Hawai'i photos by Ansel Adams
By Victoria Gail-White
Advertiser Art Critic
|"Fish Pond at Dawn, Near Kaunakakai, Molokai," circa 1957-1958, is one of the photographs on display in the "Ansel Adams in Hawai'i" exhibit at the Honolulu Academy of Arts through Aug. 4.
'Ansel Adams in Hawai'i'
Through Aug. 4
10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 1-5 p.m. Sundays
Honolulu Academy of Arts
Vintage and modern photographs of the Hawaiian Islands taken from 1948 to 1958, collected from the academy, First Hawaiian Bank, Ansel Adams Archive and the University of Arizona-Tucson, are on view together for the first time in the exhibit, "Ansel Adams in Hawai'i."
Adams' childhood in San Francisco proved fertile soil for a rich and sensitive creative life. Trained as a pianist, Adams became interested in photography while working as a darkroom assistant. In his spare time, he took and developed photographs of his trips to the Sierra Nevada mountains. His first venue for publishing his photographs came from his involvement with the Sierra Club.
The uplifting qualities of music and the intimate beauty and knowledge of the heavens were the basis for his insightful view of nature and his subsequent interest in theosophy (which claims a mystical insight into the divine nature through a desire to experience, within the microcosm of the self, the limitless intuitive insights of the macrocosm of the universe.) Adams' spiritual quest used the natural world as a backdrop to transcend the limits of individual consciousness and expand into a more cosmic consciousness. He wrote, "the clear realities of nature seen with the inner eye of the spirit reveal the ultimate echo of God."
His musical background permeated his understanding of the making of a photograph in the analogies he drew in composing them. The symphonic was the chiaroscuro (the arrangement of dark and light) ,the negative was the score, and the print was the performance. The deceptive quiet of Adams' meditative images burst into melodic harmonies upon further viewing. Our eyes can hear his eyes.
Through his many invigorating friendships with photographers, poets, painters and writers, Adams' photographs evolved into revelations of what he referred to as "endless moments of the world." In 1936, he had a one-man show in Alfred Stieglitz's gallery in New York. The installation juxtaposed elements in Adams' photographs that increased their impact on the viewer, including Adams himself.
The progression of his artistic vision for composition was also inspired by Arthur Dove's writing, "There is no such thing as abstraction ... It is extraction ... If the extract be clear enough, its value will exist." Adams often referred to his photographs as "extractions."
In 1948, with a Guggenheim Fellowship, Adams photographed the national parks and monuments of Hawai'i. The trade winds shook his view camera on its tripod. Adams focused on small details, as in "Vine and Rock, Hawaii." Here, the pohuehue (seaside morning glory vine) becomes a poetic symbol of a healthy life force the tender but persistent movement of the vine tendril against the dark lava rocks. He wrote, "I believe in beauty. I believe in stones and water, air and soil, people and their future and their fate."
The landscapes, faces, architecture and spirit of Hawai'i as seen through Adams' lens during that time period reflect the intensity of his experience here and his commitment to his medium. "Jean Charlot, Painter, Honolulu, Hawaii"(1957-1958) is an essentially powerful and moody portrait.
Adams developed the Zone System a scale of 10 light intensities corresponding to different tones from white to black, for obtaining exacting tonal contrast in a print. He promoted "straight" photography and believed everything in a photograph should have significance, though he used darkroom tricks with dodged (held back) and burned (increased) light.
"Buddhist Grave Markers and Rainbow, Paia, Maui, Hawaii," a sacred mountain (built by the temple members from grave stones scattered after a tsunami) is enhanced through the fortuitous appearance of a full-arced rainbow and his last-minute change to a wide-angle lens, but was intensified through Adams' darkroom burning of the central white grave marker. To him, this photograph signified a work of nature blessing the work of mankind.
In her standing-room-only lecture at the Academy Theater, Anne Hammond summarized her recent scholarly book, "Ansel Adams: Divine Performance." She called Adams "a photographic artist and a photographic poet."
Pragmatically spiritual, Adams' close connection to the natural world became a life choice that transformed his appreciation, experiences and career as a photographer.
He balanced a "giving and taking of beauty" through his strong advocacy to government agencies for natural preservation and wilderness conservation.
Adams takes our eyes past seeing. The razor-sharp focus of his lens gives the sights we see a polishing.