Saturday, January 31, 2009

Did Ansel Adams' Photography Transform his subject?

Throughout my reading on photography and the visual arts, the photography of Ansel Adams has been my acid test for theories or generalizations about photography or the photographic image. Given the inspiration that I have drawn from Adams, it would probably be better for me to look to Robert Doisneau, Henri Cartier-Bresson as well to measure the observations made by Leppert and Jay.

One issue that stumps me is that of the artist transforming his or her subject. While this is true of painting and abstract photographic work such as multiple exposures, Orton imagery or other techniques to get a bit more on the negative.

Perhaps it is nothing more than a matter of me loading the meaning of transformation beyond reason. If capturing and preserving an image for dissemination is transformation, then Adams did transform the images of the National Parks.

I would argue that Adams captured his mountain vistas and other settings in their best light - both literally and figuratively. That was what he had done. Anyone else with a camera has tried to do the same thing. It was Adams' technical brilliance with the camera and in the dark room that immortalized his images and placed Yosemite National Park, the redwoods of Yellowstone and much of the natural beauty of the United States in the public consciousness. I would argue that he did as much, - if not more - more to transform photography as he did these mountains.

There are aesthetic aspects of his compositions, such as the framing of certain images or use of a foreground rock formation to anchor photos and add a sense of depth. Almost always, he captures a profound level of detail that intensifies the visual experience and makes the viewers attend more closely than they would in a live encounter with the same thing. Is the transformation simply a matter of eliciting an awe that viewers might not experience with a passing glance? Adams' real achievement is in communicating his vision and passion for place, in his mastery of technique and craft.

The real transformation was more likely of American attitudes. Adams' photographs and his commitment to the Sierra Club have made an enormous contribution to the movement and has motivated people to defend and evidence the loss of America's natural beauty.

Standing on the Rockpile at Moraine Lake, Alberta two Octobers ago, I spoke sentimentally with a photographer from Texas about a landscape that remains only in Adams' work. The Texan cited and I recalled an Adams' image from New Mexico that had been denigrated by the neon coils and highway buzz of a booming tourist trade. Ironic, unless one wants to argue that Adams' images did not have the impact on public officials and other decision makers that it ought to.

Barry Gibb, and Misplaced and Misunderstood Faith

American comedian Dennis Miller once said his Jesus Christ looked like Barry Gibb. I reference Miller to find my way into two of the aspects of a discussion about the image of Christ. Is he the caucasian, golden locked figure many are used to seeing him as and insist he is OR did he have and ought to have an appearance more like the population of the region where he was born? In the post 9/11 context, suggestion Christ was as dark as those we wish to portray as other stirs emotions, no matter how grounded it may be in history, geography or reality.

Christ's appearance has not only been appropriated (or revisioned) but also his tastes and/ or values as the "What would Jesus drive?" bumper stickers indicate.

While humour targeted at religion (or the religious) has provided a degree of levity to one of the big three conversational taboos, but it could also be evidence or an arrogance held by people who consider themselves well-educated.

For some, freedom of speech is licence to make light of religion, whether strict nuns, Catholic guilt, or more topical issues undermining the authority of - most recently and most precipitously - the Catholic church. As Western societies progress technologically, faith plays a smaller and smaller role in everyday life. It has become easier for some to regard God, Jesus or other religious figures with a degree of detachment and reflection. While significant pockets of devotion influence public opinion and policy, a growing majority would prefer to keep religion out of the public domain and furthermore prefer to keep the organized truth out of the religion or their individual practice of it.

The efforts to move religion, or A Church to the center of so many aspects of life in a pluralist society ought to invite ridicule because it insistence on control and uniformity in a place where it ought not be asserted by those who claim to be secular.

The long-standing and somehow reincarnated Evolution vs Creationism cum Intelligent Design debate should usual turn on the question of which side is more intelligent or more enlightened and which approach is going to lead toward "truth." The supporters of Evolution would stand firm in their conviction that this approach - being scientifically sound and perhaps even self-evident for students at the grade school level - invite deeper critical thought, than Creationism, which may be taken as a mythological or theological - but by no means literal - truth. Faith and understanding are concepts unfamiliar with each other, if they are not entirely mutually exclusive. However, those who consider themselves technologically advance may be placing the same blind faith in the technologies that we are being surrounded by. Many invest their faith, blindly, in technology and science, even though very few of us, for example understand DNA testing well enough to know it works.

The detachment from religion is a significant motivation behind the Danish newspaper's decision to publish its images of Mohammad. The cartoons were perhaps not only an exercise of freedom of speech but also an attempt to encourage Muslims to engage in the irreverence to their religious figures that Westerners or Christians exercise on occasion. Implicit in that might be the suggestion that the Muslims, who demonstrated their devotion in their five times daily prayers to Mohammad, fasting and other manifestations, are too devout and somewhat backward. The suggestion might be, "Go on, make fun of Mohammad, we make fun of God and Jesus, because we are so advanced." Such arrogance, however, cuts both ways. It reveals a lack of religious faith in the West and a degree of intimidation in the face of such devotion.

The tendency to attach mere devotion to fanatical behavior is part of the extreme position adopted by the hawks on the Western side of the conflicts central to the "War on Terror" and the war in Iraq. The desire to maintain an us-versus -them posture might be sustaining the controversy that surrounds the reconsideration of what Christ might have actually looked like. Such a recognition would make people reconsider the distinctions between the Muslim and Christian faiths and - among other things - discover that Jesus and Mary are both featured in the Koran. The insistence that he was blonde and pale probably comes from the same school that insists on Creation.