Ansel Adams at 100

Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ansel Adams - the photographer and conservationist who helped Americans think "green" with his black-and-white photography. In anticipation of the centenary, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has launched an exhibition of more than 100 of his works - seven of which, along with commentary and interactive features, are available at the online presence of Ansel Adams at 100 .

The first thing you'll need to know about the online exhibition is that Flash 5 is required for viewing. The site does warn you of this fact, but if you aren't paying attention, and access the site with an older version, you could get caught in an endless cycle where every link takes you back to the splash page, and wrongly conclude that the problem is the site's and not your own. (Whether you visit the Adams exhibition or not, so many Flash-based sites now seem to be using 5-only capabilities, that your surfing life should be much simpler after installing the free upgrade.)

Launching the exhibition from the index opens the home page in a new window, free of your browser's various Navigation, Address and 'Favorites' bars, in order to make room for the photographs. Moving over each of the seven photographs generates a title and date of creation, (ranging from 1924-48) as well as a note from an unseen piano. (Adams was an accomplished pianist who compared his negatives to a musical score - which were then open to further interpretation during the printing process.)

First time visitors should begin with Moments in a Life, which presents a brief biography of the photographer --from student to teacher to icon-- along with a streaming QuickTime video clip, following Adams through the process of taking and printing a photograph. Unfortunately, the image quality of this, and subsequent videos is so bad as to approach counter-productivity - never approaching acceptable sharpness, with heavy pixellation frequently obscuring important parts of the scene. I assume --I hope-- that there is no download option for the videos due to copyright restrictions, leaving streaming video as the only alternative.

I've ranted about the 'quality' of streaming video before, and I'm sure I'll have the opportunity to do it again, but in this case especially, I can't help but wonder what a technical perfectionist such as Adams would have thought of such a compromise.

As with the biography, each of the seven featured photographs is given its own page - containing information about the image itself, and the thinking, effort, and even historical context behind it (such background as the contemporary debate as to whether photography could be considered art, and the creation of Group f.64 XXXXXX). Interactive exhibits include such exercises as a comparison of the visual impact of "Monolith, the Face of Half-Dome," to a full-color version of the scene, as well as to black-and-white photographs taken with various filters. Another exploration compares the final image of "Frozen Lake and Cliffs" with Adams' earlier rejections of different angles and camera positions of the same subject.

With each of the featured photographs, clicking on the image itself will take the visitor to audio comments by Adams and/or the exhibition's curators, and offer the opportunity to explore the picture in detail via a very nice interactive picture viewer. The viewer --which allows surfers to zoom and slide their way to any specific part of the photograph-- can be used even while the audio clips are playing, without interrupting the sound. (It also allows the more self-assured photographers to try to improve on the Master's cropping.)

The viewer, sans audio accompaniment, is also available for other selected images, one example being the digitized copy of the "Parmelian Prints" - a portfolio of eighteen prints published in 1927. (Though it may sound impressive, "Parmelian" has no meaning - the word was invented because the publisher didn't think the public would pay the desired price for mere 'photographic' prints.)

The image recognizable to most visitors will probably be "Moonrise, Hernandez," and the related feature is an especially vivid demonstration of Adams' theory of negative as score and print as performance. As well as examining the specific enhancements that were made to Moonrise by selectively manipulating the exposure of the print in the darkroom, the site also demonstrates how Adams changed his interpretation of the negative's 'score' over the years - and compares these to an unenhanced --and by comparison, surprisingly ordinary-- contact print. Finally, there's an account (both in video and audio) of how the image was actually captured.

The design of Ansel Adams at 100 can fool you. It looks so clean and uncluttered, you may get the impression that there won't be much content within - then catch yourself having spent an hour or more digesting and exploring all the site's features.

In fact, my only other major complaint about the site (after the streaming video) is that there is no way to move directly from one of the seven central images to the next without first returning to (and waiting to reload) the exhibit's home page. So if you do stay a while, you'll become very familiar with that home page - but you'll also learn about one of the greats of photography, not to mention a thing or two about photography itself.

Ansel Adams at 100 can be found at www.sfmoma.org/adams.

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