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Adams Exhibit Exposes 60 Years of Photos--Warts and All

It's doubtful the Corcoran Gallery of Art's "Ansel Adams" exhibit will add to the photographer's reputation.

In fact, it could be called "Ansel Adams, Warts and All."

Billed as "a new look" at his work spanning a six-decade career, it presents a survey of 125 Adams images from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts' famed Lane Collection. William H. and Saundra B. Lane bought directly and in quantity from the photographer over a period of almost 10 years, eventually acquiring about 500 early to late prints.

That made theirs one of the largest and best Adams repositories in the U.S., along with the 6,000 other American modernist prints they bought.

But is big always better?

A show such as this inevitably reflects the collectors' taste, and this is no exception. Paul Roth, Corcoran curator of photography and media arts, says, "Though the couple worked together, Saundra had 'the eye' and he 'the money.'"

Mrs. Lane wanted to present an overview of the work, with an emphasis on the comparatively rare early prints, but the large, late Japanese-style folding screens beginning in 1936 may be among the least attractive.

"Adams was experimenting with making large-scale prints," Mr. Roth says, "mainly for his friends."

Unfortunately, they're overwhelmingly unoriginal.

What's more, the curator decided to display them in the rather dark "Late Works" section, where they're hard to see.

Fortunately, Mr. Roth also mixes in the photographer's better-known work - such as "Yosemite National Park," "Sierra Nevada Mountains," "Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone National Park," "The Enchanted Mesa, Near Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico," "Monolith: The Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park" - with run-of-the-mill shots such as his 1943 "Old Church, Hornitos, California."

A particularly unremarkable Adams effort is "Freeway Interchange, Los Angeles," picturing ribbons of cars and freeways, shot in 1967.

The real focus of this show, however, is light glancing off rocks and trees, as in the aqueous "Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park," about 1937, and the two views of "Monolith," in which light carves the rocks.

Light also creates the almost abstract "Surf Sequence" (1940), the majestically swept "Dunes, Oceano, California" (about 1950) and the legendary "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" (1941), which Mr. Adams photographed at night.

Everyday man-made buildings, freeways and friends posing for portraits - which supposedly make this a real retrospective - could never rival his love affair with light sequences and spreading views of nature.

It's fortunate that Mr. Roth included the abstractly lit "Dunes, Oceano, California," in which visitors can imagine plummeting from top to bottom.

Another good curatorial choice is one of Mr. Adams' greatest images, the surrealistically lit "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," which shows that the best shots often are accidental.

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