An exhibit of the works of either Ansel Adams or Dorothea Lange is a “must see.” However, it approaches artistic nirvana when a museum hangs images by both icons in the same show.
The La Quinta Museum is doing just that right now in the exhibit Iconic Light, on display through Aug. 15.
The two greats were contemporaries; in fact, they both served as photography faculty at the California School of Fine Arts.
Adams’ black-and-white photographs remain visionary and meticulous. His images more than communicate the beauty of the American landscape and wilderness; they speak to his lifelong commitment as a conservationist. His photos here, taken at the Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center near Palm Desert, do not disappoint.
Adams’ image of a cholla cactus is beautifully eerie. In the foreground, a single tall cholla stands in front of what appears to be a boulder. The lighting creates an aura—and the cactus body seems skeletal. A field of cholla, many with the same aura/skeleton combination, surrounds the boulder. In essence, Adams created a graveyard where the cacti appear as erratically placed crosses.
Another Adams work from the Deep Canyon Research Center also spotlights one cactus: A lone ocotillo, with its needle-like branches emanating from a central point, stands alone. The nearby mountains look like a shield that both hides and protects the single, firmly planted cactus. Like Harry Bertoia’s metal sculpture “Spray,” air movement will cause the ocotillo’s branches to sway. It’s as if the sculptor got his inspiration for his midcentury masterpiece from Adams.
With a third piece from Deep Canyon, Adams offers a very different look at nature. In a departure from his signature landscapes, Adams photographs a highly textured and swirling rock formation—exaggerated by his use of light, dark and shadows. If Adams was not so well-known for landscape photography, the piece might well be considered abstract.
While Adams found his inspiration in nature, Dorothea Lange is known for documenting Americans affected by the Great Depression; later, during the 1940s, she took images of Japanese Americans forced into interment camps. Her Coachella Valley images illustrate pathos and resignation. Without apology, Lange shares, with compositions that contain a Degas-like sense of movement, her experience of our neighborhood.
“Date Picker’s Home” shows a lone, door-less shack built out of tar paper, palm fronds and pieces of concrete. The shanty’s roof is made from palm fronds sitting atop slats of wood. Standing alone, right of center, a young, adolescent, dark-haired girl looks at the photographer. Her seemingly emotionless gaze seems to ask, “Why?”
Even though he’s surrounded by other men, “One of 100 Carrot Pullers in Coachella Valley” illustrates the aloneness of the migrant worker extracting carrots from the ground. Crouched, the puller’s lack of identity is assured; his head, just a black mass, sits above his shirt and below his large hat. The shadows that protect him from the sun also guarantee his anonymity. Lange’s composition, by creating a sense of flux and movement, attenuates the overwhelming sense of despondency. Clean, open wood crates, clearly intended to hold the crops, are to the puller’s right and left. Everything points to the lone puller. The highly structured composition, while seeming architectural, does not come across as totally static.
This type of an intimate exhibit is a rare opportunity. While the La Quinta Museum does not exhibit a tremendous number of works, any potential criticism of that fact misses the point: The show is visually manageable. Visitors can remember and not be overwhelmed by a great number or images. Also, the viewer shows how two American photographic masters, at around the same point in time, offered two different visions of our home, the Coachella Valley. Lastly, this show offers a unique an opportunity to show children—without them becoming too antsy—what our valley looked like in the mid 1930s.
Iconic Light is on display through Saturday, Aug. 15, at the La Quinta Museum, 77885 Avenida Montezuma, in La Quinta. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, call 760-777-7170, or visit www.la-quinta.org/your-government/community-services/museum.