Alphabestiary A – Ansel Adams

No photographer has had a higher profile in mass culture than Ansel Adams. He was the popular idea of the photographer as artist, and, I’m sure, the only one to have his images printed on beer cans with his name attached. 

His pictures graced not only Coors beer, but books, posters, calendars, aprons, hats and coffee mugs. He was the subject of a Playboy interview, and had his face on the cover of Time magazine.

 He had a mountain was named for him in California’s Sierra Nevada. That honor came to him less for his photographs and more for his constant advocacy for nature and the environment. 

His earliest photographs were made when Adams was still a teenager with a love for back-country hiking in Yosemite National Park, made with a snapshot camera and drugstore prints. Even those early images show a flair for the dramatic and the careful placement of darks and lights to make a balanced photograph.

Ansel Easton Adams was born in 1902 to a well-off family from San Francisco. As a child, he broke his nose when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake threw him against a garden wall. That bent nose became a trademark of sorts: It leaned left, and the man did, too. He joined the Sierra Club at 17 and was a board member from 1934 on. In later life, he railed against the environmental policies of Ronald Reagan.

His family vacationed in Yosemite Valley; he met his wife there and they ran a visitor center and gift shop, now called the Ansel Adams Gallery.

Early in life, he had planned to be a concert pianist, but eventually gave up keyboard for lens. But his ambition was still artistic: He wanted to be more than a recorder of vacation memories. This at a moment in art history when a number of like-minded photographers were arguing for photography as art when museums, galleries and collectors believed photography was a merely mechanical reproduction system. 

You can see that aesthetic vision in Adams’ early art prints, in platinum or other early processes, slightly fuzzy, with the popular Impressionistic love of sunlight and shadow. 

But in the 1930s, he converted to a Modernist vision of photography, with sharply focused images printed on glossy paper. His friends included other leading photographers, including Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, all of whom were proving that a photographic print had earned a place on the gallery wall.

But while these other artists worked in many genres, in the 1940s, Adams turned ever more to the kind of Great American Landscape we know him for: the images of national parks and American wilderness. Publishing books of his photographs has become an industry.

When he ventured beyond his strength, sometimes the results were stiff and uncomfortable, like his portraits, which made their subjects as granitic as the cliffs of Yosemite. The lighting is perfect, the focus is sharp, the detail is precise, and yet, they are completely lifeless. His presidential portrait of Jimmy Carter may be the worst presidential portrait ever. 

On the other hand, when his purpose was to document the injustice to interned Japanese citizens at the Manzanar camp, his people could be warm and human. 

And so, it is the landscapes we remember, and they have become iconic. 

His 1942 image, Moonrise over Hernandez, N.M., sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 for $685,500. 

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“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

– Ansel Adams

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For its first century and a half, photography meant loading light-sensitive film into your camera, calculating focus, f/stop and shutter speed, making an exposure, processing the film in a series of chemical baths to make a negative and then re-exposing that negative onto light-sensitive paper and running it through a series of chemical baths to create a positive image of the subject. It was an intensely physical process, as anyone who remembers the smell of sodium thiosulphate on their fingers will know. 

Now, it means holding up your smart phone and clicking an image and then swiping left or right to go through the results, and maybe sending it out via Instagram or Twitter so others can share it. And the image exists only in virtual form on a screen of pixels, never becoming anything physical — or requiring any specialist knowledge. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it does mean that the subject of a photo has been separated from the object of the photo itself. For most people, looking at their family snapshots, it has never been otherwise, but for professional photographers and those making photos ostensibly as art, the physicality of photographs and their making is central. 

Before digital, a photograph was two things: The image and the substrate on which the image appears. Most of us, looking at the snapshots of our families, see the people in the image, but pay little attention to the paper or the layer of silver that makes up the image. But in photography looked at as art, a good deal of attention is paid to the process and technique. In fact, often so much care is paid to the technique that the subject can become ancillary. Who cares if it’s a still life or a portrait, if the gum bichromate print is gorgeous. The subject was just an excuse for the virtuosity of the technique. 

I remember, in the 1970s, long before digital photography, when the technique was actually fetishized: If you didn’t process archivally and make your mattes of acid-free board, you couldn’t be taken seriously as a photographer. It gave rise to a certain preciosity. 

That was for black-and-white. Color photography hardly counted. It wasn’t accepted, for the most part, because of the impermanence of the image (you’ve all seen old snapshots turned funny colors with age). The only color permitted was the dye-transfer print — an expensive and cumbersome process. In the 1920s, museums were unwilling to collect any photography because, they reasoned, it wasn’t really art; it was mechanical. Before the 1970s, few museums collected color photography. Black and white was for the serious artist. All this has changed. 

The middle years of the 20th century — roughly from World War I till the advent of Pop Art in the 1970s, give or take — were ruled by Modernism, which proclaimed that the medium was the message, that the paint mattered more than the image. Abstract paintings — with no subject matter at all — was king. When someone was confused by the jumble of scribble in one of Jackson Pollock’s works, he naively asked the artist what it was he was supposed to see on the canvass. Pollock answered curtly: “A painting.” 

From the Renaissance to the middle of the 19th century, art was expected to picture reality. Looking at a picture frame mimicked looking through a window. Yes, there might be unreal things seen there: saints and angels. But portraits and landscapes were conventionally realistic, at least until the Impressionist revolution in the 1860s — and the invention and popularization of photography. 

When French painter Paul Delaroche saw his first daguerreotype, he famously proclaimed, “From today, painting is dead!” Of course painting didn’t roll over and expire; it went on to do other, newer things, and gave up the obligation to render visual reality the way a camera can. Because, although it wasn’t historically seen as such — at least by the masses — painting already was something different from simply an image of the world; it was a thing — an object, an artifact, a physical presence made of pigment and canvas. 

With the Impressionists, and later and more thoroughly with abstract painting, the thingness was the point. And when a few amateur photographers thought to elevate their camera imagery to the level of “art,” they at first imitated paintings, and especially Impressionist paintings. A whole movement of artist-photographers geared up with something they called Pictorialism — fuzzy imitations of fuzzy paintings. 

Then, in the 1920s, roughly, a group of exceptional photographers decided that photographs should not imitate paintings, but should look like photographs, and that photography had its own qualities and virtues. When American photographer Edward Weston was about to publish his first book of images, his publisher wanted to title it “Edward Weston: Artist,” but Weston objected and changed it to Edward Weston: Photographer. He was proud of his status as just that. 

In Europe, Modernist photography tended to be more political, but in the U.S., it became more interested in examining the physicality of the the visual world, which meant above all, landscape. The American tradition in painting had long featured landscape, and now, photographers thought they could make landscapes photographic rather than painterly. (They also produced a great number of exceptional portraits, and still lifes, but it is landscape that I’m concerned with here). And the landscapes they chose tended to be either industrial and urban, or the natural unpopulated sections of the American West. 

But while Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Charles Scheeler, Edward Steichen — and Ansel Adams — were well aware of their prints being art objects, framed and hanging on gallery walls, the wider public, with their brownie cameras had a less sophisticated understanding of the medium: For them, the camera captured their reality, preserved their memories and became souvenirs of the past. For them, the photograph froze reality for them and held it still. 

Even today, there are many people who believe photographs pin down the visual truth of their world, not being aware of how a lens can distort things, what different types of film — or now, different microchips — can alter the final image. Lighting, focal length, depth-of-field, contrast, color temperature and a hundred different technical aspects of photography can govern the final image. For a professional photographer, all of these things are brought to bear on the final created image. For ordinary people a camera simply registers what they saw, or at least the part of what they saw that was important to them (not seeing, for instance, the tree in the background visually growing out of someone’s head). 

The person who most attempted to regularize the variables of photography was Ansel Adams. He wrote a series of five books (later recast as three) teaching the finer points of making photographs — how the lighting, focal length, depth of field, contrast, etc. affected the final picture. 

He perfected what he called the “Zone System” of exposure and processing to control the contrast and dynamic range of the final photographic print. Simplified, the problem faced was that black ink on white paper has a limited range: The white, under normal lighting conditions, is usually no more than 30 or, at best, 40 times brighter than the black. But when you look at the sunlit scene you want to photograph, the brightest part may be a thousand times brighter than the shadow. How do you squeeze all that into your 30:1 ratio? 

Most photographers and snapshooters just pick what they want to show up best and let the shadows go to solid black, or the highlights to bleach out in detailless white. Adams, instead, attempted to divide a scene into 10 (or 11, depending how you count) “zones” of brightness, from solid black to solid white, and then control your camera negative’s exposure to match your previsualized zones, knowing that you can alter the contrast in the developing process, to increase or decrease contrast to fit, Procrustes-style, the whole into the available printing surface. 

(A simplified version of this is the old photographers’ dictum: “Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights.” Adams’ version is more precise.)

For the ordinary amateur, you point a camera and click the shutter to capture the image and you satisfy yourself with what you get. Adams and his fellow artists are hyper-aware of the end product. Adams preached what he called “previsualization,” in which you attempted to imagine what the final print should look like before you ever pressed the shutter button. The scene being photographed is just raw material for the final presentation.

 “In my mind’s eye, I visualize how a particular … sight and feeling will appear on a print. If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice,” Adams said.

The result is a photographic negative, used to make the final print. 

“The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.” Anyone who has followed Adams’ career knows that an earlier print may differ considerably from a later one, just as a young pianist’s performance may mellow and change as the pianist ages. In other words, there is not a “single” true print, but, like a musical performance, a range of them. 

The belief in the veracity of photographs is persistent, even in the face of computer-generated imagery, digital manipulation and fakery. Indeed, that faith has often caused trouble for, say, photojournalists, when a literal-minded editor insists that a photo be printed “unmanipulated.” I have known a photostaff that was forbidden even to alter the contrast of a digital photo in the credulous belief that the image first recorded in the camera is more “truthful” than the finished one. (That dictum didn’t last; it couldn’t). The digital file created in a digital camera is like the negative in silver-image photography and is only a first step in the process. To disallow the photographer to finish the process in some mistaken belief that the unmanipulated version is “truer,” is hooey. 

Certainly a photographer in bad faith can use the editing process to distort the end result, but this was true in silver-image photography as well. Digital may make it easier, but no more possible. You depend on the integrity of the photojournalist not to lie, at least not on purpose. 

As for art photography, since the final product is what is sought rather than a record of something else, there can be no lying, just as there is no lying in fiction. You want a journalist to be truthful, but a novelist is allowed to make it all up. 

In the end, you wind up with an artifact, a thing in itself — a photographic print, a range of black and white, or of colors, making a flat version of a three-dimensional world. The unconsidered understanding of a photograph is that it “captures reality,” but a more sophisticated view is that there are conventional distortions we choose to ignore (a photograph doesn’t move, reality does; a photograph is flat, reality is rounded; a photograph doesn’t make sound, reality won’t keep quiet; a person in a photograph is two inches tall, in reality is six feet — and so on, all mere conventions). 

And so, the artist accepts what he has made as a physical object on its own, with its own expectations and reality. Adams may make images of the Tetons or Yosemite, but, in his best work, it is the print itself that engenders awe. 

Click on any image to enlarge 

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