To think of the American wilderness is to see it through Ansel Adams' eyes: vast panoramas of snow-capped mountains mirrored in still water, full moons suspended in starless skies, white water cascading down rocky cliffs into valleys bristling with conifers. Adams' landscapes are as unspoiled and virginal as the Garden of Eden, but more heroic, noble and masculine.
That also is the world that Florida photographer Clyde Butcher has recorded in "America the Beautiful," a striking exhibit of 50 huge black-and-white photos on view through April 15 at the James J. Hill Reference Library and spilling over into the adjacent Central Library in downtown St. Paul. Imposing and almost impossibly pristine, Butcher's pictures echo Adams' visual vocabulary with pitch-perfect ventriloquism. Many of the sites -- in the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Yosemite -- are popularly associated with Adams, and Butcher seems to have gone out of his way not only to revisit the master's landscapes but to re-create his pictures when possible.
About his own 2006 photo of the Snake River, Butcher writes in an introduction to the exhibition: "I have always loved Ansel Adams' photograph of the Snake River, especially the silver quality of the river running through the picture. I wanted to try and capture that same silver streak in a photograph, too."
After returning eight times to the same spot on a bluff overlooking the river, he succeeded. Butcher's photo is magnificent, a breathtaking expanse of natural grandeur stretching to a distant mountain range on the far side of a forested valley through which curves a shimmering ribbon of water under a darkening sky.
In photo after photo Butcher virtually channels Adams and, somewhat surprisingly, pretty much nails his look. This is no small feat. Adams (1902-84) was a brilliant, self-taught photographer who wrote 10 books about how to frame, focus and print photos. To be good enough to go mano a mano with the master is a significant achievement. Butcher works with antique view cameras that take huge negatives -- up to 12 by 20 inches -- and can deliver every leaf and grain of sand in perfect focus. His pictures of California fern glades, Utah aspen groves and graceful mangrove roots leapfrogging into Florida swamps are stunning. And he prints his pictures poster-size and larger -- up to 5 feet tall and 9 feet wide -- which gives them an Imax sizzle compared with Adams' modest portfolios.
Butcher is operating in an entirely different universe from Adams, whose wilderness, while threatened, was not yet under assault from day trippers, snowmobiles, RVs and all the paraphernalia of mass tourism. In the 1930s, at least, Adams could count on having many of his subjects pretty much to himself. By contrast, crowds of hikers trudge past as Butcher works. He writes that one popular Yosemite spot was so overrun with photographers that their tripod legs overlapped each other. Even so, with the aid of an 8-foot ladder and a 9-foot tripod Butcher got a prelapsarian view of Yosemite that would bring a nostalgic tear to the eye of God.
A changing landscape
Butcher's achievements are admirable, but oddly disconcerting, too. As an act of homage, his photos reaffirm Adams' aesthetic vision and the success of his pioneering conservation efforts. Yosemite, which Adams fought so hard to preserve, is still a national park. El Capitan lives. Bridal Veil Falls still runs. And through Butcher's lens, they look virtually the same as they did 70 or so years ago when Adams stalked their trails.
Despite the stirring beauty of Butcher's images, something feels a bit false about this latter-day report. It's not just that Butcher seems to be trying overly hard to replicate and trump the master, but that his borrowed vision is so circumscribed by past perfection that he seems oblivious to the possibility of fresh beauty. Like landscape painters before him, Adams modeled an essentially 19th-century aesthetic in which wilderness grandeur was evidence of God's hand and a summons to spiritual awe and renewal. If those convictions are to remain relevant, they need to be reaffirmed in 21st-century imagery. Many contemporary artists have recorded the despoliation of the national parks with their abundant parking lots, crowded campsites and tourists elbowing each other for snapshot memories. There's no need for Butcher to go that route, but with his abundant talent, surely he could find his own way to celebrate the nation's iconic places.
"America the Beautiful" is a novel venture for the two St. Paul libraries, paid for in part by funds from Minnesota's 2008 Legacy amendment that provides state tax money for arts and cultural programs. The libraries are not an ideal setting for viewing photos, many of which are hung too high and harshly lit by spotlights that cause blinding glare off the glass. Still, there's a certain poignancy about seeing these images in a pink marble building founded by a man whose transcontinental railroad enabled the settlement and domestication of so much of the American West.
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