Interpretation: Mount Williamson – Clearing Storm

I apologize for my posts being late. I don’t know if I’ll get credit for these or not, but I figured I would try and get them in before midnight, anyway.

I decided that I would talk about a photograph we haven’t seen in class or is on the gallery page for my third Art Interpretation article. The photograph in question is by an artist we talked about his evening. I am referring to Ansel Adams, and a particular photograph he took in the Sierra Nevada. Though not directly related to the National Parks, I believe the following photograph is an example of how his mastery of the medium conveys his conservationist ideals and a reflection of how different people view the landscape.

Ansel Adams, “Mount Williamson – Clearing Storm,” 1945

This photograph, entitled Mount Williamson – Clearing Storm, was taken in 1945. Adams’ mastery of the photographic medium is evident here. Like many of his photographs, this image captures a variety of tones. There is a high level of contrast, as highlights and shadows are captured starkly here.  However, the tones in-between white and black give the image a dynamic show of light, and makes for a compelling landscape. Like most of his work, Adams’ used a large-format camera to capture this image. The camera used 8-by-10 inch sheets as opposed to film. This, combined with using the f/64 aperture setting, which produces the sharpest focus and the broadest depth-of-field, gives the photograph an impressive amount of detail.

There is a bit of significant history to this famous image that not many people from our generation may know about (or at least I did not). During World War II, Ansel Adams worked for the U.S. Department of the Interior.  Adams took a series of photographs that documented the day-to-day life of Japanese-Americans that were imprisoned at the Manzanar Relocation Center in California. Included in the many photographs he took were images of Mount Williamson as seen by the Japanese-American prisoners. Ansel Adams later donated these photographs to the Library of Congress and hoped that they would be put to good use in response to the injustices the Relocation Center’s inhabitants had suffered.

Keeping this information in mind, this photograph now has several contexts.

On one hand, this image is a typical Ansel Adams masterpiece photograph. Technically, it is a display of Adams’ craft. The photograph displays Adams’ use of the “Zone System” (the grayscale range of values). It also displays his common subject matter: the landscapes of the American West. As we discussed in class, Adams was part of the Sierra Club, and worked with conservationist ideals. The landscape shown in Mount Williamson – Clearing Stormis arguably more desolate than, say, his famous image of Yosemite Valley. However, there is an equal sense of grandeur in this image. The camera is positioned rather low, to where the viewer is almost eye-level with the stones scattered across the landscape. The result is an image where the viewer is looking upward toward Mount Williamson in the distance. In effect, the landscape becomes more vast, capturing a traditional sense of depth. The way the light flickers through the passing clouds as the storm recedes is, to me, strikingly similar to the lighting in some of the paintings we’ve looked at in class.

Thomas Cole, “View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm (The Oxbow),” (1836)

The way Adams has captured the passing storm reminds me of paintings like Cole’s. Although working with a newer medium, Adams’ photograph seems to still be composed with similar motifs in mind, thus solidifying the photograph as a legitimate mode of visual art.

On the other hand, the sociopolitical context of World War II and the internment of Japanese-Americans in places like the Manzanar Relocation Center puts the photograph of Mount Williamson in a different context. Now, the audience is placed in the shoes of Japanese-Americans unjustly relocated to prison camps. Having to suffer from the prejudice and fear placed on them by “patriotic” Americans in the years of World War II, they lived difficult lives and were treated unjustly. Looking out into the wasteland, one would see a landscape similar to what Adams has captured in Mount Williamson – Clearing Storm. But the role of the viewer has changed from someone capturing the landscape’s sublimity, but instead as one yearning for justice and freedom. New interpretations can be formed. Perhaps the rocks are a metaphor for the individual? Perhaps the clearing storm and the heavenly light is a metaphor for freedom?

Regardless, I see this image as a compelling reminder of how different people, in different contexts, view the landscape. This is a landscape for anyone and everyone to find meaning and solace in, which is the essence of the National Park idea.

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Information gathered from: http://www.gale.cengage.com/pdf/samples/sp406258.pdf

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