Eisenstaedt and Adams at the AGO
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Eisenstaedt and Adams at the AGO

The Art Gallery of Ontario’s latest exhibition features the work of two photographers: Alfred Eisenstaedt and Ansel Adams. In the early 20th century, both photographers were pushing the limits of their craft — though in opposite directions. Eisenstaedt took to the streets and snapped people in cities, while Adams sought out wild landscapes and untouched mountain passes. The AGO’s special exhibition fills three large rooms with B&W images, most of them from the 1930’s and ’40’s, when both photographers were honing their skills.
Alfred Eisenstaedt may not be a immediately familiar name, but he’s responsible for some of the most well-known images of the 20th century. For years he was a chief photographer for LIFE magazine, shooting almost 100 of their covers and completing 2,500 assignments. The work on display covers Eisenstaedt’s pre-LIFE magazine career, and his early days as a globe-trotting photojournalist. The images fit a wide range of topics — people at work, the leisure class, dancers, royalty — all in his distinctive candid style.
Eisenstaedt’s influence on photojournalism is so deep that it’s become part of the DNA. This makes it difficult to see how revolutionary these photos are — as a viewer, the photos look much like the photos in our daily newspapers. Perhaps it’s a tough criticism, but this made us feel a bit ho-hum about the first part of the exhibition.
The other half of the show is dedicated to the epic landscape work of Ansel Adams. Landscapes usually leave us feeling underwhelmed, but the works on display here were awe-inspiring.
Sure, with a cursory view, Adams’ soaring vistas of mountains, forests, waves, clouds look sparse with their lack of people and gigantic natural forces. But after walking through the show, we suspect Adams was really trying to capture ephemeral moments of sun and cloud. These aren’t eternal monuments as much as temporary instances when the stars were perfectly aligned in his camera. One photo shows a New Mexico village in the dying rays of sunlight as the moon began to ascend. Another series of photos abstractly depicts ocean surf — each crashing wave momentarily captured before disappearing back into the sea.
And Adams technical mastery of the craft is apparent. The photographs are bright and crisp, with an incredible amount of detail. Some prints actually shimmer in the light and his skies drift off in the deepest shade of grey. (A note for photographers: Adams shot many of his images with an amazing aperture of f/64!)
There was a preview night for the exhibition this past Tuesday, where former Torontoist contributor Rannie Turingan (Mr. Photojunkie to some) was asked to say a few words in response to the show. He’s kindly posted the text of his speech here.
The Alfred Eisenstaedt/Ansel Adams exhibition runs from November 18, 2006 to February 4, 2007. Admission is $15.