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Ansel Adams, Mount Williamson, The Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California, 1945
Ansel Adams, Mount Williamson, The Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California, 1945

Ansel Adams and Edward Burtynsky: The continuum comes full circle at new exhibit Add to ...

Ansel Adams: Masterworks

Edward Burtynsky: The Landscape That We Change

At the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ont.

‘Save the best for last” has long been a showbiz adage. However, McMichael curator Chris Finn has ignored that truism to position the most stimulating part of these two linked shows of photographs at the exhibition’s beginning, in a modest antechamber of sorts to its feast of Ansel Adams and Edward Burtynsky. The space contains no more than 10 or 12 objects – a couple of drawings, a booklet, some paintings and photographs – gathered under the rubic “Connections,” yet in concert they pack a synergistic punch.

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“Connections” works because it’s complicated. Or at least more complicated than what comes a

Ansel Adams: Masterworks and Edward Burtynsky: The Landscape That We Change through Sept. 29.

fter it. Mounting 48 black-and-white gelatin silver photographs by Adams in a couple of galleries, as the McMichael has done here, then doing the same for 30 large chromogenic colour prints by Toronto’s Edward Burtynsky in an adjacent set of spaces is certainly an apt idea – but it’s hardly a stretch on the ole compare-and-contrast continuum.

Adams is all about the plenitude and exaltation of nature, whereas Burtynsky is famous for capturing its depletion and devaluation. “Connections” upsets this yin-yang, albeit briefly, by adding the Group of Seven to the Ansel-Ed equation.

So you get Finn positioning Lawren Harris’s epic 1929 oil on canvas of B.C. Mount Robson, from the McMichael’s famous permanent collection, near the smaller but no less potent photographic image of that same mountain, taken only a year earlier by Adams on what was his only photographic foray to Canada – an image later published as the frontispiece to the Sierra Club Bulletin that is displayed here.

Another juxtaposition pits Franklin Carmichael’s 1930 oil A Northern Silver Mine against a 1995 Burtynsky, Uranium Tailings No. 5, Elliot Lake, Ont. The congealed slag in the foreground of the Carmichael seems almost picturesque, its wavy forms echoing the green hills in which a village nestles across the river. By contrast, the distressed terrain in the Burtynsky looks like it has been scored by the stubby fingers of a malevolent giant.

Finn isn’t so much suggesting shared inspiration or disjunctions of sensibility in “Connections” as he is affinities and serendipities – “how ideas emerge in certain time periods, then perhaps re-emerge or are reinterpreted later in a different medium.”

When the works of man appear in an Adams photograph – or at least in the photographs lent here by California’s Turtle Bay Exploration Park (70 per cent of which were chosen by Adams himself) – their impact is puny to the point of insignificance.

Peering at one of Adams’s most famous images, 1941’s Moonrise, Hernandez, N.M., I spotted only two electrical poles in the picture’s bottom third, subsumed, like the village of which they’re part, by the majesty of sky, cloud and mountain. By contrast, man’s presence in the Burtynskys is largely awful, often to the point of catastrophe; in 1985’s Mines #17, depicting an open-pit B.C. copper mine, for example, nature is pushed skyward, to the very (upper) margins of the print.

And yet for all the differences in content and subject matter, both Adams and Burtynsky are united in their fealty to the print beautiful, to the well-tempered composition with the arresting point of view and the just-so tonality.

The yellow in a Burtynsky print may be the scum on the surface of a toxic tailing pond near Fort McMurray – but as a formal element, it’s as rich as the richest grey or black in any Adams pictorial paean to Yosemite National Park or the Sierra Nevada.

Some may find the respective (and retrospective) contents of the Adams and the Burtynsky showcases a touch too familiar, even though in each case there are discreet surprises (a handful of human portraits by Adams, some new prints from Burtynsky of images shot in 2010 illustrating the impact of the Deepwater oil spill). But in contrast to, say, the 240-plus photos in the Sebastiao Salgado love-in at the Royal Ontario Museum, the modesty of the McMichael’s “greatest hits” approach seems to be about right.

Neither skimpy nor excessive, it gives the viewer a satisfactory sense of each artist’s oeuvre as well as opportunities for more focused and leisurely looking, minus the forced-march feeling that’s often part of the really big-show experience.

Ansel Adams: Masterworks and Edward Burtynsky: The Landscape That We Change through Sept. 29.

 

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