The Politics of Nature: Ansel Adams In Our Time at Portland Art Museum

In two separate, side-by-side photos, two men are seated, their bodies oriented toward a camera, their faces facing each other. One wears a white hat and holds a gloved hand over his heart. The other, an ornate necklace.
Will Wilson, How the West is One, 2014. Photograph, inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist. © Will Wilson. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Last summer, on a weekend trip to Yosemite, I tried to take pictures without people. It was almost impossible. Children with popsicles wandered into the frame. An Instagram influencer kept appearing in new outfits. As she popped her hip, I framed and reframed the vista. Down in the valley, people were pitching tents and driving cars. But up here, from a certain perspective, the park looked entirely uninhabited.   

Ansel Adams in Our Time, recently on display at the Portland Art Museum, features some of the photographer’s most iconic Western landscapes. There are no tourists at the edges of Moon and Half Dome (1960), no inner tubes in the misty water of Early Morning, Merced River (~1950). Adams was part of an “entire industry of mass-producing and distributing photographs of the frontier”—a frontier that was imagined as empty. It was printed on postcards, bound in portfolios, and sold in sets to Sierra Club members. 

Adams’ nature shots are beloved, and for good reason. Even in black-and-white, his images of water, rock, and vegetation convey temperature and humidity, texture and color and season. They’re alive with contrast—new grass sprouting at a blistered stump, smooth boulders and sharp peaks, the motion of sand dunes. They’re risky and rare. He clambered up mountains slung with gear, battled bugs and humidity, and subsisted on coffee and beans. The result: Very pretty pictures.

In this dramatic landscape photograph of Yosemite Valley, snow dusts the trees and rock formations, and low-lying clouds sweep through.
Ansel Adams, Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, about 1937. Photograph, gelatin silver print. 2018.2722. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Lane Collection. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

But for all of Adams’s talent, this exhibit’s greatest strength is how many other people’s pictures it includes: eighty works from photographers past and present, many of them women and people of color. It’s through these artists, in conversation with Adams, that the exhibit is able to interrogate the wilderness itself: as a site of suffering, exclusion, and resilience. 

Take, for instance, Adams’s work at Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp. Alongside Stephen Tourlentes’s images of maximum-security prisons, and Trevor Paglen’s shots of drones and satellites, the photographs make an argument about the danger of deserts, sites of incarceration and surveillance.

Four golfers are arranged on a tended plot of green grass, beyond which stretch rolling, desert hills and rows of wind mills.
Mitch Epstein, Altamont Pass Wind Farm, California, 2007. Photograph, chromogenic print. Courtesy of the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery. Reproduced with permission. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Up from the floor of a skeleton forest of charred trees rise bright green wild grasses and brilliant flowers.
Laura McPhee, Midsummer (Lupine and Fireweed), 2008. Photograph, inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist. © Laura McPhee. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Then there are Adams’s elegic images of drought, degradation, and development. He shot dried-out farmland and tangled freeway interchanges, ghost towns and cemeteries. The exhibit’s other photographers document a lost landscape, too, whether the result of seasonal shifts—Richard Misrach’s gorgeous series of Golden Gate Bridge photographs, capturing changes in light and fog—or human interventions: oil derricks, railroad junctions. In Lucas Foglia’s Beach Restoration After El Niño Waves, 2016 (2016), yellow machines futilely push sand against an encroaching tide. Laura McPhee captures something more promising: purple wildflowers blooming after a forest fire, new life against all odds.

The exhibit offers plenty of scenic inspiration: ferns in Hawaii, giant sequoias in California, a silvered Alaskan lake. Who has access to these sites? A self-portrait of Adams’s shadow (in the exhibit it’s both enlarged on a wall and displayed as a print) opens the exhibition beyond the typical white male cohort, giving space for women and BIPOC artists to imagine themselves in the nation’s wilderness. In Double Vision (Record) (2018), photographer Jonathan Calm stands on an ocean bluff, camera on a tripod, covered by a cloth. Who does the viewer assume the hidden photographer might be? Catherine Opie’s blurred Yosemite shots force the viewer to fill in a well-known waterfall for herself, to impose her own gaze. Vietnamese photographer Binh Danh uses reflective daguerreotype plates for his images of landmarks like the Grand Canyon. Mirrored surfaces allow him to see himself, an immigrant, in our national parks.

A photograph, out of focus, strains to depict a waterfall through a shadow of trees.
Catherine Opie: Untitled #1 (Yosemite Valley), 2015, pigment print, 114.3 × 76.2 cm. Courtesy the artist; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; and Lehmann Maupin, New York / Hong Kong.
The shadow of a man taking a photo on a tripod against a slab of granite makes up this self portrait.
Ansel Adams, Self-Portrait, Monument Valley, Utah, 1958. Photograph, gelatin silver print. 2018.2657. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The Lane Collection. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

But those parks aren’t “ours” at all, as some scholars and activists have asserted. The exhibit’s Indigenous photographers don’t make such an explicit argument—but they do grapple with possession and displacement, and how a West seen only as wild disappears the people who lived there before colonizers decided what was “untouched.” Wendy Red Star’s Four Seasons (2006) places the photographer in kitchy plastic setpieces, a joking representation of how North American Indigenous peoples and their environs are imagined. Zig Jackson comments on the often unseen urban Indigenous population with Indian Man on a Bus (1994), a passenger in a feathered headdress next to other riders in baseball caps. Will Wilson’s double self-portrait How the West is One (2014) depicts the photographer in both a cowboy hat and a silver-and-turquoise necklace, a visual portrayal of dueling Navajo-white identity. These images hang nearby Adams’s anthropological images of Pueblo people, and his critical photograph of a cigar store Indian (provocatively titled Americana). They take his concern for Indigenous life where it otherwise couldn’t go—into the realm of first-person experience.

Adams’s photography is a testament to nature’s power, from Old Faithful’s explosions to the ocean surf’s lacy edges. It’s an argument for stewardship and preservation. But what’s being preserved, In Our Time insists, is never apolitical, or empty—no matter how you frame the shot. 

Ansel Adams: In Our Time
May 5, 2021 – August 1, 2021
Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR

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