Photography by Huw Morgan

Ansel Adams, Ed Burtynsky and The Group of Seven

One of our favourite places is the McMichael Gallery, just north of Toronto. Set in a lovely, rural location near the village of Kleinburg, the museum has a permanent collection of Group of Seven paintings that are wonderful in and of themselves. Add in an exhibition of Ansel Adams and Ed Burtynsky photographs and now you have reason to get in your car on a Sunday afternoon if you live in the area.

I’ve seen Burtynsky’s work several times, but this was the first time that I’d seen Adams prints made by the master himself. To quote the gallery:

“This exhibition features a collection of forty-seven works by Ansel Adams (1902 -1984), about two-thirds of a selection Adams made late in his life to serve as a succinct representation of his life’s work.  He felt these photographs were his best.  Called “The Museum Set”.  These works reveal the importance Adams placed on the drama and splendor of natural environments that might not, to the ordinary passing hiker, have revealed their secrets. Included are many of Adams’ most famous and best-loved photographs which encompass the full scope of his work: elegant details of nature, architectural studies, portraits, and the breathtaking landscapes for which he is revered. The exhibition also includes a photo portrait of Ansel Adams by James Alinder.

These prints reflected Adams at the pinnacle of his print-making skill and they were certainly spectacular. The black areas felt like the light was flowing into them! However, you could tell that the prints were highly manipulated. There were human elements (e.g. hydro wires) that had been removed and the exposure had been extensively altered to bring out the subject matter. Adams reputedly dodged and burned with the best of them and there were several examples where the subject was highlighted beautifully while a daylight sky was darkened almost to night-time.

The results were a little reminiscent of HDR photography today, just in black and white. You can certainly enjoy the skill needed to manipulate these prints so that highlights and shadows are separated to the full reproduction capability of the photo paper, but the hyper-contrast was often a bit much to my taste. Back in the 30’s and 40’s, when Adams appeared on the scene, this technical printing ability must have been mind-blowing compared to the soft, grey pictorialist images that preceded him.

The Burtynsky works were representative of his output:

“Edward Burtynsky: The Landscape That We Change is comprised of a selection of thirty photographic images from several series including landscape works from the early 1980s to more recent images chosen from his Mining photographs, as well as Railcuts, Homesteads, Tailings, Oil, and others. Burtynsky’s photographs present the “disrupted” landscapes; those created by the technology used in the extraction of minerals and energy from the planet, and those changed by the need for extensive delivery systems put in place to move materials for production of goods. Several photographs representing the end of life of the manufactured consumer products as expended materials are also included.”

The contrast between Adams and Burtynsky was very apparent. Intense black and white prints of natural landscapes, smallish by today’s standards, gave way to very large, very colourful prints of man-made landscapes. Despite the use of colour, Burtynsky’s palette is actually quite reserved – his subject matter is intensely colourful, so extensive manipulation using digital darkroom is generally not required.

The third, small exhibit, was an excellent juxtaposition of Adams, Burtynsky and The Group of Seven. Here’s what the gallery says about this exhibit:

“In Canadian art from the early twentieth century, images of the North, communities and the industrialization of the land are recurring subjects and can be found in the art of members of the Group of Seven. Their work was not the only art being produced at the time that dealt with the subject of the land; however, the Group has achieved a ubiquitous Canadian presence with their particular depictions of nature, which range from interpretations of wilderness to the transformation of the land through population growth as well as portrayals of mining and other commercial activities across regions. The Group’s aesthetic program has become synonymous with signifying a ‘heroic’ Canadian character that is embedded in a constructed mythology and that represents a certain perspective on Canadian national identity…The introduction of the camera in the nineteenth century, combined with its continuing technological developments throughout the twentieth century, broadened the imaging capabilities for visually interpreting nature. The photography exhibitions Ansel Adams: Masterworks and Edward Burtynsky: The Landscape that We Change display these artists’ representations of significant places in the physical world. Their aesthetic practises embrace values concerning nature and the environment that have been shaped by their respective cultural experiences and the spirit of the times.”

Starting with a very large, very famous work by Lawren Harris, this smaller group of paintings and photographs showed the various artists’ interpretations of natural and man-made subjects. My favourites were some Frank Carmichael sketches of mines in the Cobalt area of Ontario that became the famous “A Northern Silver Mine

If you live anywhere in Southern Ontario, this exhibit is well-worth the drive. You get to see the top images of Ansel Adams, printed by the master in his prime as well as an excellent sampling of Ed Burtynsky’s greatest hits. The smaller exhibit where the works of the Group of Seven are juxtaposed is a little gem.

And, once you’re finished with the photographs, you can either take a stroll downstairs to see the Group of Seven and the Tom Thomson’s or you can take a walk outdoors in the McMichael’s beautiful grounds.

What’s not to like?






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