Portrait of the environmentalist as a sentimentalist

When a car manufacturer wants to sell you a new model, his ads show the vehicle speeding unhampered through an immense, pristine landscape.

It’s always some vista utterly unscathed by the mark of human habitation: no Exxon stations, no Taco Bells, no landfills, no asphalt plants, no disfigured mountainsides.

Sort of like the scenery captured by Ansel Adams back in the 1920s and ’30s.

Products as diverse as Viagra and chewing gum are sold using images of flower-strewn meadows, breathtaking sunsets or snow-capped mountains. And we’d sure love to live in this world — if only we didn’t have to give up cheap gas, hot fries, triple packaging, super-smooth highways or inexpensive building materials!

But Adams, the famous black-and-white photographer — the prime purveyor of the starkly majestic scenery of the American west — at least lets us dream that we can.

Nonetheless, Asheville-based photographer Benjamin Porter selects a highly commercial metaphor when describing Adams, dubbing the late, great artist “the Coca-Cola of photographers — his is the name most known by the general public.”

The huge crowd that turned out for the July 8 opening of Classic Images: From the Ansel Adams Archive at the Asheville Art Museum certainly knew what they’d come to see. Many of the 81 exhibited images — a collection Adams assembled himself, toward the end of his life, as being uniquely representative of his work — are comfortably familiar.

Invaluable, or oblivious?

Like Porter, Western North Carolina’s other high-profile photographers also profess sometimes-clashing viewpoints about Adams’ work and legacy.

UNCA photography teacher Larry White notes that Adams was his first major influence. By the ’70s, though, White says he’d lost interest in Adams’ work, “because he had become a part of pop culture — he was everywhere.”

But later, White’s interest in the late photographer’s methods was sparked anew while he was reading an Adams biography. The instructor now admits: “His print-making skills and innovations are invaluable to teachers.”

About the time White first dismissed Adams as too ubiquitous, Tim Barnwell was discovering the artist for himself. In the mid ’70s, Barnwell took in an exhibit of the master’s work at Western Carolina University.

“Adams defined photography for me,” admits Barnwell, who’s today best known for capturing scenes of rural Appalachian life. “I was inspired to do better. I switched to a large-format camera.

“Over the years, I’ve become aware of other aspects of the work, and I’m always glad to see original prints,” he continues. “They are so different from reproductions in books.”

But the famed photographer’s legacy is defined as much now by his prophetic social agenda as by his art.

“Back in the ’20s and ’30s, he was concerned with preserving the environment,” Barnwell points out.

Fine-art photographer Brigid Burns views her own work as artistically outside the realm of Adams’ influence. Like Barnwell, she seeks to present Adams in a larger cultural context.

“He gives Americans an awareness of who we are as a people,” says Burns. “He went to difficult places — he did not take an easy path [to obtain his pictures].”

And in the resulting images, Adams also took care not to reveal the various desecrations that, even back then, were beginning to mar America’s wild spaces.

This omission, no matter how well-intentioned, costs Adams major points with many contemporary photographers — including WCU’s Cathy Griffin.

“We don’t live in national parks,” the photography instructor declares heatedly, referring to Adams’ main artistic habitat.

“Adams traveled in a limo with a platform on top for his camera so that the pictures never show the road or the railing around the overlook,” Griffin reveals. “He placed himself above it all.

“We are apt to find comfort in these illusions at a time when we need to be challenging our perceptions of the natural world. The work needs a context — especially here, and especially now.”

Puts in mixed-media camerawoman Lynette Miller: “We expect a photographer to tell the truth. We must remember that the truth he tells is just his truth.

“We must realize that we do not live in his world.”

Kodak moments

Warren Wilson College photography teacher Eric Baden, on the other hand, believes that Adams’ “environmental legacy is ongoing” — but blames the inevitable “19th-century aesthetic” for his work being considered unfashionable in some circles.

“For me, personally, his most important contribution was technique,” says Baden.

Alice Sebrell, program coordinator for the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, agrees: “Black-and-white photographers now have a method for looking at the world and taking out the technical guesswork.”

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