Monthly Archives: February 2013

Irony is alive and well at the V&A

Some good photographs spoilt by too-precious display at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.
Light from the Middle East exhibition entrance

Once you enter, the exhibition is anything but light, seriously marring appreciation of the photographs. What an ironic title!

A last-minute change of plan took me to the V&A museum in South Kensington, London, to see its exhibition of photographs entitled Light from the Middle East this week. It is hard to imagine a less appropriate title for this display; it is poorly lit to the point where it is not possible to fully appreciate the photographs. The museum says that the low light is to protect the prints, but what’s the point if they can’t be properly seen? There is a journey from obscurity to recognition to art object to cultural icon that filters significant images. It is the V&A’s job to collect the last in this list so it is clearly in its interest to accelerate this journey, but this exhibition pushes this process too far too fast.  Perhaps the “Light” in the title refers to the speed with which the V&A would like the images to acquire cultural value.

Light from the Middle East entrance notice

Exhibition entrance notice. I find it ironic that photography is not permitted in a photographic exhibition. Why is this? It means I can’t show you the exhibition to form your own opinion.

To reconcile the need to actually see culturally significant objects many museums, including the V&A, exhibit casts of statues rather than the originals, so why not do the same with prints? Copies can be so good these days that it isn’t possible to tell the difference with the naked eye.  This would do far better justice to the medium as well as the message of these images, which is still contemporary rather than historical.  And if this draws a “tut tut, no no no, couldn’t possibly do that” from the establishment, then make it policy to acquire 2 identical images: 1 for viewing and 1 for preserving (the additional cost of doing so might well remove those dug-in heals).

These artist-photographers who record, re-frame and resist (the 3 sections of this exhibition) deserve to have their work disseminated and built on by others, not turned into pseudo objects-of-worship in a dimly lit quasi-religious interior. The hushed and hallowed atmosphere was only broken by the squeals of children in the main museum. Thanks goodness it was half term – the kids managed to subvert the preciousness of the exhibition without realising it.

As for the photos, most show a thoughtful, incisive interpretation of middle eastern life.  I would love to hear from the photographers whether they think this ArtFund collection exhibit enhances or validates their work, or in the long-term, just consigns it to a set of archival-quality boxes in a museum store room.

Yes, I’m being harsh in singling out the V&A for this criticism as they are certainly not the only organisation guilty of being overly precious towards art objects and photographs in particular, but please V&A, break out of your traditional box and get more imaginative with your exhibitions; you are not doing justice to the artists with this type of display.

Rant mode OFF.

Revisiting Ansel Adams

exhibition-entranceI’ve always admired a fine craft-person  in whatever medium they work.  It was Ansel Adams that provided me with inspiration when I was developing my own photographic technique and I still use the zone system when working with 5×4 film.  However I grew away from Adams’ Modernist aesthetic and reduced the number of his books on my bookshelf.  I retain a few, mainly for nostalgic reasons, but I have far more Robert Adams than Ansel Adams in my collection now.

The National Maritime Museum, London, UK has an exhibition of his prints entitled “Ansel Adams – Photography from the Mountains to the Sea”. Not surprisingly given the venue, the emphasis is on his landscapes that include water in all its forms.  And this set me wondering: How would I view his images after about 20 years of not seeing them? Is his craftsmanship still worth aspiring to? Does his aesthetic still have relevance today or is it consigned to history?

Some of his early work showed a strong Pictorialist influence, with soft-focus and lack of detail.  The 1920s were a transition time, with some examples showing sharpness and good tonal range but not with the degree of technical control we associate with his later work. There was one abstract work in the show but it is of unknown date and so not helpful in charting Adams’ progress.

During the 1930s Adams was experimenting with sequences and what he called “extracts”, that is, showing small, isolated details of life & death, growth & decay, but not a true abstract.  Around this time he also started adopting the Modernist aesthetic, and admired the Japanese woodblock prints known as Ukiyo-e, with flattened perspective, planes of colour and bold graphic elements.


Adams, Ansel. c.1925. Marion Lake, Kings Canyon National Park.
An example of the growing influence of Modernist aesthetic on his photography. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

He would also photograph the same scene from different viewpoints and in different light.  This is a technique he may well have adopted from painters such as Monet, as he increasingly photographed the light rather than the scenery.

Adams’ prints from the 1940s and 1950s  show noticeably high contrast with blank highlights and blocked out shadows, but by the 1960s his technique had improved and his control of tonal range was superb.

His photographic style had also stabilised by the 1960s, with the frequent use of stark compositional elements to create tension or harmony, depth or lack of it.  He often used leading lines of rivers or coast to guide the eye.   Vees or inverted vees are frequent eye-guiding elements, and of course, he used diagonals to add dynamism.

Above all, though, he used contrasting subjects as visual analogues to add depth of meaning to his images. Water adjacent to rock or snow against ice representing the animate and inanimate.  Trees are also an important feature to imply the cycle of the natural world .  I’m sure it is no accident that Adams photographed in the Grand Canyon only once  (1942, as far as I’m aware), as I think the dominance of bare rock in this location would not have been to his taste.


Adams, Ansel. 1942. The Tetons and Snake River.
. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. The ‘S’ curve of the river gives the image depth and perspective

same viewpoint as Ansel Adams view of the Snake RiverSeventy years later, my homage to Ansel, taken from the same view-point, shows that the trees now form a much more dominant foreground and the curve of the river is largely lost. Okay, who’s got the chainsaw? © Malcolm Raggett. 2012

pool1965Adams, Ansel. 1965. Pool, Yellowstone National Park. This is my favourite image from the exhibition because it surprised me: in an original print the water lilly leaves seem to float is space rather than the dark water that logic says must be there. For more details see The Center for Creative Photography © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

So what about my original questions? Ansel Adams became a master of his craft and did much to share this skill with others, though as he himself pointed out “…no one has approached the full possibilities of the medium”.  The budding photographer can learn much from Adams’ techniques, especially if working with film.  But even in the digital world the underlying lessons of control of tonal range can be applied, whether working in colour or monochrome.  It is now possible to extend the tonal range of digital images well beyond the range of a single sheet of film but Adams’ images show us that this isn’t always desirable; we need the mystery of the shadows and the deep water.

Aesthetically there is a place for Adams, though I regard him now as “traditional” and not to be slavishly copied. But many people like the traditional approach and when you are making a living by selling images, Adams provided, and still provides, what people are willing to pay for. For me he is a worthy icon but not to be held up as the ultimate role model in my own photography.