The Saturday, February 18, 2012 opening of "Ansel Adams: Los Angeles" at DTLA's DRKRM Gallery brought out an astonishing number of attendees. Guests waited in a line a block long to be among the first to publicly view a series of photographs of Los Angeles shot ca. 1939 by the legendary Ansel Adams.
The photos, selected from a lot of negatives gifted to the Los Angeles Public Library and shot by Adams while on assignment for Fortune Magazine, were considered by the artist to be of unacceptable quality. A viewing of the roughly 60 images currently on display at DRKRM, however, yielded a different conclusion.
It was great and rather unexpected to see an exhibition opening in Los Angeles with a longer line than any club in town. It was even greater to take note of the fact that most of the attendees seemed rather impressed with, and certainly fascinated by, the work. This is a very rare occurrence.
It's hard to say exactly what brought out so many people, but, given the event, it's not surprising. Ansel Adams is one of the very few photographers in history to be considered a household name. For generations of Americans, his was the lens that painted the West in stark, monumental, but never frigid black and white. And there is also a local draw. People in Los Angeles love to talk about, look at, write about, photograph, and examine Los Angeles. So this was a case of the master's lens trained on a subject which we all, to some extent, call our own.
Regardless of motivation, the opening was huge. And it was a bit overwhelming. "Ansel Adams: Los Angeles" is the sort of thing that shouldn't be viewed just once. The novelty, or the tug of history, are sure to distract from the work. And there is a surprising amount of work: 60 images over 2 rooms.
Being that the photos were developed from 70-year-old negatives, it's hard to say exactly what Adams intended or why he was so unhappy with the work. It is safe to say that the subject matter seems to have affected his process. Some of the pieces are not necessarily inferior to, but certainly deviant from the bulk of his well-known nature photography. There are a lot of moving targets in these pieces. There was probably not as much time for Adams to sit with and study a subject in this urban environment. A lot of the setups were likely far less deliberate and, as noted in the press materials for this show, Adams felt that he was shooting under poor weather/light conditions. Perhaps the case was not that the work was poor so much as it was foreign to the artist himself because, for the viewer, his signature is still there: the high contrast, the inky blacks, the compositions defined by deliberate indicators of perspective, and nature as simple geometry.
Take this opportunity to view a chunk of local history: Los Angeles at the birth of its aviation industry, on the brink of booming growth, and unknowingly on the verge of the greatest war in history, through one of the greatest eyes ever.
"Ansel Adams: Los Angeles" runs through March 17, 2012 at DRKRM.