Calum Colley reviews the National Maritime Museum’s Ansel Adams exhibit. 


Why, you might reasonably ask, was the work of Ansel Adams, perhaps the most celebrated of all landscape photographers, being shown at the National Maritime Museum in London? Even those champions of Adams’ versatility would probably accept that his principle focus, as a photographer, is terrestrial. With that in mind, it represents something of a masterstroke from the curatorial team at the Maritime that they were able to deliver such a compelling exhibition focussed solely on that band of Adams’ output that dealt with that ever-present, but often understated, force of nature: water.

For it is through the action of water that many of Adams’ landscapes have been shaped. Water cuts through docile plains, sweeping the soft material downstream, and leaving those harsh cliffs and outcrops that have been so eulogised in paint, from the brushes of Salvator Rosa and Claude Lorrain; and in ink, from the prose of William Gilpin and John Ruskin, to the poetry of William Wordsworth and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. These are the landscapes that Adams concerns himself with, landscapes now synonymous with freighted terms like “Romantic,” “Picturesque,” and “Sublime.”

In Adams’ canon, the clearest example of the transformative powers of water over the landscape is also one of his most famous works. The remarkable Clearing Winter Storm remains perhaps the most breath-taking work of his career. From low in the valley – Adam preferred looking up to the surrounding peaks and cliffs to looking down from on top of them – the camera follows the path of an errant glacier so many millennia ago, as it cut its tempestuous route through the rock. As the turbulent clouds disperse from the valley they leave curious shadows on the rock. The little light that now pierces through the angry firmament illuminates the hewn faces of the valley cliffs, and leaves dark shadows in their clefts and scars. A waterfall tumbles from atop a cliff, crashing into the soft greenery of the valley floor. The whole scene is dusted with white and shrouded in a thick mist.

For Adams, the fascination with water does not end with the effect it has on the land. Throughout the gallery you are treated to an exploration of water, the forms it takes and the way it moves. Waterfall, Northern Cascades pictures a torrent of water, falling chaotically from its source, a shadowy, snow-covered peak looming in the distance. Elsewhere, Adams shows water in its more sedate form, as in the sequence of tide patterns or in Fern Spring where it appears viscous, even gloopy, as it pours lazily over the smooth rocks of the rivulet.

Adams at the Maritime seemed an odd fit. What business had a photographer celebrated for his landscapes, his mountains and valleys, in a place whose chief focus was not on those ancient formations but on a part of the natural world that remained forever transient and renewed. By shifting the focus to the action of water in Adams’ canon, the Museum treated its patrons to a new look at the old master.


Calum Colley


Photo by Ansel Adams