Portland exhibitions reveal complex legacy of landscape photography

Landscape photography has become the most ubiquitous art form of our time, thanks to smartphone technology and social media. Yet lost in the deluge of National Park selfies is an essential dilemma about our love of these natural places, and how we choose to represent them. That dilemma is brought […]

Landscape photography has become the most ubiquitous art form of our time, thanks to smartphone technology and social media. Yet lost in the deluge of National Park selfies is an essential dilemma about our love of these natural places, and how we choose to represent them.

That dilemma is brought to light at two photography exhibitions in downtown Portland this spring, both of which challenge the legacy of Ansel Adams, the vanguard of modern landscape photography.

At the Portland Art Museum’s “Ansel Adams in Our Time” (May 5 to Aug.1) the legendary photographer is both celebrated and questioned, while modern photographer Johnnie Chatman makes a more pointed critique in his affecting show “i forgot where we were…” at Blue Sky Gallery (April 1 to May 29).

The two approach the art form from either end of the timeline. Adams, who died in 1984, began his career in the 1920s. Chatman, born in 1990, had his first solo exhibition in 2014. Interestingly enough, both men are Californians.

Place Chatman’s “Great Sand Dunes” next to Adams’ “Sand Dunes” and what’s incredible at first is how similar the two photographs are. But after a minute, the differences become not only apparent, but revealing. Comparing the two photographers’ work proves to be a deeply moving experience.

"Ansel Adams in Our Time"

– “Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley, National Monument, California.”  (1948) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Lane Collection, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Lane CollectionThe Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Johnnie Chatman

Johnnie Chatman, “Self Portrait, Great Sand Dunes, (South)” 2016. (Johnnie Chatman, courtesy of Blue Sky Gallery)Johnnie Chatman, courtesy of Blue Sky Gallery

Both Adams and Chatman use nature’s grand vistas as their canvas, but each finds something different when he looks through the viewfinder. Adams’ work smolders with breathless reverence, in awe of the majesty before him. Chatman, meanwhile, is much more introspective, using nature as a backdrop for weightier issues of race, class and history.

In many ways, Chatman’s work reads as a direct response to Adams’. In most of his “Self Portrait” series Chatman deploys Adams’ hallmark style (black and white photos with high contrast and a long depth of field) and in some cases his images mirror specific works of the famous photographer.

But while Adams is content to let nature speak for itself, Chatman subverts the landscape by placing himself in the middle of it, casting a boxy silhouette inside the frame. The subject is no longer just the sweeping dune or the towering waterfall, but the mysterious figure standing stock-still within it.

Chatman’s silhouette is admittedly unnerving. Is this man intruding on our view or are we intruding on his? Where did he come from? Was he here all along? Did we overlook him in our rush to lay claim to this land?

Johnnie Chatman

Johnnie Chatman, “Self Portrait, Grand Canyon,” 2018. (Johnnie Chatman, courtesy of Blue Sky Gallery)Johnnie Chatman, courtesy of Blue Sky Gallery

The photographer, who is Black, is clear about his intentions: “i forgot where we were…” is a statement on how the landscapes of the American West collide with Black history. The dark figure is meant to remind us of the people who have been killed, removed and overlooked during our country’s westward expansion, and is a stand-in for the Black experience in America.

Our romanticized perspective of nature — our rush to “get away from it all” and find solace in a grand view — too often ignores the Indigenous people who were shoved out of the way, and the Black and Asian workers who built the infrastructure we use to access these places before being cast aside, Chatman’s work suggests. He likens our country’s treatment of the land to its treatment of Black Americans; it’s a complex history we struggle to understand.

But, like Adams, Chatman is also selective about what he does and does not show. His photos are carefully framed to make a point, and in doing so the fuller picture is obscured.

In “Self Portrait, Arches” we once again see the solitary figure alone in a beautiful landscape. What we don’t see are any of the other 1.5 million people who visited Utah’s Arches National Park that same year, overwhelming the land. Chatman’s composition, while made original by his strong aesthetic, is a common romanticization seen across social media: the solitary adventurer, standing alone in the midst of nature’s beauty.

That romanticization, of course, can be traced back to Adams, who at the beginning of his career altered a negative to remove a road and almost always shot his landscapes free of people, creating the illusion of the solitary natural experience to begin with.

"Ansel Adams in Our Time"

Ansel Adams’ “Self-Portrait, Monument Valley, Utah” (1958), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

(The Lane Collection, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston The Lane Collection)The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

"Ansel Adams in Our Time"

“Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park,” Ansel Adams (1960). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

(The Lane Collection, © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Lane Collection)The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Walking through the spacious galleries of the Portland Art Museum, squeaking across the old, wooden floors, I wonder if the ubiquity of social media landscape photography has made Ansel Adams irrelevant. If we can open up Instagram and see thousands of views of Yosemite, do we really need to see his?

As a photographer, I shudder at the notion. Adams was a master of the craft, and the quality of his images cannot be replicated by an iPhone. Still, the discomfiting thought lingers, needles me as I pace through the exhibition: What is Ansel Adams’ legacy anyway?

The curators of “Ansel Adams in Our Time” have thoughtfully hung his work beside that of modern photographers, who evolve and subvert the landscape in a dozen different ways: Catherine Opie’s work is intentionally unfocused; Binh Danh prints photos of RVs on silver daguerreotype plates; David Benjamin Sherry renders Monument Valley in neon blue.

Whereas Adams’ masterful landscapes may be mistaken for pretty pictures, these works are all what we’d call “art” in the modern sense, visual creations that carry deeper meanings, often colored by oppression, isolation or pain. At Blue Sky, Chatman calls this out more clearly than the rest, presenting his work beside a line from Black scholar and activist W.E.B Du Bois: “It is not real. It is but shadows.”

Ansel Adams, like many white men of his era, seemed to be concerned with shadow as a concept, something to be played with or manipulated. In “Moon and Half Dome,” arguably his greatest work, shadow is a way to highlight the gorgeous cliff face that’s painted in light. Chatman, on the other hand, lives in his shadows, literally standing in them, an omnipresent specter that haunts every frame.

Going back and forth between the two photographers, the distinctions become clearer and clearer. Yet, the two remain inextricably connected, both by Chatman’s choice and Adams’ oversized legacy – which today hangs over the art form much like his famous “Self-Portrait, Monument Valley, Utah,” the photographer’s caped shadow still looming large.

“Ansel Adams in Our Time” is absolutely worth seeing, for the opportunity to see his masterful prints up close, and to appreciate the many other artists featured in the exhibition. But once you finish, do yourself a favor and walk the half-mile north to Blue Sky Gallery, where Johnnie Chatman’s “i forgot where we were…” isn’t just a good chaser, it’s an essential one.

“Ansel Adams in Our Time” runs from May 5 to Aug. 1 at the Portland Art Museum; the museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wed.-Sun., at a limited capacity; timed-entry tickets are $20 for adults, $17 for seniors and students and free for kids; buy tickets online at portlandartmuseum.org; 1219 S.W. Park Ave., Portland; 503-226-2811.

“i forgot where we were…” runs until May 29 at Blue Sky Gallery; the gallery is open noon to 5 p.m., Wed.-Sat, at a limited capacity; appointments can be made online at blueskygallery.org; admission is free; 122 N.W. 8th Ave., Portland; 503-225-0210.

–Jamie Hale; [email protected]; 503-294-4077; @HaleJamesB

Robert G. Mull

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