Terry Grimley reviews three photography exhibitions on the theme of place at Walsall’s New Art Gallery.
We usually think of photography as capturing an instant, but in the work of American photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) time exists on a glacial, geological scale.
Between the 1920s and the 1970s Adams recorded the grandeur of America’s wild scenery, from the Yosemite National Park to Death Valley and the Sierra Nevada. Some of these places may have already been national parks, but they were not yet the sites of mass tourism they have become today.
As well as earning him a place in the pantheon of the world’s great photographers, Adams’s images also identify him as a pioneer of the environmental movement.
Originally trained as a musician, he was inspired to take up photography by a visit to the Yosemite National Park in 1916, and became a lifelong member of the conservation group, the Sierra Club, at the age of 17.
The photographs recently shown at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, and now on display at the New Art Gallery in Walsall, come from Adams’ own selection of his best work, made shortly before his death.
Although he did sometimes work in colour, his photographs are overwhelmingly in black-and-white, as are all of those in the exhibition.
Human beings and human activity are conspicuously absent from these photographs (though Adams did come down from the mountains to record peasant life in New Mexico and to take portraits of various fellow artists), so that you would be at a complete loss to guess dates without the aid of captions.
One of the earliest photographs, a spectacular view of the peak known as Half Dome in the Yosemite National Park, dates from 1927. It’s taken from half way up the impressive sheer cliff, with dramatic perspectives in both directions.
Photographed from a different angle, Half Dome turns up again in a snow-drenched photograph from 1960.
The trouble is, these landscapes are now so familiar from magazines and travel brochures that you do have to make certain mental adjustment to appreciate Adams’ pioneering achievement. On the other hand there is no such requirement when he photographs the artist Georgia O’Keeffe out in the wild, or the photographer Alfred Stieglitz in front of one of O’Keeffe’s paintings, or a close-up of the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco.
One of my favourite photographs, unusual for Adams, is Church and Road, Bodega, California from about 1950, in which the white clapboard church stands arrestingly like a sharply-defined apparition above the dark dirt road leading to its door.
Two other exhibitions devoted to contemporary British photographers complement and contrast with Adams. The larger of the two is The British Landscape by John Davies, a body of work compiled between 1979 and 2005 for which Davies was nominated for the prestigious Deutsches Borse Photography Prize earlier this year.
Davies’s photographs resemble Adams’ in that they are black-and-white panoramas with a self-effacingly objective point of view.
On the other hand they are the complete opposite of Adams’ photographs because instead of recording ancient landscapes unchanged in centuries (a view of Skidaw in the Lake District is a partial exception), Davies’s reflect the rapid pace of change in Britain during the post-industrial era.
Although a relatively recent project, Davies has captured industrial sites which have already passed into history, such as Easington Colliery in County Durham, photographed in the 1980s and again in 2004 – apparently the only site Davies has revisited.
The captions carry interesting factual detail about the panoramas – for example, that Stockport Viaduct is the largest brick-built structure in Europe – although Davies seems to be a bit confused about the Festiniog Railway.
There’s a power station on a site where an ancient hall was dismantled and rescued from its industrial surroundings to be rebuilt in America. The hall is still standing but the power station has gone.
In Newcastle, Davies captures two of the worst excesses of 1960s urban blight you will ever see, including the justifiably notorious Westgate Building (since demolished), while in Birmingham in 2000 he recorded the uninspiring view from New Street station towards Navigation Street which has already been changed, but not improved, by the Orion Building.
Like a piece of furniture which improves with the patina of age, you can imagine the detail of Davies’s photographs growing in fascination as time moves on from this transitional moment.
Up on the top floor, Walsall-born photographer Phil Brooks’s 60 degrees north reflects his ambitious project to explore life in the extreme north. Defining this as places 60 degrees or more above the line of the equator, he began his journey on Norway’s border with Siberia and worked his way through Scandinavia to the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, the Scottish islands, Northern Canada and Southern Alaska. He is still planning to go back to Siberia.
Unlike Adams or Davies, he works in colour and doesn’t stand back at a distance, instead moving in on subjects as they take his eye. So there is a great diversity in these photographs, ranging from supermarket sledges (rather than trolleys) in Lapland to a bleak windswept landscape with ponies and circling birds in Shetland to a boy posing with a ready-packed meal of sheep’s head and potatoes outside Reykjavic bus station.
While a theme running through these photographs is the generally deplored tendency of even the remotest places to resemble everywhere else, there is something reassuring about the advertising which reveals you can still buy a KitKat at 64 degrees north, where presumably you could rely on it being crisp.
Then there are traditional painted houses in front of snow-capped mountains in Greenland, and the Santa Claus Office inside the Arctic Circle in Finland.
If there is an end to this world, perhaps it is at Eagle Plains, Canada, where the signboard’s population of 22 has been successively revised to 14 and then 10.
* Ansel Adams Photographs and John Davies –The British Landscape are on view until August 31 and Phil Brooks: 60 degrees north until July 27 at the New Art Gallery, Walsall (Tue-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 11am-4pm; admission free).