By 1975, the winds of change began wafting through the world of photography. Once the provenance of Western ideals of “objectivity,” the illusion had begun to crumble. As modernism took the formal elements of art to its logical conclusion, there was nowhere left to go — except perhaps back to see where the thread got lost.
As a new generation of postmodern artists came of age during the Pictures Generation, they embraced appropriation and conceptual art as a mean to simultaneously explore and critique the landscape of visual ideas and identities. American photographer and conceptual artist Mike Mandel, then 25, stood at the vanguard of this new era, having already completed a series of projects including People in Cars (1970), Myself: Timed Exposures (1971), and Seven Never Before Published Portraits of Edward Weston (1974), before embarking on Baseball-Photographer Trading Cards (1975), a project whose time had come.
Half a century before social media created the influencer class, Mandel realized that photographers were becoming full-blown celebrities. He created trading cards, a beloved medium for aspiring and established collectors alike, to venerate these new gods and goddesses in the pop culture pantheon. Among the 134 photographers included in the set were Joel Meyerowitz, Leonard Freed, Ed Ruscha, and Imogen Cunningham. But to really get the project going, Mandel needed a major figure, one that would legitimize the work. So he approached Ansel Adams, then the biggest name in photography.
Planting the Seed
Throughout his career, Ansel Adams (1902-1984) took photography to new heights, becoming an environmentalist who used his work to advocate for protection and conservation of the earth long before anyone uttered the words “climate change.” The recipient of three Guggenheim Fellowships, Adams also helped form the first fine art photo department at what is now San Francisco Art Institute, was a founder of Aperture magazine, and created the Zone System with Fred Archer, a ten-point photographic technique for optimizing black and white film exposure and development.
In 1975, both Adams and Mike Mandel attended the national conference of the Society for Photographic Education at the Asilomar Conference Grounds, in Pacific Grove, California. After delivering remarks to the conference, Adams, then 73, announced he had donated his archive to the Center for Creative Photography, which would open later that year at the University of Arizona at Tucson.
Mandel’s ears perked up. An archive, you say? It was just the think that intrigued the young artist, who was then working with photographer Larry Sultan on Evidence, a compendium of unusual images sourced from corporate and government collections, which they would publish in 1977. Nearly half a century later, Mandel decided it was time to dive into the archive and see what he would discover there.
This is the Remix
Taking the cheeky name Zone Eleven, Mike Mandel has compiled a fascinating new book that brings together a selection of 75 largely unknown images from Adams’ expansive oeuvre that ask us to reconsider our expectations of an “Ansel Adams” photograph. Sourced from 50,000 images in four different archives, these images remind that, like an iceberg, most of what exists in an artist’s archive goes unseen.
“Rather than focusing on Adams’s majestic landscapes, known around the world, Mandel decided to explore a relatively unknown side of his production, namely the pictures he made for hire. Like most photographers, Adams undertook various kinds of jobs over the years to pay the bills; it was not until late in life that he was able to make a living primarily through print sales and publishing,” writes in the book Erin O’Toole, associate curator of photography at SFMOMA, in the book. “Mandel was intrigued by the pictures that most viewers would not identify as having been made by Ansel Adams. Zone Eleven… is an homage tinged with Mandel’s absurdist brand of humor. Where the Zone System uses a scale from zero to ten, Mandel suggests that this project somehow goes beyond what Adams sought to measure.”
Zone Eleven borders on the surreal without going overboard. Mandel’s choice of images reveals the naive optimism of modernism in its early years, which now reads as dreamlike and bizarre when juxtaposed against the consequences it has caused. In scenes of Japanese Americans interned at Manzanar concentration camp during World War II, everyone is just a little too well adjusted after losing their homes, livelihoods, and freedoms.
There are scenes set in athletic stadiums, laboratories, observatories, shopping centers, universities, shipyards, and theaters. There aren’t many photos of people, then overwhelming photos of crowds. There are random piles of pineapples, masses of construction debris, decrepit homes, and random machinery. There’s an eerie undercurrent, like a Twilight Zone episode, before Rod Serling tells us the plot. Like a memento mori, it offers a promise that cuts both ways. Modernism, if it had a motto, might be après moi le deluge.
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Zone Eleven is published by Damiani, €50,00 / $55.00.