The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present an exhibition of works by Ansel Adams (1902-1984), one of the most widely admired American photographers of the 20th century, in its new Julien Levy Gallery for photographs in the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building. Although he was broad-ranging in subject matter—producing portraits, still-lifes, and commercial images throughout his lengthy career—Adams is best known for his grand panoramas, particularly his images of Yosemite and others invoking the grandeur of the American west. Transcending the Literal takes a fresh look at Adam’s approach to landscape, exploring the ways in which his work captures not only the sublime in nature but also the essentially abstract visual qualities inherent in natural forms. On view in the Julien Levy Gallery at the Ruth and Raymond G. Perelman Building from March 8 through August 17, Transcending the Literal will present more than 40 works drawn from the Museum’s distinguished collection, highlighting images that embody Adams’s engagement with abstraction.
The exhibition’s title comes from his 1935 instructional book Making a Photograph in which Adams wrote that the skillful representation of nature involved “transcending the literal aspects” of the landscape. His desire to move beyond the straightforward depiction of nature is evident in photographs that employ elements of abstraction. Adams, a founding member of the influential photography group f/64, frequently espoused “straight” or “pure” photography, characterized by sharply focused and detailed images, throughout his career. Yet he was intrigued by artists and photographers who worked in the abstract mode, and acknowledged the powerful visual potential of abstract aesthetics. The gelatin silver prints on view are organized to highlight Adams’ emphasis on line, shape and pattern. In some cases he deliberately compresses space or eliminates the horizon line, lending an almost disorienting aspect to the images. In others, he draws attention to stark shadows and highlights created by sunlight or the complex patterns of tree bark and stone. While the exhibition examines Adams’s incorporation of abstract elements, the works also encourage audiences to experience the pure pleasure of the visual totality that he so carefully orchestrated.
“The exhibition presents an unfamiliar side of a familiar artist,” Curator of Photographs Katherine Ware explains. “In examining these images, one sees how Adams’s careful use of abstraction serves to enhance the viewer’s experience of the literal world.”
Most of the works in the exhibition were donated to the Museum during the 1970s by the late Robert A. (1923–1990) and Lorna (1926–1999) Hauslohner, dedicated patrons who were enthusiastic about the Museum’s growing photography collection. Robert Hauslohner, a Museum trustee, served on the Advisory Committee of the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs from 1967 until 1986, and chaired the Committee from 1970 to 1976. In 1975 Mr. and Mrs. Hauslohner pledged funds for the purchase of one hundred images by Adams. It was a timely gift, as the photographer had recently announced he would soon cease accepting orders for individual prints. Among the highlights of the gift is a group of five images from “Surf Sequence” (negatives 1940), a well-known series in which the artist created striking compositions from the serendipitous sweep of water and shifting sands.