Art and Design

Read Zone Eleven

Read Mike Mandel: Zone Eleven

“Zone Eleven” alludes to Ansel Adams’ Zone System, a method for controlling exposure of the negative in order to obtain a full range of tonality in the photographic print—from the deepest black of Zone 0 to the brightest highlight in Zone 10. “Zone Eleven” is a metaphor coined by artist Mike Mandel in his challenge to create a book of Adams’ photographs outside of the bounds of his personal work. Many of these photographs were found in the archives of Adams’ commercial and editorial assignments, and from his experimentation with the new Polaroid material of the times.

For this book, Mandel has unearthed images that are unexpected for Adams, and created a new context of facing-page relationships and sequence. Zone Eleven is the product of Mandel’s research into over 50,000 Adams images located within four different archives, from which he presents a body of Adams’ work that was largely unknown until now.

Mike Mandel is well known for his collaboration with Larry Sultan from the 1970s to the 1990s. They published Evidence in 1977, a collection of 59 photographs chosen from more than two million images that the artists viewed at the archives of government agencies and tech-oriented corporations. Conceptually, Zone Eleven is a companion book to Evidence. As Evidence reframes the institutional documentary photograph with new context and meaning, Zone Eleven responds to the audience expectation of “the iconic Ansel Adams nature photograph.” But Mandel selects images that do not fit that expectation. Zone Eleven is a book of Ansel Adams images that surprisingly speak to issues of social relations, the built environment and alienation.

I’m not sure what to think of this collection.

It opens with a portrait of two tree trunks: an eleven. It proceeds without commentary, leaving you to draw your own conclusions and connections. The photos span decades and subjects, removing them from any context to create visual and thematic pairings and sequences. I found myself confused and cross-referencing the back matter to figure out what I was looking at, probably missing the point.

Except, what stumped me is why these photos? By choosing photos outside Adams’ oevre, Mandel asks us to reevaluate him as a photographer, yet the signature style and themes we know him for are absent from these photos. This collection could populate an artistic urban Instagram account. They are of course fine photos, but what does it mean that Adams took them when they could have been taken by “anyone”? It feels almost like a trick that I am meant to impart some greater weight to them because of who took them. Or am I meant to see him as more human by realizing he also took plenty of pedestrian photos like the rest of us? This is more meta thought than I really want out of viewing a photography collection, I think I’m not cut out for post-modernist art 😂

I appreciated the brief Manzanar series most. It starts with an overview of the camp as landscape, more familiar framing from Adams. A set of portraits emphasizes the humanity of the interned Japanese people. A young nurse’s expression seems to dare the viewer. Two of the same young man show him being playful, then serious, for the camera.

See also: Library of Congress – Ansel Adam’s photos of Manzanar

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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