Sequential art by Ansel AdamsPosted: November 30, 2012
Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is well-known for his landscape photography, but what I didn’t know before seeing his current exhibition in London (National Maritime Museum, until April 28, 2013) is that he also did sequential art. On display is a five-part series of photographs from 1940 (pictured e.g. here), each showing waves breaking on the same patch of a beach, from the same point of view. The interesting thing is, it’s not only a series, it’s intended by Adams to be a sequence. Whether this work can be considered a comic, following Scott McCloud’s definition, depends on how it is displayed, i.e. whether the five images are juxtaposed (as they are on the wall in the London exhibition – not pictured here) or not (e.g. in a folder). Another problem is that their order doesn’t seem to be clear, judging from the different images found on the web. On the other hand, the individual titles sometimes contain numbers, e.g. in this collection at the University of Arizona Libraries.
Fascinating, at any rate, are the differences between Adams’s sequence and the average panel sequence in a comic. Whereas a comic sequence usually implies a chronological order of events (with the exception of flashbacks, or even rarer non-temporal panel relations), I find it hard to hard to recognise a chronological order in the Surf Sequence. The shadow of the cliff suggests that the pictures were taken at roughly the same time, but the wet area of the beach is not constantly growing or shrinking, so if the images are ordered chronologically, Adams must have witnessed several waves between the first and the last picture he took.
Maybe Adams ordered them by another criterion, e.g. by formal-aesthetic considerations (such as the relation of lighter images with more spray to darker ones?), thus deliberately disrupting any chronological order. Then again, he called his work a sequence, not a polyptych. A sequence implies a viewing order: the first image should be viewed first, then the second, etc.
The logic behind this sequence escapes me. Maybe Adams explained it in one of his writings or interviews, but I’m not sure if I want to know. For me, this mystery is part of the appeal of this work. I wish the comics produced today were more daring and, only every once in a while, incorporated such ambiguous and enigmatic sequences.