Ansel Adams and Ed Burtynsky are a natural pairing not because their photography is so similar but because it is so different.
Adams’s magnificent black and white photographs of wild, majestic American landscapes are icons both the fine art photography and of the environmental conservation movement. Burtynsky’s symphonic color photographs of industrialized landscapes around the world are landmarks of contemporary large-format photography and documents of degradation in an age of climate change.
Ansel Adams and Edward Burtynsky: Constructed Landscapes, at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, (through October 24), brings together more than 60 photographs by the past master and the modern master in the first photography exhibition the museum has ever mounted.
Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is arguably the most famous photographer American has ever produced. A member along with Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham of the f64 Group, named for the smallest aperture on the camera lens, Adams was a devotee of so-called “straight photography,” striving for precision and detail. As a champion of the Zone System, which broke the grayscale of the black and white photograph into eleven zones, Adams influenced succeeding generations of photographers both as an artist and as a teacher.
We associate Adams with the American West and brilliant, silvery images of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the monolithic presence of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. As the subtitle of Adams-Burtynsky exhibition implies, however, even Adams’s high fidelity images of the western mountains were “constructs,” man-made images that are not at all faithful to reality. The natural world is not black and white, two-dimensional, or small enough that a mountain might be held in our hands.
Where Ansel Adams’s photographs are intimate documents measured in inches, Ed Burtynsky’s photographs are grand visions measured in feet. Yet even in their brilliant use of color, detail, and scale, Burtynsky’s photographs are also artificial re-presentations of the external world. In this media-saturated and savvy era, we now understand that all images are made and manipulated.
Ed Burtynsky (b. 1955) is as Canadian photographer based in Toronto, Ontario, where he maintains a photographic lab that prints large-format photographs. His mission as a photographer has been to focus on the visual realities of industrial landscapes – quarries, oil fields, refineries, open pit mines, tire dumps, shipbreaking yards, and container ports. Where Ansel Adams celebrated the pristine, Ed Burtynsky makes gorgeous prints of polluted.
Though the works of both artists tends to support the need to preserve and protect our fragile planet, when I interviewed Burtynsky back in 2003 for Photo District News, he insisted he tries not to make a value judgment about what he sees and portrays. “I like the fact that my work can be viewed on many levels,” he said. “The quarryman can look at it and see something entirely different than the environmentalist. Then the fine-arts person can look at it with an art-historical reference.”
However you choose to look at this juxtaposition of raw nature and cooked landscapes, the Adams-Burtynsky exhibition should be instructive and edifying.
[Shelburne Museum, 6000 Shelburne Rd. (Route 7), Shelburne VT, 802-985-3346.]