in California look ethereal and beautiful,” says Chuang.

And because of his relationship with that state, the photographer’s series of Los Angeles photographs will be highlighted in the show’s LACMA incarnation, in order to allow visitors to compare the environment of their daily lives with the one captured on film, says Edward Robinson, LACMA curator.

“It will be great for people to see this extraordinary photographer’s understanding and exploration of the area, to see how changes in the built environment have been reflected in the landscape,” says Robinson, “and what even the trees can suggest about the use of the land over time.”

Robert Adams: The Place We Live will be on view at LACMA from March 11 through June 3. Find out more about the exhibit here, or visit the YUAG companion site here.

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October marks the launch of Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A., 1945-1980, a region-wide collaboration celebrating the birth of the Los Angeles art scene. Lyra Kilston reports on the landscape photography made in this prolific era, the second in a four-part LightBox series about PST.

Joe Deal, reflecting on his landscape photographs of the early 1970s, wrote: “Why contribute, I reasoned, to the growing pile of photographs of an idealized American landscape while it was being chewed up before our eyes by advancing suburban development, interstate highways and shopping malls?” Deal’s sentiments were shared by a new school of Southern California-based photographers, including Lewis Baltz, Henry Wessel and Robert Adams, who felt that landscape photography was languishing in a dreamy, nostalgic style which ignored the reality of a changing world. They sought, as Deal put it, an “unromantic and unfiltered way of looking through the lens.”

This different style of photography—now known as New Topographics after the title of a groundbreaking and highly influential 1975 exhibition at the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, N.Y.—departed from the legacy of idealized landscape photography mastered by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston by unflinchingly depicting the Western landscape as it had become: full of highways, housing developments and anonymous corporate buildings. The fascinating evolution from the sublime, high-contrast style of Adams and Weston to the cool, detached documentary look favored in the 1970s and 1980s is explored in the exhibit Seismic Shift: Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal and California Landscape Photography, 1944-1984, which features work by more than 40 photographers, now on view at the California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside (where Deal and Baltz both taught).

The early photographs in this exhibit showcase the majesty of unspoiled natural settings, but by the 1950s the influence of abstract art was apparent in formal compositions by Minor White and William Garnett. By the late 1960s many landscape photographers were heavily manipulating their images to convey psychological states and mystic symbolism. As one critic deemed it, this method eventually reached a point of “poetic exhaustion.”

In response, the New Topographic photographers portrayed the intersection of nature and civilization with a flat sobriety. Common subjects included abandoned storefronts, storage facilities and chain link fences, as well as examples of artificial nature, such as a mural of a farm painted on the side of a truck. In Wessel’s deadpan California (1969) a Chevron oil sign hovers over a blank desert of scrub brush, and in Los Angeles (1970), an electrical pole bisects an empty parking lot. Judy Fiskin, Laurie Brown and Leland Rice focused on the impact of tract housing and construction sites, while Grant Rusk shot hills sliced with paths of asphalt and concrete.

A sense of loss is inevitable when all that’s left of nature is a strip of dirt fringing a concrete wall, as portrayed in one of Baltz’s well-known images. Yet as Robert Adams noted, “Unspoiled places sadden us because, in a sense, they are no longer true.” As stark or banal as the New Topographic style was, there is a value and beauty in its truthfulness. Landscape had changed dramatically in the developed West, and photography had to change with it.

Seismic Shift: Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal and California Landscape Photography, 1944-1984, is on view through Dec. 31 at the California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside.

Lyra Kilston is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including ArtforumArt in America and Photo District News.

Read the first part of the PST series here.

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The smell of fixer is one of my oldest memories of photography and my dad’s Nikon SP and the black Besseler enlarger would eventually become part of my own path into photography. Robert Levin was a writer at heart, and didn’t flatter himself with comparisons to the pros of the day, who happened also to be his professional associates and friends, but took some pleasure in his creations. As an editor, he assigned Henri Cartier-Bresson to photograph Dr. Anthony Pisicano, a local Long Beach pediatrician, and the Frenchman visited or house. Weegee passed by the house once, and Life’s Bill Ray photographed our family for a Life Magazine. Bob’s photography books were among my earliest photographic influences, although the truth is that I came to photography in my 20’s, and that his friendship with Howard Chapnick of Black Star, who also lived in Long Beach, was a major door-opener for me.

When my father passed away in the early 70’s I was given two large boxes by his secretary at Redbook Magazine, containing thousands ofj prints, negatives and personal papers from his childhood in the Bronx, where he attended Dewitt Clinton High School amd eventually the City University of New York and then Columbia. Like many of the upwardly mobile Jewish families living in the Bronx, the Levins had begun a slow migration to Long Island. For Alfred and Frances Levin and their two boys, Long Beach was the preferred summertime residence. Alfred was a jewelry salesman, first travelling in the South and than opening up his own business in the Jewelry Exchange on 47th Street. America was both affluent and expanding, and young adults were mobile and interested in things like Kodak Brownie cameras, which were extremely popular and easy to use, and made photography available to the growing American middle class. The first section of pictures taken in Long Beach, of Bob and his friends were made with one of them.

Robert served in the military during World War II as a writer for Stars and Stripes, the army’s newspaper. But he returned to Europe after the war with my mother, Martha, and spent a year, writing and photographing extensively, this time with a black Rollei twin lens reflex camera. These photographs are among most interesting, moody still-lifes and landscapes, often inspired, or so she jokingly insisted, by the direction of my mother, who had studied art history, and considered herself to have the finer eye of the two. In fact, she took full credit for his ability with the camera.

After returning to New York, Robert freelanced as a writer for men’s magazines like Pageant and Coronet, writing detective stories and doing interviews with celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Jacqueline Kennedy. The young couple lived in Long Beach in a rented apartment, and looked foward to a bright future in a country of expanding opportunity. I was born in New York City in 1950, and with my sister Peri followed two years later Before settling in and buying a house with a GI Loan, my parents decided to return to Europe, and the four of us we sailed off to France pn the Liberte. We lived in England, France, Spain and Italy, and my dad continued to freelance for the men’s magazines. typing off manuscripts and mailing them off to his editors in New York. By this time he had purchased a Nikon 35mm camera which had become the rage in photography and was aware of the work of Cartier-Bresson, as he was of the progressive writers like Jean-Paul Satre, and of course the American Henry Miller, and in our little family he had a opportunity to document what was a very idyllic and transformational time. He liked street photography, but some of the most compelling images are clearly of his own family. I don’t remember him posing any pictures, he was definitely a bit of a lurker. He rolled his own film, and developed much of it in a portable darkroom.

The family returned to Long Island so that I could begin school. We bought a Levitt house in Long Beach, and eventually Bob would take an editorial position in Manhattan at Redbook Magazine and commuted by train or car from Long Beach. The photographs from this time period are less candid and more representative of special events, a school play or graduation, or a family gathering. Eventually he was able to purchase a larger home in nearby Lido Beach very close to the water and it is here that the photographs tapered off. A divorce, a new life in Manhattan, made photography more of an afterthought, and less of a passion. There was less time, and certainly much less time for the family on Long Island.
What has become clear to me, is that the camera and the photographs of the family represented a vision of what family life was supposed to be, rather than the reality of what it was, or what perhaps what my father was.

My own career as a photography, if you could call it a career, has roots in the work of my father’s pictures. My comfort about the camera, came directly as a result of its presence as an indicator of love. I started with the Nikon SP that was used for all of his European work, although by this time the SLR had become the magazine photographer’s workhorse, and I quickly gravitated to the newer cameras, for better or worse, and the eventual assignments that took me all over the world and allowed me more success than I ever thought possible as a professional photographer.

But looking back at my father’s pictures, what impresses me most is that some of the most meaningful images that we can take are of things that are of our families, our friends, our communities, and the moments of our lives that are worth preserving. All photographs are proof that something happened and a way to mark our time as we live our days, one at a time. The increased volume of images, from cell-phone cameras, digital SLRS and the like as easy to use as they are, doesn’t really change the reason for using a camera. And I can only wonder what the children of today will see forty years from now when looking back
at the images taken by their parents. Will they be nostalgic for the 2010s? Probably so,

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