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Unnatural Divide


If New Orleans is best described as a tale of two cities, City Park epitomizes that duality. Enter on Lelong Drive, the spacious boulevard that leads to the New Orleans Museum of Art, and nothing much seems amiss. The majestic old oaks still lounge on the grass like idle aristocrats from another time, the ducks still waddle along the banks of languorous lagoons and all seems right with the world. But once you get past the museum and its sculpture garden, things get sketchy fast.

Beyond the nearby Botanical Garden is a post-apocalyptic landscape of fallen trees and general abandonment that goes on for miles. Just past the tennis courts near Marconi Drive, some massive mounds of debris appear in almost circular arrangements amid an inexplicable efflorescence of sunflowers, giving the area an almost ceremonial look somewhere between the Pacific island cargo cults and Neanderthal flower burials. Close inspection reveals an empty swimming pool at the center of the site -- but it's only empty of water. Lean-tos covered with tarps along the inner walls suggest a human presence more recent than the Neanderthals. Beyond all that, the dilapidation and neglect appear endless -- just drive down Wisner Boulevard along Bayou St. John and watch the golf courses revert to the wilderness they once were. It's weirdly picturesque, like a scene from Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins, but it's our own backyard and an important local and national landmark. City Park has always relied on fees from the visitors who are no longer able to use it. Bringing it back will require a major volunteer effort.

Meanwhile at NOMA, normalcy -- or the appearance thereof -- rules the day, and you might never know that it was once surrounded by floodwaters, that it was shut down for many months or that it's still not fully staffed. The main attractions, Ansel Adams and Katrina Exposed, are photographic. The Adams expo is the more scholarly of the two, a survey of his life's work culled from the Lane Collection, the largest privately held trove of Adams photos. It's an eye-opener because it reveals that Adams was both more and possibly less than we knew. For instance, his early work from the 1920s, when he was an aspiring concert pianist in his twenties, is softer and more moody than you might expect. But in 1930 he met Paul Strand, the influential guru of the Group f/64 photographers who specialized in sharp, glossy images with a full range of gray tones. Revolutionary at the time, they epitomized high modernism, and Adams underwent a conversion that bordered on the religious. His images became tight and crisp as we see in Walbridge Ranch, 1938, a starkly graphic view of some farm buildings that not only showcases his expertise with architectural subject matter, but also looks a lot like a Paul Strand photograph, as do many of Adams' photos from that period.

But in 1933, Adams met Alfred Stieglitz, the godfather of New York photography and a force to be reckoned with in art circles. After an initially chilly reception, Adams began making photographs of New York skyscrapers that looked remarkably like those of Stieglitz, who in 1936 declared him brilliant and gave him a one-man show at his gallery. Once back in the West, his work again looked remarkably like Paul Strand's, as we see in his superbly subtle Church and Fence, Hornitas, California, 1946, a near-musical progression of light and shadow that, in its starkness, only just begins to hint at signature works such as Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941.

In Moonrise, and in his most spectacular mountain landscapes -- images that are largely absent from this show -- Adams trumps all of his influences with ultra-dramatic views of the turbulent skies, jagged peaks and thunderous waterfalls of the American West, fastnesses of the gods rendered in tones so extraordinary they couldn't possibly be the products of the straight, clinical techniques espoused by Strand and his Group f/64. In those images, Adams reverts to his musical instincts as a conductor who orchestrates and manipulates his most striking pieces to achieve their maximum dramatic potential. The surprise is how oddly removed those quintessential Adams images are from the rest of his interesting and finely crafted, yet surprisingly derivative, work.

Ansel Adam's Church and Fence, Hornitas, California, is striking for its perhaps unexpected subtlety.
  • Ansel Adam's Church and Fence, Hornitas, California, is striking for its perhaps unexpected subtlety.

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