Arts and Entertainment

STANDING ROOM ONLY: Adams' photos send a message

Today more than ever before, we seem to ascertain a sort of sad majesty in the wilderness photography of Ansel Adams. Sheer bluffs, craggy peaks, tall trees, lake waters that ripple and mirror a wispy sky: What Adams captured in the immediacy of his black-and-white portraits was the mute grandeur and apparent timelessness of the American West, the Yosemite Valley, the Sierra Nevadas.

What his art has gained over time, however, is a feeling of near sanctity. Breathtaking beauty now combines with a sense of loss in Adams’ work. If his subject was divine nature, his perspective derived from an awe that was distinctly human. And without that sense of awe and celebration, nature itself is maligned, polluted, washed out. It’s as though the lone photographer with the funny ears and big beard were holding up all these edenic scenes and saying to us, “This, then, is what you stand to lose.”

The PBS production “Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film,” directed by Ric Burns and premiering this Sunday at 9 p.m., captures the urgent sense of wonder that compelled Adams to go marching time and again into the wilderness with little more than a camera and a backpack. Splicing together old home movie footage with narratives provided by Adams’ biographers and admirers, the documentary gives a good feel for the arc of Adams’ life, his tentative beginnings as a pianist/artist followed by his meteoric rise as one of America’s finest photographers.

Adams, who died in 1983, was first and foremost an artist, though his deep and abiding love of the American wilderness also led him into activism. He was a life-long conservationist whose attempts to document the “poetry of the real” was powerful testimony to his beliefs. If you feel any semblance of reverence for the shrinking American frontier, you won’t want to miss this excellent film.

It’s one of the standing paradoxes of modern mass culture: In the process of making an artist rich and/or famous, the machine of celebrity too often obscures that artist’s finest work. To some degree, everyone knows this to be the case, yet it’s no less ironic for being entirely redundant. That the sun also rises every new-born day should not cease to be miraculous; and still such a stubborn cliche works as an opiate, making us dull and self-satisfied to its amazing truth.

Even to this day, is it not amazing that Herman Melville, who was widely praised for his early adventure yarns Omoo and Typee, witnessed Mody Dick sell only 200 copies in his lifetime. Call him Ishmael: he died poor and embittered, working in a customs house. Very tragic.

Of course, no one sheds such sad tears for singer and songwriter Randy Newman, who has made a pretty fortune and even won an Oscar penning songs mostly for kids’ movies like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. Still, when folks hear the name Randy Newman, they usually recall a pair of silly Top-10 hits: “Short People” and “I Love L.A.” Good enough songs in themselves, though hardly representative of Newman’s catalog of work, which includes such stand-out albums as “Good Old Boys” and “Sail Away.”

At his best, Newman is a sharp-eyed satirist of an American culture that by turns charms and repulses him. Okay, he’s no Melville, but his piano-based songs are little treasures of tunefulness that belie a complex, poetic sensibility. And his sense or irony is strong and stinging, like Jonathan Swift playing ragtime blues. Mostly, Newman is a generous and hilarious performer, so don’t miss his show this Friday at 8 p.m. at the Mount Baker Theater in Bellingham. Call (360) 734-6080 for tickets and information.

Some other things that might be worth checking out: This Friday and Saturday at the 19th Hole Restaurant and Lounge in Anacortes you can rock to the tunes of The Midlife Crisis Band & The Alimony Horns, who at least get an A+ for creative band names. The work of artist Bobbi Goodboy is currently showing at Skagit Valley College Art Gallery at the Mount Vernon Campus. The show is called Tulip Ephemera and runs through April 26.

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