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Go Ask Mom

Destination: Ansel Adams exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Art

Posted April 27
Updated April 28

My kids have a very different relationship with a camera than I did growing up.

Way back then, on birthdays, holidays or extended family visits, my parents would occasionally ask my sister and I to stand still and smile. After a click, the camera would go back in the case for the next time - a month or more later. Who knows when the film would ever get developed.

These days, parents are shooting pictures of their kids doing just about everything. Reading a book. Playing with their fidget spinner. Eating an ice cream cone. And, most often, there's no camera when kids are saying, "cheese." We're simply snapping multiple pictures of each ice cream cone lick on our smartphones, which seem to be always at the ready.

Famed photographer Ansel Adams didn't have a camera at the ready each time he snapped one of his world famous photos. Instead of just whipping his phone out of his pocket, it took him up to 20 minutes to prepare and set up the shot. And that's a fact that stunned my middle schooler as we walked through Ansel Adams: Masterworks, an exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Art, which runs through May 7.

I'd say this exhibit is best for middle school and high school students, along with grade schoolers, who are particularly interested in photography or the natural world.

The smaller exhibit, in the museum's East Building, features 48 photographs from Adam's "Museum Set," which is a collection of photographs personally selected by Adams. He designated these works late in his life as a representation of the best work of his career, according to a press release about the exhibit.

You'll see pictures of some of America's most famous landscapes - El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park; the Golden Gate in San Francisco; Monument Valley in Arizona; and the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park.

The pictures - their clarity, depth, precision - are breathtaking. Taking a cue from our visits at earlier exhibits and advice from museum educators, I let my tween wander around on her own before meeting at the end where we talked about our favorites - a picture of the Smoky Mountains for her and the Grand Teton for me.

As we walked out, we turned the corner to see a giant mural on the wall of Adams on top of a car in Yosemite. And that's when we started talking about how Adams actually took those pictures we'd just seen - with a complicated contraption that required him to get on top of cars, not a camera he could simply tuck away in his back pocket or hang around his neck.

Courtney Klemens, the museum's coordinator of family programs, tells me that giant mural offers visitors of all ages - especially younger ones - a big picture look at what it took for Adams to make his art.

"It really gives a sense of place and what that process was like," she said.

If you're walking through the exhibit with kids, Klemens suggested some other talking points to get the conversation started:

1. Adams didn't just shoot a photo, he was very careful to plan out each photo he took. In fact, he once said, "You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

"He would return to the same places again and again and he would photograph them obsessively," Klemens said. "He was constantly intrigued with nature and place. And he really studied, very deeply, the places around him."

That careful planning meant he was able to capture the lighting or weather conditions, for instance, at just the right time.

2. Pre-visualization was a very big part of Adams' process and very different from our point-and-click habits today. "With a camera on your phone, you can take a million pictures instantly of what's in front of you," Klemens said. "How do you challenge yourself to slow down and really think and look at what you want to photograph. Get into your mind that you are in service of nature instead of it being available to you."

3. Look out for photographs that showcase the sweeping landscapes in Yosemite and look at them deeply, pointing out all of the details within each frame. "They are really captivating," Klemens said. "He really just shows the whole broad swath and majesty of these places. You see the rich forests. You see mountains, waterfalls, snow, rivers. All sorts of elements in one landscape and they put you in the mindset of what it must have been like to be in that place."

"I always ask kids, 'imagine what it would be like to just step into the frame,'" Klemens said. "What would you smell, hear? What would the air feel like?"

4. Talk about the kinds of photos you take as a family, Klemens said. Ask, she said, "what's the purpose of a photo as a souvenir and how does it increase your understanding or joy or your memories together as a family."

5. Talk about Adams' use of black and white and, at home, encourage kids to play with the filters on their camera or device to see how their own pictures might look if they were all black and white.

For the art museum's blog, Klemens wrote a great piece for families with tips on "making" photos like Adams on their own - a great activity before or after a visit to the museum's exhibit - maybe even taking (or making) the pictures in the museum's park.

The exhibit runs through May 7. The museum will have extended hours during the final weekend - May 5 to May 7. The exhibition will be open until 9 p.m. with the last entry at 8 p.m. Tickets are $18 for adults; $15 for seniors, college students with a current ID, military and groups of more than 10; and $12 for kids ages 7 to 18. It's free for kids 6 and under. (Tickets also get you into another exhibit called Glory of Venice, which features Italian Renaissance paintings).

Go Ask Mom features places to take kids every Friday.

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