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Ansel Adams and Edwin Land: art, science, invention

Ansel Adams Bridalveil Falls, part of the Fine Arts - Center exhibit Ansel Adams and Edwin Land: Arts. - Science and Invention.
  • Ansel Adams Bridalveil Falls, part of the Fine Arts Center exhibit Ansel Adams and Edwin Land: Arts. Science and Invention.

It's unlikely you'd ever associate the photography of Ansel Adams -- majestic, natural beauty of mythological proportions -- with Polaroid picture snapshots. Until now.

In the late 1940s, a consulting project by Adams with scientist Edwin H. Land, a pioneer in the development of instant film and cameras, married Adams' trademark images with Polaroid's film technology.

The Fine Arts Center is exhibiting an eclectic collection of Adams' photographs taken during the period of that collaboration. Two galleries display 80 black-and-white prints, humorous correspondence between Adams and Land, and some fascinating commentaries. The presentation emphasizes the link between the artist, Adams, and the scientist, Land, and the professional relationship that evolved into a lifelong friendship.

The exhibit presents some of Adams' most famous shots of towering mountains, cascading waterfalls and languorous waterways as well as a number of starkly lit portraits and urban landscapes. These studies are at times captivating and range from the size of instant Polaroids to full-sized pieces.

The 1944 photo "Woman Behind Screen Door" shows an elderly woman in her doorway looking out from behind the screen. Her body blends into the dark backdrop so she appears as a disembodied bust. The shadow of the screen mesh pixelates her well-worn face.

"Industrial Location" is a 1962 photograph of a factory shot from street level through a high chain-link fence. The building has a sense of grandeur, typical of Adams' mountain photos, but the prominent fence creates a barrier. This representation of stark, urban efficiency seems to be beyond reach behind the fence, an obstacle, unlike his shots of nature, which are open and accessible but daunting nonetheless.

Interesting as these shots are, it is the photographs of untamed nature that most impress, from Yosemite's El Capitan Mountain to the jagged Teton peaks all the way to Alaska's Mount McKinley.

The 1948 masterpiece "Mt. McKinley and Wonder Lake" is stunning. McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America at over 20,300 feet, dominates the picture from the rear of the frame with an opaque, mirrorlike lake in the foreground. The towering mountain dwarfs its landscape. It is grand; it is powerful and needs no cheesy, motivational phrase printed at the bottom to inspire.

Adams' photographic essays of America's landscapes encouraged the protection of national parks. But even with his ability to capture this wondrous beauty and lobby as president of the Sierra Club, he still struggled to convince politicians of the importance of protecting America's wilderness.

Some of the letters record these efforts and provide an insight into his beliefs and the frustrations he encountered. Examples include consulting with Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Although Ford responded positively, his administration acted late and with reluctance. Reagan was charming, promised little, and did far less.

Land best sums up Adams' work as making mountains into metaphors, and metaphors into mountains. The beauty of Adams' metaphors is that you can read into them what you like and ignore them if you just want to appreciate what you see.

Adams' photographs are the wonder that can be created when art and science come together. They also remind us of what we stand to lose when uncontrolled human exploitation has free rein.

-- Wayne Young


Ansel Adams and Edwin Land: Art, Science, and Invention. Photographs from the Polaroid Collection

Sept. 4 Oct. 24, 2004

The Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St., 634-5583

Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1-5 p.m.

Admission $5 adults, $3 seniors, $2 children 6-16 years.

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