"There is no final photograph"
|Ansel Adams, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through January 27, 2008|
Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life 1990-2005, touring in 2008 to San Francisco, Paris and London
|By K. Kimberly King|
For Facebook and Flickr devotees, f-stops and shutter speeds must seem quaint concepts, but for two American photographic titans with recent exhibits at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art, only technical mastery of the medium can ensure maximum artistic expression. Decades' worth of mainly black and white artistry on view in traveling exhibits and accompanying catalogues from Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz might seem inconceivable to "mobloggers" snapping and transmitting photos on mobile phones.
And with digital and surveillance cameras ubiquitous, it's almost impossible to conjure up a Daguerreotype era when early photographers lugged heavy equipment more suited to pack mules and portraits came out clench-jawed tintypes, such as one of Mary Todd Lincoln on view in the Corcoran Education Room's excellent timeline. Indeed, with digital cameras now calibrated to reduce subjects' girth and erase their wrinkles, the perfection of craft on display underlines the medium's painstaking evolution, from pictorialist pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron's aim "to arrest all beauty that came before me..." to Henri Cartier-Bresson's later celebration of his new Leica as "the extension of my eye" for capturing his famed "decisive moment."
Neither Adams nor Leibovitz initially sought lives behind the lens. Teen-aged Ansel began training as a concert pianist; Annie started art school in painting classes. The two met in 1976 when Rolling Stone assigned its young chief photographer a picture essay, "Capturing the Soul," on seven leading photographers. Leibovitz posed Adams in his California darkroom to highlight his mastery of technique. Upon learning of the Corcoran's dual scheduling, she returned to her original negatives to reprint the image - hung between the two shows - in homage to Adams.
The darkroom master is also seen in a 1958 self-portrait (left): a shadow on the wall of Utah's Monument Valley of a hatted figure shooting with large format camera and tripod. His only other approach to self-revelation in this show is Date of My Birth, 1940, a Hollywood stage he spotted with "1902" and the name "Adams" on the hardware store front.
In contrast, Annie Leibovitz decided to include bare-breasted self-representations and death scenes of her lover and father. "You know, one doesn't stop seeing," she explained. "One doesn't stop framing. It's on all the time."
Both demonstrate "a system of visual editing," former MoMA curator John Szarkowski's term for photography. "Like chess, or writing," he observes in The Photographer's Eye (1966), "it is a matter of choosing from among given possibilities, but in the case of photography, the number of possibilities is not finite, but infinite. The photographer's vision convinces us to the degree that the photographer hides his hand."
Billed as "a new look at an American genius," the Ansel Adams show features approximately 125 black and white images of the master craftsman's world, one he said "too few people are lucky enough to live in --- one of peace and beauty." For Adams (1902-84), photography proved "an investigation of both the outer and the inner worlds -- an emotional and spiritual experience." Near the end of his six decades of art, activism, and teaching, he pronounced "a great photograph one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about life in its entirety."
Ansel Adams, drawn from the Lane Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), features rarely exhibited prints and, even rarer, two Japanese-style folding screens, along with iconic landscapes such as Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico and Aspens, Northern New Mexico (left). The MFA's companion catalogue is rich with insightful essays and sumptuous black and white images featuring Yellowstone geysers, California ghost town Hornitos, portraits of Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe, and sand dunes' tactility nearly jumping off the print.
Corcoran photography curator Paul Roth terms Adams "perhaps the single most important figure in the history of photography." Despite his many books, calendars and the Corcoran's own gift stock of Adams screen savers, Roth calls Adams "underrated." Not only did he produce magnificent photographs, he was a "pioneer educator, technical innovator, and environmentalist."
Writer Wallace Stegner noted that "the man who made unforgettable images out of the grandeur and mystery of nature did so because he could not help doing so.... [And] his environmentalism was not a side issue ... it sprang from the same source as his art, and involved him wholly." Along with three decades' work for the Sierra Club, Adams successfully campaigned for Kings Canyon to be made a National Park.
Born in San Francisco in 1902, he suffered a broken nose in the 1906 earthquake; "my beauty was marred forever," he later joked. With his father's blessing, he dropped out of school after the eighth grade, receiving home-schooling and tutoring. At age 13, he began training as a concert pianist. He later applied one music teacher's maxim to photography: "'If it's not right in every way, it's wrong.'" Because "I was told I had ideal violin hands," - he could "barely manage a tenth on the keyboard" and suffered frequent bone-bruising - "I do not think I could have achieved much notice as a concert pianist."
Soon came a different path: a first family visit to Yosemite, where "one wonder after another descended upon us....." Equally entranced by what he called "the great earth gesture" of the Sierra Nevada and his parents' gift of a Kodak Box Brownie camera, the 14-year-old immediately began taking pictures. He would return to Yosemite almost every year of his life. "I often hiked alone for days," once discovering a baby woodpecker nesting in his hat. "How different my life would have been if it were not for those early hikes in the Sierra.... Everything I have done or felt has been in some way influenced by the impact of the Natural Scene."
Shooting Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, 1927 (left) sparked an epiphany: "my first conscious visualization," a process way beyond "simply choosing the best filter. The image forms in the mind -- is visualized -- and another part of the mind calculates the physical processes involved in determining exposure, development, and qualities of the final print."
"I can still recall the excitement of seeing the visualization 'come true' when I removed the plate from the fixing bath for examination. The desired values were all there in their beautiful negative interpretation. This was one of the most exciting moments of my photographic career" and would lead to his innovation and promulgation of the nine-element Zone System.
By 1930, "wracked by indecision" over pursuing both photography and music, Adams traveled to New Mexico, hoping Southwestern light would illumine his calling. There he met Paul Strand, whose 4"x 5" negatives showcased "the great potential of the medium as an expressive art. I returned to San Francisco resolved that the camera, not the piano, would shape my destiny." Nonetheless, he continued playing for the rest of his life, eventually with the aid of oranges on the keyboard when his hands became arthritic. Darkroom processes he counted, not by timer, but metronome.
To earn a living, he began to shoot catalogues, industrial reports, and images such as "U.S. Potash Co." - on view. Surprisingly, "finances necessitated my continued commercial work until the 1970's." (By 1980, half of the photography market was his alone.)
His next fateful meeting came in 1933 after he took the train cross country to meet Alfred Stieglitz. The maestro first shooed him away, instructing him to return later; Adams swallowed his pride - "I pounded Madison Ave." - then heard Stieglitz pronounce his oeuvre "some of the finest photographs I've ever seen."
Three years later, Stieglitz gave him a show. "I was totally elated and worked for months to make just the right prints." Though many other exhibits and honors would come his way, the young Californian called the "American Place" display the highlight of his career. "Rather than say Stieglitz influenced me, ... he revealed me to myself" by imparting "confidence that I could express myself through that art form." He "taught me what became my first commandment: 'Art is the affirmation of life.'"
Affirming dedication to "pure photography," Adams, Edward Weston, and Imogen Cunningham, i.a., in 1932 founded Group f/64, named for the smallest aperture setting on a large format camera, one ensuring maximum depth of field to render even sharpness from foreground to background. The group's "manifesto," declaring dedication to "pure photography ... possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea derivative of any other art form," seemed revolutionary in contrast to then fashionable pictorialism. To guide such achievement, autodidact Adams produced his first technical book: Making a Photograph (1935), which helped shape acceptance of photography as a "fine art" and its practitioners as "artists," making indisputable the term applied to later photographers like Annie Leibovitz.
Reinforcing those views, MoMA librarian Beaumont Newhall organized that museum's first photography show, "Photography 1839-1932" in 1937, the same year the first Guggenheim grant was awarded a photographer, Edward Weston. By 1940, Adams and Newhall helped establish MoMA's photography department, the first long-term commitment to the medium as a fine art by a major museum.
A renowned teacher, Adams "set out to plan a way by which students would first learn their 'scales and chords' to achieve technical command of the medium. It took several weeks in refinement.... I called my codification ... the Zone System." From Zone I -- total black, to Zone IX -- paper-base white, with midpoint at Zone V -- 18 per cent grey, the system provides "a working technology that enables the photographer to manage creative visualizations." In sum: "Know what you're after before you begin! Craft facility liberates expression...."
The Californian with vanity license plate "Zone V" averred: Art requires "..a lot of hard work, from which there is no escape.... It is easy to take a photograph, but it is harder to make a masterpiece in photography than in any other art medium."
His name growing synonymous with meticulous craftsmanship, Adams set new standards of photographic quality and reinforced his environmental activism with My Camera in the National Parks (1950) and This is the American Earth (1960). Both achievements were commemorated by his 1980 receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom honoring the "timeless beauty of his work" and "his efforts to preserve this country's wild and scenic areas.... Through his foresight and fortitude ... much of America has been saved for future Americans."
The show's biggest surprise comes at the end: two of only about a dozen folding screens Adams lovingly made for family and friends. Both - abstract views of nature - showcase his nonpareil craftsmanship: printing each 6' x 2.5' strip by hand and perfectly matching the image and tone of each panel. (The only entry to the darkroom large enough for his mural-sized prints was a ladder in the garden.) Leaves, Owens Valley (1947) survived because Adams donated it to the George Eastman House. Grass and Pool (1948) was shot looking straight down into the Lyell Fork of the Merced River, one of his favorite Yosemite spots. After his death, the highest peak nearby was named Mt. Adams. The catalogue's additional five-panel screen image, Clearing Storm, Sonoma County Hills (1969), alone is worth the $40 price of Ansel Adams in the Lane Collection.
In Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs (1983), Adams recounts stumbling upon a scene which would become his most popular image, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 (left). After a disappointing afternoon, "we were sailing ... along the highway ... when I glanced to the left and saw an extraordinary situation: the moon rising over distant clouds in the East and in the West, the late afternoon sun a brilliant white upon the crosses in the church cemetery. I ... rushed to set up my 8"x10" camera," yelling to a friend and his 8-year-old son to bring equipment from the car. Unable to find his exposure meter, "I was at a loss ... when I suddenly realized I knew the formula for the moon [250 candles/square foot]. I placed this luminance on Zone VII."
"Realizing as I released the shutter that I had an unusual photograph which deserved a duplicate negative, I swiftly reversed the film holder, but ... the sunlight [had] passed from the white crosses; I was a few seconds too late! The one negative suddenly became precious." Its printing brought "more letters ... than any other.... I must repeat: 'Moonrise' is most certainly not a double exposure."
In the 1970's Adams sought an institutional home in which his negatives, photographs, correspondence, and memorabilia would always be available to serious scholars and students. Rebuffed by the University of California, he accepted the University of Arizona's plan that his archive form the cornerstone of a new Center for Creative Photography. The Tucson facility opened its doors in 1975.
In the autobiography published a year after his death Adams avowed: "The ultimate objective of life lies in creative and productive work...."
Echoing that credo, Annie Leibovitz told reporters gathered for the Washington opening of her touring exhibition, Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life 1990-2005: "I've always loved what I was doing." America's best-known living photographer added: "I like being, at times, the 'documentarian' of our time." Putting together the show of more than 200 images of her assignment photos mixed with personal pictures, plus a 400-page catalogue featuring an additional 100 photographs felt "like being on an archaeological dig."
Along with her uniquely stylistic portraits of politicians, actors, athletes, and artists that virtually define fame in this era, the show and book record both poles of her personal life: the deaths of her long-time partner, Susan Sontag (1933-2004), and father within weeks of each other and Leibovitz giving birth at age 51 to daughter Sarah and later welcoming twin girls Susan and Samuelle by a surrogate mother. Selecting the images, "I found myself totally taken over by the personal work." She would weep for 10 minutes, then return to the photographs.
The search began when, upon Sontag's death after years of sickness, the artist sought to produce a booklet for the memorial service. Sorting photographs "made me feel close to her and helped me to begin to say goodbye. I also began looking at all the photographs I had taken of the rest of my family." Guiding the press through her Corcoran exhibition, Leibovitz exhaled: "I can't believe I did this. I was crazy. The grief leaked out of me." Those intimate frames proved the most difficult to choose. "I made the decision in the long run that the strength of the book needed those pictures; that ... it came out of a moment of grief gave the work dignity."
Born in 1949 to an Air Force father and a mother who'd studied dance with Martha Graham, Annie was the third of six children. The family's frequent reassignments led her to see "the world through a ready-made picture frame: the car window."
Framing photographs began when, as an art school student in San Francisco enrolled in painting, she took photography classes at night and decided to exchange brushes for lenses. In 1970 she began working for the brand-new Rolling Stone, rising to the chief photographer slot in three years. Her 142 covers helped shape that magazine's look: portraits of the Rolling Stones on tour, the White House the day Nixon resigned and, beginning her trademark technique of putting subjects in revealing poses, Bette Midler in a sea of roses. Gaining notice for her portraits, Leibovitz joined Vanity Fair in 1983. Many ad campaigns have also featured her work, most recently American Express's "My Life" series of celebrity portraits.
When the American Society of Magazine Editors in 2005 named "the 40 greatest magazine covers of the last 40 years," they awarded first place to Rolling Stone's image of the entwined bodies of John Lennon and Yoko Ono hours before Lennon's December, 1980 murder and second place to Vanity Fair's 1991 display of a pregnant Demi Moore attired only in diamonds. Leibovitz created both. The Library of Congress designated her a Living Legend in 2000; five years later Smithsonian magazine counted her among 35 "innovators of our time."
Labeled "a rock'n'roll photographer" during her Rolling Stone days led to "calling myself a portrait photographer because it lent a kind of dignity to shooting well-known people. But ... I don't like trying to make something happen in the studio. I like scouting for locations for shots. I love going to someone's house, seeing what's on their walls, what chair they sit in."
Celebrity portraits on view in the touring exhibit and catalogue include a weary, aged Johnny Cash, a glamorous Nicole Kidman, a pensive Brad Pitt on a bed in leopard print pants, George W. Bush with belt buckle seal of office surrounded by his war cabinet, and an unutterably life-drained William Burroughs. Interspersed are pictures of Leibovitz's lover, friends, and family - notably her parents renewing vows on their 50th wedding anniversary - plus 1990's reportage from the siege of Sarajevo and bloodied footprints of massacred Rwandan children. Huge black and white landscapes - Monument Valley, rural New York state, and Venice shrouded in fog - end the collection.
Added last spring: three official portraits in digital format of Queen Elizabeth II, taken at Buckingham Palace in honor of her state visit to the U.S. on the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. The commission made Leibovitz the first American photographer assigned an official portrait of a British monarch. Crownless Elizabeth II in gold-buttoned cape under gathering clouds amid leafless trees of the Queen's Gardens depicts a force to be reckoned with.
Gallery-goers might wish to begin at exhibit midpoint: a hallway of 17 panels - one wall of assignment work, the other personal shots - replicating her selection procedure. She began by keeping the two separate, but the idea of interweaving soon emerged. "I considered doing a book made up completely of personal work and concluded that [that] on its own wasn't a true view of the last 15 years. I don't have two lives. This is one life.... It's the closest thing to who I am that I've ever done."
Who she is - "I'm not a journalist. A journalist doesn't take sides and I don't want to go through life like that." - begins with a contact sheet catalogue cover (left) with two center shots of the famous photographer taken in 1994 by Sontag. Leibovitz's hands are at rest next to an empty coffee cup balanced on the chair in which she lounges in a robe.
Leibovitz sums up the current exhibit - organized by the Brooklyn Museum - and catalogue: "With Susan, it was a love story. With my parents, it was the relationship of a lifetime. And with my children, it's the future. I just tried to create an honest work that had all those things in it."
"Photographs are an 'inventory of mortality,'" Susan Sontag writes in On Photography (1977), winner of the 1978 National Book Critics Circle Award. They "state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people." Haunting, even arresting, are Leibovitz's images of the famous writer/intellectual - a MacArthur Fellow and National Book Award winner (for In America, 2000) -- in a tub, hand shielding a mastectomy scar; receiving chemotherapy; deplaning after an unsuccessful bone marrow transplant; and finally dressed in favorite clothes on a bier. "I forced myself to take pictures of Susan's last days," Leibovitz explains in her catalogue introduction. "I didn't analyze it then. I just knew I had to do it. Susan really fought for her life. She wanted to live. She had more books she wanted to write." In that spirit, Leibovitz "edited this book with her in mind, as if she were standing behind me, saying what she would like to see in it."
The two met in the late 1980's during Leibovitz's publicity shoot for Sontag's AIDS and Its Metaphors. As a student, Annie had read On Photography, termed by art critic Robert Hughes "a brilliant, irritating performance, ... it opens window after window.... Not many photographers are worth a thousand of her words." After their meeting, Leibovitz promptly bought all of Sontag's books. "I remember going out to dinner with her and just sweating through my clothes because I thought I couldn't talk to her," Leibovitz recalled. "...I was just so flattered she was even interested in me.... She was actually a very warm, outgoing person, the opposite of what you ... expected.... She was just this charming, beautiful child inside. She had such delight with life."
Capturing Sontag's "tremendous appetite for experience and need for adventure" was Leibovitz's aim in the book's first plate: the writer framed in the rock corridor facing Petra (left). "When I made the picture, I wanted her figure to give a sense of scale to the scene. But now I think of it as reflecting how much the world beckoned Susan. She was so curious; she loved art, architecture, history, travel, surprises. The photo epitomizes all of that.... She knew so much, but she always wanted to find out about something she didn't know before. And if you were lucky, you were with her when that happened."
Ever the critic, Sontag told the photographer: "You're good, but you could be better." Leibovitz found that "she came into my life at the right time. I wanted to do better things, take photographs that matter." That led to documenting war-torn Sarajevo when Sontag traveled there to direct Waiting for Godot. Sarajevo: Fallen Bicycle of Teenage Boy Just Killed, 1994 (left) stabs the heart. The rider "had been hit by a mortar that came down in front of our car." He died as they rushed him to the hospital. A decade later, upon Sontag's death, the mayor of Sarajevo announced the city would name a street in her honor, for "actively participat[ing] in the creation of the history of Sarajevo and Bosnia."
"I had great respect and admiration for her, and I wanted to make everything possible for her.... I felt like a person who is taking care of a great monument." That led to Leibovitz's buying a Parisian apartment for the Sorbonne alumna to "have something she had always wanted." Leibovitz helped her partner financially so Sontag could stop doing lectures and concentrate on her writing, notably The Volcano Lover (1992): historical fiction which brought her popular acclaim. "We took care of each other," Annie reflects.
That partnership led to Sontag's essay for Leibovitz's 1999 book and exhibition, Women: "In no language does the pronoun 'she' stand for human beings of both sexes. Women and men are differently weighted, physically and culturally, with different contours of selfhood, all presumptively favoring those born male. Women are judged by their appearance as men are not, and ... punished more by the changes brought about by aging. ... A primary interest in having photographs of well-known beauties to look at over the years is seeing just how well or badly they negotiate the shame of aging."
Of her calling, Sontag declared in a 2001 speech: "We fret about words, we writers. Words mean. Words point. They are arrows. Arrows stuck in the rough hide of reality. The writer's first job is ...to tell the truth.... Information will never replace illumination. What writers do should free us up, shake us up."
Returning to her original critical success three decades after On Photography, the essayist observes: "The camera defines for us what we allow to be 'real' - and it continually pushes forward the boundary of the real. Photography is ... a way of seeing. It is not seeing itself. ...Of one thing we can be sure about this distinctively modern way of experiencing anything: the seeing ... can never be completed. There is no final photograph."
Onward venues for Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer's Life, 1990-2005 include:
Corcoran mini-site for the exhibition Ansel Adams
Corcoran mini-site for Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990–2005
Further information on photographers mentioned in the article:
Related Resources |
Two rich troves of photographic collections may be searched online:
The National Gallery of Art holds more than 8,000 photographs from 1839 through the present. The site also offers online tours, in-depth studies, and past exhibition resources.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum Photograph Archives Catalog counts nearly a half-million photographs, negatives, and slides of Americans' work.
Via Ask Joan of Art, SAAM accepts questions about American art, artists, techniques, and ideas for lesson plans.
For more information on the Ansel Adams archives, see Center for Creative Photography (CCP). Founded in May, 1975, Tucson's CCP holds more archives and individual works by 20th-century North American photographers than any other museum in the U.S. Besides the Adams trove, the more than 80,000 works by 2,000 photographers include the archives of Lola Alvarez Bravo, Richard Avedon, and Edward Weston. Collection development continues at a rate of one to three new archives per year.
Visit the Brooklyn Museum of Art website for podcast interviews with Annie Leibovitz and Vanity Fair Features Editor Jane Sarkin O'Connor.
For information on the Corcoran College of Art and Design's undergraduate degree program in photojournalism, see: http://corcoran.edu/.
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