American Visions

5 minute read

If you’re looking for america, there’s no need to buy a Greyhound bus ticket — just drop in at London’s Hayward Gallery before mid-September. Photographers Ansel Adams and William Eggleston reveal the country’s awe-inspiring natural phenomena, as well as the lurid traces of human occupation.

It is Adams’ centenary year, and this collection of his work spanning 50 years was brought together by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to set him among the greats of the 20th century. He spent much of his life documenting the American wilderness, turning its craggy features into monumental images. Confronted by Thunderstorm over the Great Plains, near Cimarron, New Mexico (1961), the eye looks automatically for an Arizona Highways magazine caption featuring the words “grandeur,” “majesty” and “awe.” But if these landscapes became national treasures verging on cliché, it is thanks partly to Adams’ dedication and activism.

The year Adams turned 14, he visited the Yosemite Valley and was given his first camera. As a young man, he worked as a custodian there and took long hikes through the mountains. “I know of no sculpture, painting, or music that exceeds the compelling spiritual command of the soaring shape of the granite cliff …” he wrote in his autobiography, adding that he wanted to establish Yosemite as “a sanctuary.” For much of his life he fought to protect the places he loved, using his photographs as a lobbying tool.

In an annex to the exhibition is a map locating the places he photographed, as well as copies of his books The Negative, The Print and The Camera. His sensitivity to nature was backed up by supreme technical knowledge and control. To him a negative was not just the record of a moment, but “the source of the information required for the creation of the print.” Adams’ prints are surprisingly small. To achieve the utmost sharpness, some were produced as contact prints from the large pieces of film he used in a view camera. This heavy piece of equipment rests on a tripod and requires the operator to duck under a black cloth.

Not all of Adams’ subjects are vast, ancient and rocky. His images of plants are delicate and detailed. In Trailside, near Juneau, Alaska (1947), briar leaves displaying every vein and dewdrop form a pattern with flowers and grass. Aspens, Northern New Mexico (1958) shows one small tree, its leaves drenched in sunlight, against a backdrop of grey stems and deep shadows. It’s almost worth spending all your time at the show gazing at one such image.

In contrast to Adams’ pure black-and-white vision of untouched nature, William Eggleston’s pictures throw a colorful light on the incidentals of human life in the American South. When he goes to a desert, as he did in 2000, he doesn’t lift up his eyes to the hills but takes in a grave, a rusty sign, a passing freight train, an abandoned suitcase lying open on the ground. And instead of composing his images formally he seems to snap at random, cutting off people’s heads or tilting the horizon. Sometimes he doesn’t even look through the viewfinder, but aims high and low at light fixtures or the clutter on a diner’s counter top.

Eggleston still lives in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was born in 1939, and has been taking pictures since 1957. In the 1970s he went into color in a big way, using the dye transfer process that allowed him to tinker with hues. Fortunately for him it was a time when people surrounded themselves with bright colors and lurid patterns. You may need dark glasses to view a Californian field photographed in 1978 (only a few of Eggleston’s images have titles), in which mauve lupins are almost lost against a background of chrome yellow flowers under a cerulean sky. And an art deco cinema in Morton, Missouri, photographed between 1970 and ’74, is floodlit in green against a purple sunset.

A more subtle symphony in ochre and umber is created by the window of Brown’s Custom Shop in Kingsport, Tennessee, photographed in 1985. The wall is brown, the rolls of linoleum on display are lime, orange and teak. But Eggleston’s aesthetic also has a puritan streak that goes beyond the garish and distressed to encompass blank white walls and dry grasses.

An occasional sinister theme runs through his panorama of life in the South. A lone axe has been laid down on a barbecue, a gun hangs from a hook. A sign reads “No Loitering Allowed.” A man peering from a car window looks like an escaping murderer; another lies face down on the concrete floor of a garage. Eggleston finds beauty in odd things such as the ceremonies of eating, turning salt shakers and ketchup bottles into family groups and exploring the contents of a freezer in 1971 (Frosty Acres Tasty Taters). From mountain majesties to frozen fries, this is a show no lover of photography should miss.

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