Ansel Adams @ the Benaki

2, May 2010 § Leave a comment

Marking the end of a week-long break from classes was a visit, last Saturday, to the Ansel Adams exhibit currently on display at the Benaki Museum in Athens. After a few introductory remarks by John, who worked with Ansel before coming to the Aegean Center, we began to make our way around the barn-like room whose floors creaked noisily beneath us.

Though I have been John’s assistant these past three years I knew little of Ansel Adams and his work, an astounding feat considering the world-wide popularity of his images. I was properly blown away, first by the beauty of the wilderness he photographed, and then by the care with which he consigned his images to paper. I immediately appreciated the degree to which he retained, in the printed image, the sublimity of the original. It is this that makes Ansel Adams a great photographer, the ability to shorten the distance between original intent and final product.

This ability depends entirely on discipline and careful attention to craft. It is a lesson many of our students learn at the Aegean Center and one I also learned when, two semesters ago, I prepared for a solo concert with singing student Chelsey Ternes. My goal was to move an audience the way I myself am moved by my favorite performers and so often by  fellow singers of the ensemble. I embarked on a months long practice schedule during which I sought to correct the vocal problems that impeded my way. I cannot determine the degree to which I achieved my original aim, but I performed the concert confident that I had done my best  and determined, at its conclusion, to continue in pursuit of my goals. I believe that Ansel served a similar if not greater compulsion. (Incidentally, Ansel was originally trained as a classical pianist. In materials presented to his workshop in August of 1983, he writes “I was trained as a pianist and I know the meaning and the fruits of discipline. Without it, I would have progressed slowly, if at all, in photography.”)

As we circled the exhibit a second and third time, students would stop to discuss the elements in Ansel’s photographs that informed their own work as painters, writers and photographers. Fielding questions were Jane, Jun and John, who, at one point, referred to Ansel’s work as poetry.

I think he’s right. Ansel’s photographs, like the writings of Emerson, are the result of long hours spent in nature, in introspective solitude. To capture, for instance, the Clearing Winter Storm, Ansel had to have been there for the storm itself. I pictured him, alone in that vast wilderness, moving through the falling snow. I felt the coolness of his reddened cheeks and the air that filled his lungs. I then saw in the sharpness of his prints an attempt to recreate the clarity of mind which only nature can bestow.

Alongside a brief biographical timeline was a picture, taken in 1930, of a young Ansel in his darkroom. At the tail-end of the exhibit was another, of a much older Ansel. Before us was evidence of a life filled with good work, the result of a dogged dedication to craft. I envied him this and left, wanting to dedicate my own life to something so beautiful. I suspect the students were likewise motivated, as they hurried to catch the afternoon ferry back to their studios and to our pretty little island.

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