February 2012: Ansel Adams in LA

Ansel Adams, Couple sharing Acme beer in unknown Los Angeles bar, c1940


Ansel Adams Los Angeles
Drkrm. Gallery, Los Angeles
February 18 - March 17, 2012

It’s not often a writer working in the early part of the 21st century finds herself reviewing new work by a long-deceased legend -- but thanks to the miracles of antique technology and the initiative of some very interesting librarians, that’s almost exactly what has happened. In 1940, Fortune sent him to L.A., tasked with documenting the civic life of the city in the ramp-up to WWII, with specific regard to the aviation industry. He turned in something like 200 images, of which only a few appeared in the magazine. In 1960, Adams donated the whole batch to the Los Angeles Public Library. Now, more than 70 years later, here are a few dozen brand-new silver gelatin prints made from the original negatives, by the master printers of Drkrm., an artisan photo lab specializing in classic analog and vintage imaging techniques like our old friend, silver gelatin.

But even with the faith I had in the gallery’s ability to do justice to the printing, there was still the question of subject matter. I anticipated having a hard time finding the Ansel Adams I knew -- he of the coffee-table books and framed posters depicting majestic views of sand dunes and full moons -- in these pictures of city streets, fishing piers, factories, and trailer parks. But there he was. Underneath the coffee shops, gas stations, and newsstands, just squint and there he is, taking on the same formal armature of those high-contrast dunes, archipelagos of mountain-tops, speckled receding perspectives of spires along the timber line, hovering full moons in inky skies. Realizing that you’re actually looking at picket fences, municipal buildings, metal roofs, cast shadows, and telephone poles does nothing to dilute the impact of Adams’taste. The aesthetics that prompted him to click his shutter, the things that caught his eye and his fancy in nature, remain constant in ordinary encounters with city life.

Ansel Adams, News stand in Burbank, c1940

In Olympic Trailer Park, a skipping path of glowing white stones hops up and off toward the horizon, a smattering of stark trees rush vertically toward the overcast sky, a harsh slant of a straight line veers off in the other direction. The eye is restless, it zigs and zags, the focal points shift, the contrast is dramatic. But it’s not a rocky valley at dawn, it’s a trailer park, telephone poles, and the dirt road toward the factory. In Couple sharing Acme Beer in unknown Los Angeles bar, another striking example of this transference places all the focus on the sharp, clean lines of a shadow on the far wall cast by a banister; it could be a ray of sun bursting from behind a dark cloud, or a steep striated cliff, or even modern architecture. What it is, is the complete fusion of his visual will with the narrative demands of his subject. It transcends narrative in a way, not being interested in story-telling, but more involved in finding the same shapes and elements of composition he lusts after in the woods and dunes, but in the boulevards instead. A lifeguard tower instead of a foregrounded tree trunk; a curvilinear market facade instead of a rock face, a stand of gasoline pumps instead of an olive grove. Wherever he went, there he was.

Notoriously a stickler for production detail, one imagines the present-day printer in the darkroom having a Shakespearean wrestling match with Adams’ghost. Burning and dodging and arguing with the spirit of his dead hero, merging his own artistry with his forefather’s intentions, teasing out what felt the most like what Adams would have been looking for, literally channeling him -- but is that really any different from just making the best prints he possibly could, based in no small part on what he’d learned from looking at Adams in the first place? It seems the drkrm. folks went looking for Adams too -- and they absolutely found him.

Ansel Adams, Olympic Trailer Park, Santa Monica, c1940

Ansel Adams, City Hall with Court Flight Funicular in the foreground, c1940

Shana Nys Dambrot

Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Flaunt, Art and Cake, Artillery, and Palm Springs Life.

She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She is a member of ArtTable and the LA Press Club, and sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.


Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff


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