Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A comparative look at context in photography: Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange

Context in Photography
Not my photo, of course -- but one of the most iconic images by Ansel Adams, “Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, CA, 1944.” (Via Artnet.) It might as well have been called "God's Country." Except it was anything but.

A very different photo provides the foreground. Dorothea Lange is documenting, not the landscape, but rather the site of a tragic American injustice. It's titled "Manzanar Flag." Yes, Manzana was the name of the camp in the Owens Valley where Americans of Japanese descent, most of them U.S. citizens, were interred during World War II. The beauty of the magnificent Sierra Nevada range provided little comfort to the captives suffering from bitter winter cold, blistering summer heat and blinding duststorms, not to mention the loss of their freedom. Lange's placement of the flag seems to underscore the tragic irony of their situation, captives in the "land of the free."

Both Lange and Adams photographed in the camp. Lange was hired by the government to document conditions there (although most of her photos were suppressed until after the war); Adams was a friend of the superintendent and got permission to photograph the landscape. Two California Bay Area photographers with very different approaches to photography.

As noted in the photo blog 1/125, the Wall Street Journal recently did a story on the photography collection at the newly renovated Oakland Museum of California, whose photo collection has one area devoted to Lange (the museum owns her photos, negatives and papers) and another to f/64, the Bay Area group that included among its members Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham. The exhibits provide a great opportunity to compare and contrast the very different approaches of the two photographers, who sometimes worked on the same projects, as the WSJ notes.
Lange was hired by the War Relocation Authority to document the Japanese internment center in Manzanar, Calif.; her pictures emphasize the dislocation of the detainees. In 1945, while he was shooting at the camp, Adams took the magnificent “Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, From Manzanar, California,” a vast boulder-strewn plain with the backlit mountain in the distance….

In 1961, Lange said about Adams’s taking landscape pictures at the Manzanar Relocation Center: “It was shameful. That’s Ansel. He doesn’t have much sense about these things.” Adams wrote about himself: “I have trained with the dominating thought of art as something almost religious in quality. In fact, it has been the only faith I have known.”
Taken together, the two photographs are a haunting reminder that great natural beauty and human cruelty and injustice can easily exist side by side. The images pose questions about what we mean by the art of photography. And they remind us that what's outside the frame of a photograph may be as important, or even more important, than what is inside it.

1 comment:

Cybergabi said...

Thanks, Peter. What a thoughtful, insightful post. Wow.