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Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter at University Art Museum

By Jeffrey Lee

July 8, 1997:  You've seen it a hundred times, but no half-tone reproduction of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, whether postcard, calendar or book illustration, can prepare you for the impact of Ansel Adams' own print, with its voracious sky and foreground of improbable light. It's the centerpiece of the University Art Museum's Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter in New Mexico, and it's unforgettable.

Adams and Porter established their art by way of a devotion to "straight" photography that verged on the religious, and both worked extensively in northern New Mexico, the most prayerful of landscapes. Fastidiously avoiding autobiographical imagery, both believed that straight photography could "express the human soul," as Adams wrote from Taos in 1937. His New Mexico pictures, including some uncharacteristic interiors that extend the great landscape photographer's understanding of light into a more intimate realm, illustrate this philosophy in detail.

Of the Porters, four cloud photographs--one black and white, three color dye-transfer prints on lush matte papers--are the most amazing. Though small in size, they are grand in gesture--little Big Sky pictures, far from the leaf-and-pebble minutiae Porter is famous for. If the word "painterly" comes to mind, it doesn't adequately describe the dark smear of orange sunset on one of them. But that is Porter's point: A cloud is a cloud, not a brushstroke.

For a small exhibit in a side room, with fewer than 20 images, the Adams/Porter show is as impressive as a garage full of Vermeers. The sly colorist and the most accomplished of black and white photographers both portrayed New Mexico with knife-edge clarity and unmediated astonishment, and this group of pictures from the university's collection, all of familiar local imagery, are world-class examples of their work.

--Jeffrey Lee

Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter in New Mexico runs in the UNM Fine Arts Building through Aug. 10. Call 277-4001.

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