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January 26, 2004

Midnight Musings


The other night I couldn’t sleep and so I ended up looking at a exhibition catalogue from “Ansel Adams at 100” (I blogged about this show in February 2003 when I first saw it; you can read my posting here.) Leafing through the catalogue, I glanced through an essay written by John Szarkowski and spotted the following passage:

...[A] ... spontaneous record of Adams’ frame of mind during the period of his early serious efforts as a photographer is found in an undated fragment of writing that recalls an early extended trip into the high mountains, perhaps in 1923:

“It was one of those mornings when the sunlight is burnished with a keen wind and long feathers of cloud move in a lofty sky. The silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendor: there was nothing, however small, that did not clash in the bright wind, that did not send arrows of light through the glassy air. I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light. The moment I paused, the full impact of the mood was upon me. I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks. There are no words to convey the moods of those moments.”

How much he sounds like one of William James’ ecstatic mystics!

Pardon me as I try to lay out what went through my head within 30 seconds of reading that quote.

Adams was born in 1902. His interest in photography developed during his twenties, competing with a serious interest in music (he was a gifted pianist and at one time intended to become a professional musician). Both of these artistic interests also competed with his lifelong interest in the High Sierra and the landscape of Yosemite National Park (he did his early photography while working as a tour guide.)

For a nature enthusiast, however, his earliest photography is quite formal and rather chastely emphasizes tonal patterns. It resembles collage so closely that I suspect his ideas derived from the School of Paris and early abstract painting. (Please note, all pictures are thumbnails and worth seeing expanded in size.)

A. Adams, (L) The Back of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park California, c. 1920; (R) Simmons Peak in the Maclure Fork Canyon, Yosemite National Park, California, c. 1924

However, in order to emphasize the tonal patterns in his photographs, Adams had to virtually suppress texture, which makes his early photographs rather disembodied as records of the natural environment. Moreover, to maintain his compositions, Adams had to crop the images so ruthlessly that any sense of the all-encompassing size of nature is destroyed. As the quote above makes clear, Adams not only loved nature but also regarded the experience of being in the high mountains as a stimulus to mystical insight. Well, between his ‘advanced’ formal ambitions and his desire to communicate both the metaphysical and sensual he found in nature, Adams was in a bind.

Although Mr. Szarkowski’s essay doesn’t seem to even contemplate the idea that Adams ever looked at a painting—well, at a landscape painting, anyway—I suspect that it was in fact landscape painting that gave Adams the tools to dig his way out of his predicament. I think Adams took a long careful look at that vein of Hudson River School painting (with Thomas Moran as its leading figure) that focused on exactly the same heroic Western landscape that Adams was trying to photograph. (In fact, Moran himself died—and was widely eulogized—in the early 1920s, just around the time Adams began to get serious about photography.)

Moreover, not only had Moran dealt with similar subject matter, but he had also succeeded in delivering some of the same religious feeling Adams was trying to communicate: the intense sensation that attended an awareness of nature’s power and unity, made spectacularly visible in massive geological forms under the play of light and shadow.

T. Moran, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872

I’m guessing that some study of Moran provided Adams with the solution to his dilemma: what I would call a ‘mandala’ composition. Moran’s work provides a virtual compendium of examples of this composition applied to the Western landscape.

T. Moran, (L) Mountain of the Holy Cross, 1875; (R) composition analysis

T. Moran, (L) Grand Canyon, 1912;
(R) composition analysis

In Moran’s work, this composition takes several forms, but all involve a ‘circulating’ pattern. Most commonly he gives it the form of a diamond shape, but he also uses circles and ellipses. (Note that the design of the mandala proper emphasizes both circulation and the 4-points of the compass.)


This composition, visually suggesting the interconnection of all parts of nature (and a mystic sense of human nature being integrated into a larger whole) provided the sensation Adams wanted, and yet was both strong enough and flexible enough to allow any amount of texture and surface detail. Of course, this composition had long predated Moran, who had got it from J.M.W. Turner. As far as I can tell, it seems to have been used in painting for centuries to suggest both harmony with nature and religious sentiment. To take one example of many, in the 17th century it shows up in an explicitly religious painting by one of the greatest masters of composition:

N. Poussin, (L) Landscape with St. John on Patmos, 1640; (R) composition analysis

Adams had found his composition, and he ran with it. With his subject matter locked into a mandala composition, he could load a great deal of visual texture—that is, the ordinary everydayness of nature—into the image without losing the feeling of awe and wonder he was trying to communicate.

A. Adams, (L) Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, 1927; (R) composition analysis

A. Adams, (L) Aspens, Dawn, Dolores River Canyon Colorado; (R) composition study

A. Adams, (L) Yosemite Valley Thunderstorm, c. 1944; (R) composition analysis

Perhaps because of Adams’ temperament, which seems to have been rather high-strung, the tension between the pattern and the surface detail is never entirely resolved (unlike, say, in Poussin). This results in much of his work possessing a somewhat hysterical tone. Adams is so very intent, after all, that you see through the surface detail, no matter how lovely, and to the metaphysical pattern beneath.

Another interesting detail I learned from Mr. Szarkowski’s essay is that after decades of supporting himself as a commercial photographer, Adams finally ‘arrived’ on the American art scene—in the sense of being able to earn a living from his art photography—only around 1970.

Despite the apparent contradiction between Adams’ romantic intensity and the cool aesthetic of that era characterized by such public pronouncements as “what you see is what you see,” it was not an accident that the public finally embraced Adams’ work during the era of Minimalism. After all, the driving impulse behind Minimalism—which not only took the form of geometrical reductivism but also manifested itself in earth sculptures located in the heroic Western landscape—was an identical desire to reveal the metaphysical within the world of appearances.

R. Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970

Three observations have occurred to me regarding this chain of thought:

(1) The extremely wide dispersal in both space and time of what I have termed the mandala composition with a relatively consistent emotional association suggests to me that at least some visual principles may ‘transcend’ cultural contexts and correspond to something in the human brain. It would be interesting to see if various compositions provoke relatively similar emotional reactions across various cultures.

(2) Abstraction, at least if taken to extremes, seems to be a questionable strategy if the artist’s goal to get at the metaphysical truth within the world of appearances. Attempting boldly to rip off the veil of illusion altogether and show truth naked rather than perceivable through the haze is certainly ambitious, but perhaps rather too ambitious. I note that most abstract painting and sculpture has been forced to introduce something on top of its main visual thrust to suggest the tension between the real and the apparent (i.e., surface incident, complicating patterns, the use of shaped canvases to point out the contrast between the artwork and the chaotic world outside the canvas, etc., etc.) Abstract art that just presents its main thrust in the nude, so to speak, clearly faces a serious risk of producing a Peggy Lee moment: “Is that all there is?”

(3) The threads of artistic continuity, while often submerged and frequently downplayed by critics and artists who are desperately seeking to be seen as advanced and contemporary, in truth bind together the ages with fetters of iron. In the 1920s the late Romantic painter Moran, fifty years past the peak of his career, inspired the Modernist Adams, whose work in another fifty years resonated with post-Modern artists who were two generations his junior. (And, of course, the chain reaches back hundreds or thousands of years into the past.) As William Faulkner, a contemporary of Adams, remarked:

The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past.



posted by Friedrich at January 26, 2004



Now is when I betray my ignorance of art.

What you are calling the "mandala pattern" in the schematic compositional analyses, how do you decide you see that pattern instead of another one?

When you draw the arrows going clockwise, would it be equally accurate to draw them counterclockwise? The lines seem to parallel edges in the painting, but sometimes they don't, as in the "sky line" of the last painting.

Is this kind of compositional analysis a norm, and does it proceed according to a system I haven't learned, or does it unavoidably depend on the sensibility of the observer?

I'm not trying to be difficult. I am honestly exactly as foolish as I sound.

Posted by: alexis on January 26, 2004 5:41 PM

I'm basing it on how my eye moves around the image. Although it is to a degree subjective (like in the direction of the movement) the pattern of lights and darks that I'm basing it on seems fairly objective to me.

I don't think it's at all foolish to ask such questions.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 26, 2004 6:19 PM

Another example, you've said...
First that came to mind - Nicholas Roerich. His museum in New York list similar composition/emotional content paintings on the site, especially "Remember" from "His country",24 series. Although I think he might come first, before Adams - he started his Hymalayan expeditions, I think, in 1910's. I tried to link and failed, will try again

Posted by: Tatyana on January 26, 2004 6:46 PM

the first of your observations, - especially, of the three - coupled with alexis' comment, reminds me a great deal of issues and approaches in Christopher Alexander's "Nature of Order" theories.

Posted by: neil on January 26, 2004 7:09 PM

What Neil said.

Alexander's work is almost entirely about what he calls (I hope I've got this right) "the quality without a name" -- ie., "it," or something spiritual, or life. Fascinating that Alexander's own designs often suggest what you're calling mandala compositions.

I think it's interesting, this "it" thing, don't you? A sense of "it" is certainly what drives a lot of arty people. You have this awareness, these intimations of "it" -- in your life, in love and sex, scattered moments here and there, and present in some of the art and entertainment you've loved. Well, what the hell is "it"?

I find it annoying that people who gab about the arts don't talk more openly about "it". (I find it shaming that I don't.) Not that it's easy. A big, chest-beating, brilliant extravaganza might not have "it," where a quiet corner in park might. A skilled performance might not have it, where an amateur might have "it" for a while. And all those other awkward factors: to what extent is "it" an objective reality (in the sense of being able to be widely agreed on) or just something you're experiencing at the moment? Can it be faked? And on into the bigger questions: are the Greats considered to be great because their work has been found to have more "it" than the work of the non-greats? How then to explain my experience with, say, the books of the last 20 years? Many of the "Greats" of that era didn't seem to have much "it" to me at all, where a handful of other books did. Am I just a weirdo? Are my tastes and reactions so different than most people's? Or maybe (here's the one I vote for) I'm actually better tuned-in to "it" than most people are ...

Anyway, a fun bunch of questions to fuss with. Thanks for a dandy posting.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 27, 2004 1:46 AM

Actually, I think it is quite a stretch to connect Adams and Moran. There are more direct connections with the traditon of landscape and the American sublime, as practiced by the Hudson River school to be found in Adams career.

First, he was freinds with Charles Sheeler and perhaps others of the American precisionist school.

Second, he was certainly influenced by the photographer Carlton Watkins, who was nearly contemporary with Moran. The case that Watkins was influenced by Moran would be much easier to prove convincingly.

Still a fun post though, and I don't even like Adams.

Posted by: Jeff on January 27, 2004 3:28 AM


Your comments on the metaphysical truth in art, accompanied by a photograph of Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” (a favorite of mime), brought to mind Melissa Sanford’s recent NYT article that highlighted the debate on the future of this – and presumably similar – works of art. Here’s an excerpt:

“For nearly three decades Robert Smithson's ''Spiral Jetty'' lay underwater in the Great Salt Lake. Since 1999, as drought has lowered the water level, this famous American earth sculpture – a 1,500-foot coil of black basalt rocks – has slowly re-emerged. Now it is completely exposed; the rocks encrusted with white salt crystals are surrounded by shallow pink water in what looks like a vast snow field. In 1970, when Smithson built the ''Jetty,'' which is considered his masterpiece, the giant black coil contrasted starkly with the dark pink water of the lake. But time and nature have left their marks.….

To ensure that ''Spiral Jetty'' is accessible to future generations, [The Dia Art Foundation], which exhibits and preserves art made since the 1960's, has discussed raising it by adding more rocks. Dia is also studying whether nature will restore the contrast the ''Jetty'' originally had with its surroundings by dissolving some of the salt crystals when the lake's waters rise, or whether the foundation needs to do something more. But the idea of doing anything to this artwork worries some people. And the intentions of the artist, who died in a plane crash at 35 in 1973, are not clear….

Smithson in particular was intrigued by the idea of entropy, the inevitable disintegration of all objects in nature. But there is no definitive record of how he felt about the disintegration of his own artworks.”

Any thoughts on this?

Posted by: Maureen on January 27, 2004 8:14 AM

Great posting. I find it interesting, and was unaware of the fact that Adams emphasized tonal patterns above texture in his early work, since so much of his work was so rich in texture, and to a large extent, the zone system that he developed was so focussed on bringing out texture.

Posted by: Rick Coencas on January 27, 2004 11:13 AM

Tatyana: I'll have to check into Mr. Roerich. Was he another high-mountain mystic?

Neil: Thanks for the comparison to Alexander, although I'm sure it's not merited. But one does wonder if a study of reactions to various compositions across cultures might not turn something interesting up.

Michael: I think you need to post on the significance of 'religious moments' to the art-consuming experience more generally.

Jeff: You may be right, but I still detect a strange tendency to assume that photographers only look at the work of other photographers. I find it especially odd that there isn't more of an explicit link made between Adams and the Hudson River artists. I mean, it's kind of, well, too obvious not to mention, but it hardly ever seems to get mentioned. (Or maybe I haven't been paying attention?)

Maureen: Smithson is an interesting case, isn't he? I mean, rather than trying to convey the 'religious' aspects of nature via carefully composed paintings or photographs, he wanted to compose nature itself! Of course, in so doing he inserted his works into nature. I'm not sure I think that restoring Spiral Jetty is such a great idea; we're not talking about a bunch of conservators fixing up a fresco or patching a collage back together! But the issue is a tricky one.

Rick: The problem with the common 'rap' on Adams (i.e., he was such a brilliant technician) is that it misses the point of what the technique was for. For example, the reason the famous red filtered sky works in "Monolith" isn't because of the resulting deep tones, but rather because the composition only works with a dark sky that lightens up against the rock face. No dark sky, no mandala composition, no sense of connection between earth, sky, air, water, you, me, nature and what is, after all, just a giant boulder.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 28, 2004 1:43 PM

Indeed he was. Painting was sort of a byproduct for him, however beautiful. Besides Roerich Museum in NY, I found this page and if you check the museum site I linked above, they have his phylosophical bibliography (he was one of the theosofs, like Blavatskaya and Co)archeological and ethnografical works, as well as stage designs for Dyagilev's Ballet Russe

Posted by: Tatyana on January 28, 2004 2:10 PM


"Smithson is an interesting case, isn't he? I mean, rather than trying to convey the 'religious' aspects of nature via carefully composed paintings or photographs, he wanted to compose nature itself! Of course, in so doing he inserted his works into nature. I'm not sure I think that restoring Spiral Jetty is such a great idea; we're not talking about a bunch of conservators fixing up a fresco or patching a collage back together! But the issue is a tricky one."

It is tricky, and it somewhat parallels the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. I followed that project closely, and was intrigued with the ongoing controversy that surrounded the artist’s “intentions.” Who can know? And is such “entropy” always detrimental?

"I still detect a strange tendency to assume that photographers only look at the work of other photographers."

Interesting assumption that people make, isn’t it? I have a long-time friend, a photographer, who made his initial splash in Steichen’s “The Family Of Man” show in 1955. He is quite old now, but is still working and maintains a devoted clique of fans. During the past decade or so, he has noted that his work increasingly reflects the aesthetic of painter Egon Schiele. In fact, I served as his model for a Schiele-influenced series of photographs that he initiated in the late 90s, and I traveled to Vienna twice to absorb the Schiele essence that he sought to project in his photos. (He said I reminded him of Edith Schiele … take that as you will.)

Indeed, my friend is far more influenced by painters than by other photographers. Steichen once told him “not to quit his day job,” which I think pissed my friend off for all eternity. Temperamental creatures, these artistes :)

Posted by: Maureen on January 28, 2004 3:54 PM

Actually, I agree with you completely that the lines drawn between photography and painting cause us to overlook some strong connections. Oddly enough, it's okay to say a painting is "photographic" but an outright slam to call a photograph "painterly"--- the residue of photographic modernism.

But, it is much easier to see Adam's photographs as a reaction against some of the painters he knew-- Marsden Hartly, O'Keefe, etc., than to see his commonality with other contemporaries like Charles Sheeler or Ben Shahn. In Adam's view, and in the view of most photographic modernists, photography needed an identity which was separate from painting. This, as much as anything else, has limited the comparison to contrast rather than commonality.

Posted by: Jeff on January 29, 2004 4:07 PM


Isn't it interesting, though, that these antique distinctions ("painterly" as an term of opprobrium in photography) are still with us, even though they were hatched essentially as political propoganda in art wars long fought out. I don't mean to dwell on the Faulkner quote at the end of my post, but it could be applied just as well to art criticism as to the art itself.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 30, 2004 11:03 AM

...The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past...
Comp. to N.Roerich:
"There is nothing new in this. Because there is nothing new."

Posted by: Tatyana on January 30, 2004 2:49 PM

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