Twin Peaks

Adams and Butcher at MoA: Grand masters of sharp-focus nature photography

Early in the Adams show, three shots prominently feature the moon, captured over the course of three decades: Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941), Moonrise from Glacier Point(1953), and Half Dome(1960). They convincingly make the point that Adams' work maintained an amazing consistency over the long haul. Aptly positioned across the gallery is Butcher's Moonrise (1986), a similar shot of the moon and towering clouds centered above a stretch of dwarf cypresses in Big Cypress.

Other photos scattered throughout the exhibition display Adams' feel for perfect lighting no matter what his subject matter. For Rails and Jet Trails, Roseville, California(1953), he catches the play of sunlight on curving railroad tracks that mirror the meandering jet trails in the sky above. Adams even dabbles in abstraction, as in Stained Wallpaper near Alturas, California(1960) and Water and Foam(c. 1955).

After seeing such mastery, especially as demonstrated in the landscapes that make up the bulk of the show, it's easy to dismiss some of Adams' other work as ordinary. That would be a mistake, although his shots of buildings, his still lifes, and his portraits aren't nearly as powerful. The latter are notable mainly for their historical value, as in the pictures of fellow photographer Edward Weston, painter John Marin, and camera pioneer Edwin H. Land.

Ansel Adams: Big subjects, small prints
Ansel Adams: Big subjects, small prints

This double show winds back on itself to end near that curving wall of Butchers I mentioned encountering at the top of the stairs. The finale, displayed with no fanfare on a small wall between galleries, is a grouping of three photos, two small ones by Adams and a much larger one by Butcher.

The Adams pictures -- Lake Tahoe Thunder Storm(1937) and The Golden Gate, San Francisco, Before the Building of the Bridge(c. 1932) -- are cloud studies that would be magnificent enough on their own. But they're paired with Little Butternut Key #2 (1997), a shot taken at Florida Bay near Key Largo that I think is one of Butcher's masterpieces, a deceptively simple composition featuring mountainous storm clouds above a sandy sliver of land, dotted with birds, that juts out into the water. The wisdom of bringing Adams and Butcher together in one exhibition couldn't be more clearly reinforced.

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