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Tucson Weekly Beauty and Horror

Scenic fields vs. killing fields in a new photography exhibit.

By Margaret Regan

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  THE LEGENDARY PHOTOGRAPHER Ansel Adams spent a lifetime canvassing the natural world, and left as his legacy some of the most enduring images of the land ever made, from the monumental peaks of the Western landscape to the microscopic swirls on an ancient log.

A young photographer in Cambodia named Nhem Ein had an entirely different mission. Working during the late 1970s in a prison operated by the notorious Pol Pot regime, he photographed thousands of his countrymen, women and children on their way to slaughter.

Where Adams created beauty, Ein recorded horror.

Their two separate bodies of work, impossibly far apart in intention and result, are both on view at the Center for Creative Photography right now. Intimate Nature: Ansel Adams and the Close View offers an atypical look at the beloved Adams. Instead of moons rising over mountains and waterfalls tumbling down cliffs, this other Adams provides 45 sublime close-ups of the minutiae of nature: grass peeking through glistening snow, tree bark curving into intricate patterns, leaves branching out into delicate spines and ribs. Around a corner from these sumptuously printed art photos, there's a cell-like installation for Facing Death: Portraits from Cambodia's Killing Fields. Hung on portable walls stationed uncomfortably close together, there are 100 stark black-and-white portraits of Cambodians, accused traitors who stare at the teenage photographer in terror and confusion. Babies and grandfathers, young men and women in their prime, children on the cusp of puberty are all frozen in time, captured as they were just before a tyrant violently ended their lives.

It's hard to travel from one show to the other without entertaining some somber thoughts about the strange capabilities of the human race. A species that creates art as transcendent as Adams' is the same species that slides easily and often into genocide. And Adams' investigations of pebbles and pine needles are gorgeous and uplifting, certainly, but how do we take pleasure in them when we know that around the bend is a picture of an infant slumbering in its mother's arms, about to be killed for crimes it never understood?

Photography has proved equally adept at framing natural beauty and documenting human ugliness. The Khmer Rouge, like the Nazis before them, apparently had a mania for recording their own crimes. Exhibition notes tell us that the Tuol Sleng prison was the torture and death chamber for some 14,200 people, killed one and all by their fellow Cambodians. (Altogether Pol Pot executed some 200,000 Cambodians; another million died of starvation, according to the notes.) Functionaries like Nhem Ein photographed each victim and then compiled a dossier for each that "proved" the charges of treason.

In 1993, a pair of visiting American photographers uncovered a repository of about 6,000 of the portrait negatives at the old prison, now a museum of genocide. For this traveling show, they made 100 prints of negatives that they considered both representative and well-preserved. Some are damaged, pockmarked by black stains that intensify the works' sense of foreboding. Artless and quick the pictures might be--victims are lined up against walls or seated on prison beds--but the power of their subjects is overwhelming.

Chan Kim Srun, the woman whose newborn child sleeps in her arms, looks grimly out at us, in the sure knowledge that she and the baby to whom she just gave life will soon die. A young man, Keo Savith San, manages a slight smile, and it's hard to say whether his misplaced optimism or the woman's hopeless certainty is more heartbreaking. Most of the victims are anonymous, their names having been long ago separated from their images. It's gratifying that they have subverted the intentions of those who had them photographed: exhibited this way, they've become enduring witnesses to truth. That doesn't alleviate the injustice of what befell them, though, and they're all haunting: The young man whose face has been smashed in, the stoic grandfather, the lovely young woman, the puzzled children.

You escape almost guiltily from their wretchedness, and it takes awhile for Adams' pictures to beguile you back from the Cambodian heart of darkness. But this lesser-known Adams work is seductive. The observant photographer takes us into the microscopic world that surrounds us unnoticed, and persuades us of the beauty of mud cracked and dried in California, trees dead in Yosemite, stumps, barnacles, ocean rocks and foam. Intimate in scale and quietly lovely, these simple images have none of the showiness of Adams' better-known landscapes.

"The small and commonplace are rarely explored," Adams wrote in 1983. "Most of my photographs made before 1930 were of distant grandeurs. But as I learned the inherent properties of camera, lens...and exposure, I also gained the freedom to see with more sensitive eyes the full landscape of our environment."

Culled entirely from the Center's own extensive Adams' holdings, the show demonstrates Adams' move forward from old 19th-century ideas about the camera capturing what was out there, to more 20th-century ideas about the camera creating something entirely new, as curator Trudy Wilner Stack notes. And indeed these sumptuous black-and-white pictures, crisscrossed by nature's lines, illuminated by sunlight and darkened by shadow, are heading directly for abstraction.

Can these pictures make up for the baby in the next room? No, they can't. But they're beautiful, and in a world of inexplicable evil, we take what we can get.


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