Culture: A Sense of Time and Place; Visual Arts Terry Grimley Reviews Three Photography Exhibitions on the Theme of Place at Walsall's New Art Gallery

The Birmingham Post (England), July 22, 2008 | Go to article overview

Culture: A Sense of Time and Place; Visual Arts Terry Grimley Reviews Three Photography Exhibitions on the Theme of Place at Walsall's New Art Gallery


Byline: Terry Grimley

We usually think of photography as capturing an instant, but in the work of American photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) time exists on a glacial, geological scale.

Between the 1920s and the 1970s Adams recorded the grandeur of America's wild scenery, from the Yosemite National Park to Death Valley and the Sierra Nevada. Some of these places may have already been national parks, but they were not yet the sites of mass tourism they have become today.

As well as earning him a place in the pantheon of the world's great photographers, Adams's images also identify him as a pioneer of the environmental movement.

Originally trained as a musician, he was inspired to take up photography by a visit to the Yosemite National Park in 1916, and became a lifelong member of the conservation group, the Sierra Club, at the age of 17.

The photographs recently shown at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, and now on display at the New Art Gallery in Walsall, come from Adams' own selection of his best work, made shortly before his death.

Although he did sometimes work in colour, his photographs are overwhelmingly in blackand-white, as are all of those in the exhibition.

Human beings and human activity are conspicuously absent from these photographs (though Adams did come down from the mountains to record peasant life in New Mexico and to take portraits of various fellow artists), so that you would be at a complete loss to guess dates without the aid of captions. fellow artists), so that you would be at a complete loss to guess dates without the aid of captions.

One of the earliest photographs, a spectacular view of the peak known as Half Dome in the Yosemite National Park, dates from 1927. It's taken from half way up the impressive sheer cliff, with dramatic perspectives in both directions.

Photographed from a different angle, Half Dome turns up again in a snow-drenched photograph from 1960.

The trouble is, these landscapes are now so familiar from magazines and travel brochuresthat you do have to make certain mental adjustment to appreciate Adams' pioneering achievement. On the other hand there is no such requirement when he photographs the artist Georgia O'Keeffe out in the wild, or the photographer Alfred Stieglitz in front of one of O'Keeffe's paintings, or a close-up of the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco.

One of my favourite photographs, unusual for Adams, is Church and Road, Bodega, California from about 1950, in which the white clapboard church stands arrestingly like a sharply-deGned apparition above the dark dirt road leading to its door.

Two other exhibitions devoted to contemporary British photographers complement and contrast with Adams. The larger of the two is The British Landscape by John Davies, a body of work compiled between 1979 and 2005 for which Davies was nominated for the prestigious Deutsches Borse Photography Prize earlier this year.

Davies's photographs resemble Adams' in that they are black-and-white panoramas with a self-effacingly objective point of view.

On the other hand they are the complete opposite of Adams'photographs because instead of recording ancient landscapes unchanged in centuries (a view of Skidaw in the Lake District is a partial exception), Davies's reFect the rapid pace of change in Britain during the post-industrial era.

Although a relatively recent project, Davies has captured industrial sites which have already passed into history, such as Easington Colliery in County Durham, photographed in the 1980s and again in 2004 - apparently the only site Davies has revisited. …

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