BOSTON — Until recently, I would have said that nothing could be more boring right now than looking at photographs by Ansel Adams. Sacrilege, I know. I would never say this was Adams’s fault — he was a pioneer, a mythmaker and clearly a photographer of genius. He was also indefatigable. He deserves his fame.
But Adams’s well-thumbed vision of the world — and especially of Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Sierra Nevada — felt increasingly false to my eyes. Yes, he helped secure the sacred status of many areas of American wilderness. He also helped establish the art credentials of photography in the first half of the 20th century. In this era of unfolding environmental catastrophe, however, Adams’s images — so pristine, fastidious and preposterously hygienic — simply deflect my eyes.
That was my view. Happily, “Ansel Adams in Our Time,” a new show at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, breathes unexpected life into Adams’s work. There’s something mesmerizing about the spectacle — like watching your family’s resident pyromaniac resuscitate a dying campfire. Not only does the show remind us how much more there was to Adams than Half Dome, the Grand Canyon and Cathedral Rocks, it makes a powerful case for his ongoing relevance by hanging his work together with a host of living photographers — all of them energetically engaged with his legacy.
All these Adams works are made to chime with images by contemporary photographers, among them Catherine Opie, Trevor Paglen, Victoria Sambunaris and Binh Danh. They all address themes in Adams’s work with an enlivening blend of skepticism and reverence.
The long struggle to have photography recognized as an art form was, in part, an argument over what to make of the medium’s limitations. One obvious limitation: the camera receives an image of the world mechanically, in an instant (give or take), unedited, whereas a painter transforms the world over an extended period through countless creative decisions, both conscious and unconscious, putting things in, yes, but more often leaving them out at will.
Limitations can be a good thing aesthetically. And even as Adams milked the medium for all it was worth, he embraced the constraints of black and white photography, distilling the ingredients he inherited like a French chef making a perfect sauce reduction. But his progeny, on the evidence here, have transformed the sauce into a minestrone-like soup. They have stretched the medium out and plumped it up, throwing in new ideas, politics, storytelling and whatever else is at hand. Ansel Adams talks about the photo of Hernandez