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Lessons from Visiting Exhibitions

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Bastion

I have been very fortunate in the last couple of months to visit three landscape photography exhibitions in London. Landscape Photographer of the Year at the National Theatre, the Michael Kenna exhibition at the Chris Beetles Photography Gallery (both now concluded) and the Ansel Adams exhibition which runs until April 2013 at the Royal Observatory Museum, Greenwich.

The one I really want to focus on here is the Adams exhibitions but I’d just like to make a few comments on the Kenna first.

I think first I must say how important I feel it is for us as keen landscape photographers to make the effort if at all possible to visit exhibitions of the work of others. It is good to view images on websites and in books, but there is nothing like seeing an image in print, especially if the prints are well made and presented.

They have a quality and feel which no web page or book, no matter how good the monitor or print run can get close to matching. To see fine work up close opens up subtleties in composition and light that so often get missed in other mediums. We are seeing the images as the artist intended. Print runs and monitors distort, even slightly, what the artist wanted to portray and so some of the images beauty is lost.

When visiting these exhibitions I felt sure I was going to be seeing print making at its very finest. Both Ansel Adams and Michael Kenna are renowned for being superb dark room workers with extreme attention to detail and levels of perfectionism. I knew I was in for a treat. Mr. Kenna especially is a photographic role model for me. I love his images, his style, his simplicity of composition, his work ethic, his avoidance of crowd following, his genuine “niceness” as a person and his love of the world around him. If I could spend a day with only one photographer, it would be Michael Kenna.

My first exhibition was the Kenna. Held at the Chris Beetles Fine Art Photography Gallery close to Piccadilly Circus in London, this was very much a commercial exhibition. While Chris Beetles is to be very much commended for bringing master photographers work to London for us to see, which is wonderful, make no mistake, it is being done to sell prints, not for purely artistic or historical reasons as a museum would.

The exhibition space is small and intimate, well lit and ideal for a display of Kenna’s beautiful prints. They were crammed in somewhat, but this ties in with the commercial nature of the gallery. For a premises like this to succeed in London it has to maximise sales and so the more prints it can offer the greater the chance of success, so this is not a criticism. I would rather see the exhibition than lose the gallery. In a non-commercial setting I am sure fewer images would have been hung to give each image more space, more room to “breath”.

Kenna’s prints are refreshingly small. Less than 8” square. In a world where photographers seem to think bigger is better these days, I loved the intimacy of his prints. The size requires that you get up close and examine them. I wear reading glasses, and needed them to really view the fine details of the images. I liked that.

His skills as a print maker leapt out from every print. They were exquisite. Delicately toned with just a hint of sepia to warm them, the images displayed the care Kenna takes with composition and the darkroom process.

Many images were well known to me through his books and website but they are SO much better as darkroom prints. The difference is quite marked. Some of his books are printed to a high standard, but his prints here take the images to another level. Prices ran from around £1300 for an image from a new edition through to £6000 or £7000 for an image from an edition close to selling out (he increases the price of images as editions sell out to encourage buyers to get in early). As Mr. Kenna has at least one exhibition somewhere in the world most months of the year plus he is represented all year around by several other galleries (along with his book sales), even taking off gallery commission, I am guessing he makes a very good living which is rare for a pure landscape photographer (especially one who does not, or very rarely, runs workshops etc).

I was, however, a little disappointed with some of the images on display. I felt that some were a little weaker than I would expect compositionally and the subject matter rather “touristy”. That is an unusual term to use, but I find it hard to find another. I can’t use the word “snaps” because they certainly weren’t that. They were just not what I would have expected to see from Michael.

Now Michael has a very distinctive style, which I love, and I wasn’t expecting or hoping to see exclusively long exposure night shots and minimalist images of trees in the snow. I also imagine he is trying to expand the styles he shoots as so many wannabe photographers are going to locations he has pioneered and are copying his style and churning out identikit images. It must be so frustrating for him to have so many copying his work so closely. So, perhaps, the shots I saw, that I wasn’t so keen on were his attempt to show a different side to his work. I don’t know. I just felt there were too many of them, and they failed to excite me. They didn’t shout “Kenna” at me. In fact they didn’t shout anything at all other than “what’s that doing here? It just doesn’t fit”. They were images that if they appeared on Flickr under a name like “Joe Bloggs” (or “Doug Chinnery”) would get hardly any notice at all, I’m pretty sure. These I felt let down an otherwise beautiful exhibition of a photographer at the height of his powers.

Despite this slight issue I had with some of the images on display, the show was exceptional and I was so pleased to have seen it. My love of Michaels work is even stronger as a result. It also heightened in me a growing desire I have to learn real wet room darkroom printing. I have shied away from this due to the cost, space required and mostly the time required for the learning curve involved but I have a feeling that one day I am going to be seduced into the world of making my own dark room prints. This would complete the creative circle for me – from shooting on film, processing the film myself and then creating the prints in a darkroom by hand with no digital intervention, making my creative work more of a hand craft and closer to a pure art form than it currently is. But thats another story.

I couldn’t afford to buy a print from the exhibition so I spent as long as I could drinking in the beautiful prints and studying the details of composition. Then I treated myself to a copy of the exhibition show guide which has been added as a treasured addition to my photographic library. Maybe the closest I will ever come to owning a print from just about my favourite landscape photographer.

And now, on to the Adams exhibition. A more controversial experience for me altogether.

Amongst landscape photographers there is one name which rises above all others, the pioneer of modern landscape photography “Ansel Adams”. There is hardly a landscape photographer who doesn’t list as one of his or her inspirations Mr. Adams (although for many I have a sneaking suspicion they say it more because it is the done thing rather than because they have really studied his work and admire it).

There is no doubt about it, Ansel really understood photography and took it to new heights. He worked so hard, often in near poverty until late in his life, and he created some images which really deserve the overused title “iconic”. He was largely responsible, with others, for getting Yosemite protected as a National Park and he made some quite simply breathtaking images there.

He worked with glass plate negatives (incredibly difficult in the field) and film. He, with others, developed the “zone system” to aid exposing images in such a way as to make superb negatives which would enable the photographer to realise his or her vision for the final print in the darkroom. He was also a darkroom master himself, often spending days perfecting a print.

There is no doubt about it, he is rightly revered and fittingly takes his place in the annals of photographic history.

So, even though I don’t claim him as one of my inspirations, I was looking forward to my visit to an exhibition of his work in London. However, within minutes, I found myself somewhat irritated. Irritated by intellectuals.

I am guessing it is the intellectuals that are at the root of my irritation. I have seen video interviews of Ansel discussing his work and he seemed very down to earth and not at all pretentious.

The exhibition, interestingly, showed images taken by Ansel from a very young age right through his life. It was fascinating to see these images, some never seen publicly before. The irritating thing was the way they were described. Quite frankly, and not surprisingly since the images were made by a young boy with a box camera and no photographic experience, the images were “just snaps”. I am sure there are millions of such images in boxes in lofts the world over taken at the time Ansel was a young boy. However the intellectuals who wrote the labels beside the images had taken it upon themselves to try and see awesome compositional skills emerging in these pictures. They were trying to read (see?) into them what clearly wasn’t there at is stage, and nor should they have expected it to have been. They were trying to make out that he was some sort of photographic child prodigy and that every time he pointed the camera at a lake or a bush something earth shattering happened, which when you looked at the picture it clearly hadn’t. Why they couldn’t just show these images as examples of him playing with and experimenting with early basic cameras like many children do and leave it at that I don’t know. I have a funny feeling Ansel himself would have been rather embarrassed by what they were writing.

As I moved around the exhibition I was also dismayed to find images taken a little later in his life which, again, quite frankly, were just simple pictures, snaps. The kind of thing anyone would take on holiday standing on a cliff pointing a camera at the sea and rocks. Nothing wrong with that, but again these were being trumpeted as wonders of photography. If the curators of the exhibition had been shown these pictures and been told they had been taken by Doug Chinnery they would have been immediately discarded as worthless (and rightly so). The curators were so clearly trying to make out that everything he took was some sort of amazing accomplishment, which is not true for any photographer. It bothers me that some images made by “a name” in photography get elevated and praised when, in reality, if the observer was shown the image anonymously they would view it of little or no merit. (Wouldn’t it be good to have a photo sharing site where images were posted anonymously so all comments were based purely on the image and not on if the poster was our mate or because they were well know?)

Please don’t let photography go the way of much of art these days where everything gets intellectualised and is spoken of pompously. Please let us enjoy images just for what they are and don’t try and make them out to be what they are not. And please, don’t try and make great photographers into some sort of prodigies, trying to imply every time they fire the shutter that something magical happens, because it doesn’t. They make poor images like we all do and there is no shame in that whatsoever.

What I do have to say is, despite my irritations with the writers of the labels and the curators of the exhibition, in amongst the images I felt were unremarkable or weak were those which were simply breathtaking.

It is these which make the exhibition worth going to alone. Surely Ansel took more of these and these are the ones which we want to see, his best work. Let the intellectuals fantasise about his skills as a nine year old in there thesis but let us see and gasp in admiration over the images of which Ansel himself was so rightly proud.

His image of the storm clearing through Yosemite which others have tried to emulate is unspeakably beautiful in the flesh. I was open mouthed and stood for a full ten minutes just drinking it in. His image of the Tetons and river is stunning in every sense. Tucked away in quiet corners of the exhibition were images of flowers and flowing water, images of ice and rocks all just so wonderful in composition and amazing in print quality. It was a privilege to see them first hand.

I really enjoyed both exhibitions, but with reservations. There is still time to get to see the the Adams exhibition so go if you can and see if you agree with me, or not. I also encourage you to visit exhibitions of the work of as many photographers as you can, known and unknown. There is much to be learned from them and they will certainly appreciate your support.

I have no doubt you will have feelings on this subject and I look forward to hearing them.

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