On Saturday afternoon, A (not her real initial) and I went to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts to see the current Ansel Adams exhibit, “At the Water’s Edge,” which was packed. It was, frankly, a miserable experience: my attention was so distracted by the crowd and my attempts not to bump into anyone as I navigating toward photographs I could see only over shoulders and between heads, I couldn’t really enjoy the art. I’m sure it was amazing, but there simply wasn’t enough room in the galleries to appreciate it.
There was, however, one piece I particularly liked. “Grass, Water and Sun, Alaska 1948” is a crisply detailed shot of tall grass awash in water, creating a complex tangle of fur-like lines that didn’t attract the same mobbing throngs that surged around Adams’ more well-known landscapes. “Grass, Water and Sun” reminded me of Linda Behar’s intricately embroidered images of salt marshes, which A and I had seen years ago at the Fuller Craft Museum. Behar’s small, embroidered canvases feature intricately stitched renditions of detailed landscapes, many from right here in Massachusetts, with each nuance of tone and texture being represented by different-colored threads. Adams’ “Grass, Water and Sun” offered a similar kind of intimacy, with each blade of swirling grass etched with razor-sharp clarity.
“Grass, Water and Sun” was small in scope: not a full landscape, but a detail within the landscape. It’s no accident, I think, that another photograph in the Ansel Adams exhibit that grabbed my attention, “Barnacles, Cape Cod, 1938,” was also not a landscape but a close-up detail of barnacles on weathered wood: a photo featuring tightly focused detail rather than expansive geography. “Barnacles” resonated with me because it was the kind of photo I might have taken: not an entire landscape, but a tiny detail within that scene. Surrounded by throngs of people, it was somehow comforting to focus on a single, small thing: the universe shrunk to manageable size.
But the true crowd-pleasers—and oh, were there crowds at the PEM to be pleased—were not intimate shots of grass or barnacles but Adams’ grandly picturesque natural landscapes, all of them somehow focused on water: crashing waves, spewing geysers, cloud-reflecting lakes. Oddly, these more expansive, awe-inspiring, conventionally impressive pieces—the quintessentially monumental landscape images we automatically associate with Adams—somehow failed to impress me. This was, in part, because of the crowds; it’s difficult to appreciate an image you barely have time to scan before being jostled by the surging masses to the next piece. But, in another way, the maddening crowd at the PEM was a symptom of the problem I have with Ansel Adams-type landscape photography, not the cause.
Ansel Adams’ landscape photos (and photos shot by subsequent photographers mimicking Adams’ style) are popular in large part because they depict nature how we’ve come to believe nature should be seen: that is, as a place pristine and apart. Ansel Adams landscapes typically depict a solitary moment experienced by a photographer who seems to be the only living human in that scene…and as such, the scenes in Adams’ photographs can never be entirely reenacted. The iconic national park settings of Adams’ Yosemite and Yellowstone landscapes, for instance, have become so popular because of those images, they now are as thronged with visitors as the PEM on an autumn weekend.
I’ve seen Old Faithful in person, and I’ve seen Adams’ photos of Old Faithful, and the two don’t seem to be the same place: in person, Old Faithful is surrounded by boardwalks, signs, and patient queues of camera-toting tourists belched from buses and cars. Ansel Adams’ landscapes aren’t overtly erotic—you won’t see Mother Earth figured as a voluptuous nude with breast-like hills and seductively inviting valleys—but they are, nevertheless, depictions of desire. Viewing “Reflections at Mono Lake, California, 1948” in the middle of a packed gallery, for instance, you wish you were somewhere that tranquil, that timeless, that untouchable: a place, in other words, that is Somewhere Not Here. Ansel Adams captures nature as we wish it were, not how it actually is: not nature here and now, but nature there and then. Like pornography, Ansel Adams-style landscape photography presents an idealized subject that is even better than the real thing: the beauties of nature without the need for hiking, sweating, or insect-slapping, and the beauty of nature without any other nature-goers.
How different was the impression I got from Barbara Bosworth’s “Natural Histories,” which is also currently on exhibit at the PEM. Bosworth’s photographs focus on her family and their home in Novelty, Ohio, a markedly more intimate and domestic subject than Adams’ monumental scenes. Bosworth’s photographs are as crisply detailed as Adams’: paired images of her parents’ hands showed as many wrinkles as any of Adams’ mountain topographies, for instance, and one window-sized image of the trees outside the Bosworth family’s living room was as sharply lifelike as any of Adams’ landscapes. Bosworth’s childhood backyard is far less well-known than Old Faithful or the Yosemite valley, but I found Bosworth’s three-part image of her family enjoying that backyard, “Picking Wild Roses and Blackberries in the Backyard, Novelty, 1992,” to be far more inviting than any of the scenes Adams portrayed. An Ansel Adams photograph depicts an untouched nature we wish we could visit whereas Bosworth’s images capture a landscape people actually live in. I’ll never (outside of my dreams) step into an Ansel Adams photograph, but I’ve walked the same earth that Bosworth and her family inhabit.
It’s entirely possible I preferred Barbara Bosworth’s “Natural Histories” over Ansel Adams’ “At the Water’s Edge” because I could calmly view the former without having to fight the crowds flocking to the latter. If you’re looking for a place that is pristine and apart, you can dream about the decades-old landscapes captured in now-iconic images, or you can step away from the crowd and find in your own backyard an overlooked corner that everyone else seems determined to ignore.