Ansel Adams was one of the very first photographers who inspired me to delve deeper into photography. I remember, one afternoon in my photography class, during the early years of high school; We watched a PBS documentary on the man himself. In hindsight, not only do I compare and identify the facial details of my Fine Art History teacher, Stephen Hall (who is an incredible, expressive artist, today), with his amazing, weathered beard and strong eyes; I draw courage and confidence from recalling what I had remembered from listening to him talk, in his documentary.
After spending many afternoons in the sun, in the frontyard with Pipi, I have finished reading this book about Ansel Adams. Although just (a moment ago) discovering the numerous bad reviews on this book, I thoroughly enjoyed myself while reading this piece of work by a New York Times Magazine writer, Eric Peter Nash.
I feel as though people can actually learn a great deal through reading this kind of material, “official” or not. The text and photographs as follows, are some of my favourite excerpts from this book. And if this tickles your fancy, please do keep your eyes open for the book in your local bookstore.
The Range of Light
As in many of Adams’ greatest images, the moment of the photograph seems poised between two eternities, the renewal of life and the permanence of death. We contemplate one brief, shining moment, the life of a young tree at the change of seasons. The vertical image is a more solemn procession of trees that seems to emerge from the darkness to experience the white highlight of the sunlight on their trunks. Ansel’s choice of the yellow filter and higher than normal paper contrast forged his vision, because it was in reality not a sunlight scene. Ansel remarked that many people simply assumed the image was of sunlit leaves. He was constantly surprised that people presumed that a photograph was more than a faithful copy of nature.
Ansel manipulated the highlights for very specific purposes: first for their beauty as objects in and of themselves, with the alternating patterns of white, black and tonal vertical bands, and then for the emotional resonance of the thin, bright lines against the black background. The razor-thin presence of the light is the reason the trees can exist. The coming darkness is experienced with a kind of awe and terror.
Ansel would have discounted such intellectualizing about his images, although he would not have discounted the emotional content. For him, the emotion of a photo as conveyed by the technique was always primary. He wrote his biographer Nancy Newhall about one of his pictures, :Like it but can’t yak about it.” But his letters reveal how seriously he considered the subject matter of his work.
In 1947 he wrote a letter to Eldrige T. Spencer, president of the San Francisco Art Association, that spoke directly to the creation of such images as Aspens. Adams stated that great art had something to do with life in the time to come, not just in the present, and that nature for him represented many things, but above all a sense of limitless potential.
“The relatively few authentic creators of our time possess a resonance with eternity,” he wrote. “I think this resonance is something to fight for – and it takes tremendous energy and sacrifice.” In the same letter, Ansel shows how out of step he was with other currents of modernist thinking, particularly the content of anxiety, or dispair, about the human condition. Even though, his photos were on the cutting edge of defining a thoroughly modern, clean-edged “straight” photography, Ansel’s thinking belonged to a sense to an earlier era – upbeat, relentlessly positive, hopeful about the human condition.
He had little patience for the exploration of the pathological that became a keynote of art in the mid-twentieth century. Even the popular insistence on political importance and social meaning in the documentary photography movement in the 1930s could cause him to use an uncharacteristic expletive. His Transcendentalist leanings were misunderstood by other modernists, who saw his views as corny, sentimental, or, most unforgivably, belonging to the past.
Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Adams found himself in a somewhat anomalous situation. He was a fountainhead of modernist technique but his Transcendentalist philosophy was no longer in keeping with the times. Thus he was regarded in some critical circles as a bit of a dinosaur. For his part, Ansel denounced the soullessness in modern art, just as wright faulted the sterility internationalist movement in architecture. Both men sought to utilize modern means to express timeless truths.
Photography and the Museum of Modern Art
Photography got a much-needed boost in self-esteem as a field of art from the actions of Beaumont Newhall in 1940, who helped found, along with David McCalpin, the Department of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Adams was on board from the very beginning as a committee member. In a piece for the book Miniature Camera Work in 1938, Ansel had waxed visionary in a review of a show curated by Newhall for the Modern:
Whoever saw the recent Exhibition of Photography 1839-1937 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York could not tail to realize the true meaning and attainments of the art…. Photography is the most potent, the most direct, the most stimulating medium of human expression in this day. Call it Art, term it Craft, place it with journalism, science, physics or self-expression, it is not to be denied. Never in all history has such an instrument of Kaleidoscopic powers been placed in the hands of men for the dissemination of thought, fact and emotion…. Photography is doing for the modern age what the early printing presses did for the post-Renaissance social expansion.
Adams and Newhall thought it important for Stieglitz to join them because he had been for so long a lone voice in the wilderness proclaiming photography an art. Stieglitz’s refusal was phrased in his customary blend of cordiality and cantankerousness: “My Dear Adams: I have nothing against the Museum of Modern Art except one thing & that is that politics & the social set-up come before all else. It may have to be that way in order to run an institution. But I refuse to believe it…. In short the Museum has really no standard whatever”. Stieglitz concluded the letter, “But it’s good for me to know that there is Ansel Adams loose somewhere in this world of ours…”.
Nancy Newhall, who had an insider’s knowledge of the chill between her husband and Stieglitz, later concluded, “It was years before [Beaumont] realized that Stieglitz expressly had founded An American Place to counteract, so far as he could, the intellectual exhibitionism of the Museum of Modern Art.”
Ansel and Beaumont curated the first show of the museum’s photography department, “Sixty Photographs”, which opened on December 31, 1940, and featured works dating from the 1840s up to contemporary works by Adams and Weston. Stieglitz, too, was represented. The show was a resounding “who’s who” of creative photographers since the very beginnings of the medium, including Mathew Brady, Berenice Abbott, Eugene Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, Charles Sheeler, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, Clarence White, Stieglitz, and Adams.
Newhall’s vision of the purpose and direction of photography was in complete synch with Adams’ beliefs of modern technique combined with a spiritual or transcendental content. In his book The History of Photography, Newhall concluded:
More and more are turning to photography as a medium of expression as well as communication. The leavening of aesthetic approaches which we have noted continues. While it is too soon to define the characteristic of the photographic style of today, one common denominator, rooted in tradition, seems in the ascendancy: the direct use of the camera for what it can do best, and that is the revelation, interpretation and discovery of the world of man and of nature. The greatest challenge to the photographer id to express the inner significance through the outward form.
Images of a Cosmetic Mind
Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California (1944), is so perfect that it doesn’t appear to be produced by human hands. To begin with, it is a marvelously modern composition, with a dazzlingly bold swath of black shadow running fluidly like spilled ink across the midground, the etched crystalline detail of the snowcaps, the deep gray of the sky, and the tenderly illuminated highlights of the trees in the foreground. The print resembles the pure, clean edges of the negative itself.
Then there is that perfect, unbelievable detail of a black horse grazing placidly on a spotlit patch of ground. Surely, this can only have been stage managed in heaven. The detail of the horse makes the scale of the picture shift dizzily to a sweeping mountain vista, captured in an impossible moment of balance when all the accidental details of a natural scene seemed to have combined to form a classical composition. The picture has the same charm and effortless feel of a snapshot, yet at the same time the sense of something eternal.
The eye and mind volley back and forth between these two perceptions. You cannot stay in mode for too long without merging imperceptibly into the other point of view – classical versus momentary, purely abstract versus purely naturalistic, monumental versus intimate. Ultimately, like all of Adams’ best work, the picture is a unity. Opposing elements shade into one another until they are one. This image is one of Ansel’s most powerfully felt statements about his worldview: that everything in nature has a place, and everything has value if it can be understood in relation to the whole.
Adams recalled a bit of scrambling straight out of a silent comedy that went into the making of this picture. He waited, shivering in near-zero temperature, for the sunlight to hit a certain spot aming the trees as a horse grazed with its backside turned to the photographer. Ansel clicked off a few exposures but the horse seemed resolutely indifferent to having its portrait taken. Just as the scene filled with sunlight, the horse turned obligingly in profile and Adams exposed the film. Moments later, the dramatic lighting conditions of strong sunlight and stark shadow were gone forever.
Typically, Ansel didn’t spend much time explaining what should be felt by the viewer when looking at the image. Instead, he looked to the present-day devastation of the fragile desert ecology by the forces of urbanization in Southern California, particularly the wasteful consumption of water for homes and pools in Los Angeles. For the artist, Winter Sunrise was an enduring image of the way the land used to be, and could be again if people establish once more a reverence for the earth.
The Philosophy of Photography
After the war, a split developed in the field of photography that would become as serious as the break between pictorialism and straight photography. The schism had been in the making for a long time, at least since the years of the Depression, when photographers began to winnow themselves out into two opposing camps. The camps may be defined as the social realists versus the more self-consciously arty photographers, but split speaks more deeply to a question that still engages photographers – that is, photography which is mainly concerned with its subject versus photography used for expressive means.
Critics have weighed all sides, from the view that all photography is of necessity subject photography, to a denial that subject photography should even be considered expressive, and thence to the view that the distinctions are artificial to begin with and that it is all a continuity. Postmodernists love to flirt with the ambiguities of the subject versus expression; see, for instance, the work of Cindy Sherman, who makes the artificially of her poses the content of the photograph.
The battle lines were clearly drawn by the late 1940s. On one side, at least conceptually, were the great social documentarians of the Depression: Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Berenice Abbott, and Margaret Bourke-White. Their leader was Edward Steichen, enormously successful as a commercial photographer and politically prominent in the art world. In the other camp were the group of modernists who had turned their back on the political turmoil of the Depression to pursue their personal visions – photographers like Edward Weston, Minor White, and, of course, Ansel Adams. Their aging and ailing standard-bearer was Alfred Stieglitz.
Methodology and intent separated the two schools as much as the nettlesome issue of content. Stieglitz’s followers, among whom Adams fervently counted himself, belonged to an older photographic tradition. Most learned to photograph with view cameras, slow lenses, and slower film. Most preferred the quality of natural outdoor light, perhaps because the first generations of indoor lighting technology were so unreliable. They shared an almost reverential attitude toward exposing a negative; Ansel would go up in the High Sierra with only six fragile negatives per trip. Similarly, when Stieglitz was lugging his heavy camera rig through the Alps, he only exposed a plate when he knew all conditions were right. He lamented the “random firing” technique of the latter-day school.
Ansel was appalled when Margaret Bourke-White told him how she went about making an exposure. The creator of countless memorable images for Life magazine, such as the well-known portrait of Gandhi by his spinning wheel, would simply set her shutter at 1/100 of a second and click away at every lens stop from the most open down to f/22, with the confidence that one of them had to be correct.
Philosophy intermingles with technology and technique at this point. The older photographers, dating back to Timothy O’Sullivan and beyond, are celebrated for the intense, rapturous quality of their gaze. It could be argued that this clarity of vision stems from looking more deeply and shooting less often. On the other hand, something is lost by such a severe focus, and that is the spontaneous quality of human interaction. Ansel’s portraits of mischievous Georgia O’Keeffe, or that of Stieglitz’s rare smile, show that he could shoot from the hip with the best of them, but these are departures from the current of his work rather than the mainstream.
The newer photographers, such as Garry Winogrand, may have sacrificed some image quality to capture their subjects, but at the same time gained a sense of life and immediacy in their work.
Subject and Style
All of the above points raise once again the issue of subject versus style. Photographs have an inherent interest because by and large they are about something. Nobody can deny that a handheld flash picture of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald is a compelling photograph, no matter what the technical drawbacks. America, convulsively violent nation that it is, even has a history of such assassination photos, dating back at least to William Warnecke’s 1910 portrait of a blood-spattered Mayor William J. Gaynor in New York City. The horrified gaze of the mayor’s aide and the stricken look of the mayor, appearing like a felled horse, still leap out of the frame despite the years. These are prime examples of subject photography – photographs that are chiefly interesting because of what they show rather than how they are done.
Ansel was interested in photographs at the other end of the continuum: photographs that expressed something personal about what the photographer felt. Perhaps polemically, Ansel lumped almost all of the social realists into the school of subject photography. Adams thought that Willard Van Dyke, a founding member of the Group f/64 movement, was particularly good at documenting images of social significance, but as a result Ansel came to view him as a kind of sociologist rather than an expressive photographer.
Adams dismissed the work of photographers for the Federal Public Works of Art Project as a hodge-podge of pictures of destitutes, May Day ceremonies, and oppressed workers. Walker Evans was singled out for special scorn. Ansel believed that Weston’s images of seashells would endure long after Evans’ portrait of “derelicts in a dingy doorway” was forgotten. In fact, both images have remarkable staying power, but for different reasons.
Ansel exempted only Dorothea Lange’s images as having any true emotional resonance. He praised her photograph White Angel Breadline (1933) in particular as moving into a dimension beyond the subject. Indeed, the picture works strongly both as a document of the poverty during the Depression and as a more formally composed image. A man with a broken-crowned hat turns toward the viewer with his back to a crowd of faceless, better-dressed men. The eyes follow the shapes of the hats down to the man’s empty tin cup and encircling arms with resolutely clasped hands. It is a haunting picture of a man beaten down in the struggle for survival, and at the same time an evocative synecdoche of the greater social background of the Depression.
Adams warned Lange about the totalitarian purposes to which documentary photography can be distorted. In particular, he resented the notion that photography was not important unless it was about a political subject. Rightly or wrongly, he railed that his close-ups of nature could have social significance equal to that of endless pictures of breadlines. He charged that Steichen in particular was afraid of confronting absolute beauty in an image. The reverse of course might also be said – that Adams was unwilling to look at the legitimate social role that photography can play.
At the other end of the spectrum, Berenice Abbott insists contentiously in the documentary film, Berenice Abbott: A View of the 20th Century, that “I think all photography is documentary, or it isn’t even photography”. Abbott’s work as a whole is a perfect example that tells us the lines are not so directly drawn. Her documentary work in the Depression puts her firmly in the social realist school, yet her nighttime view of New York stand up quite well as purely formal photography.
Edward Weston shared Adams’ lofty view of the proper role of photography, writing to him that, “It seems so utterly naive that landscape – not that of pictorial school – is not considered of ‘social significance’ when it has far more important bearing on the human race of a given locale than the excrescences called cities”. Weston, too, thought that the subject matter was not what determined the emotional reaction to a picture, but took the idea a little too far for Ansel with, for example, his picture of peppers that resemble entwined nudes. Ansel always felt that the subject should be dealt with matter-of-factly, that a rock should look like a rock and a vegetable, well, like a vegetable, not a nude. Ultimately it remains a matter of seeing the world in different ways.
I was lucky enough to find this book for $5. I love books that give insight and stories on those whom I have had interest in for such a long time (ie Alfred Stieglitz). So I especially love this book – it was a special find.
If your looking for a good book to read, to gain some knowledge or inspiration, this is an ideal book to start with. If you feel the same way I feel right now, then that means you are also on the lookout for MORE amazing reading material. Good books do that to you.
An enthusiastic survey of the life and career of one of America’s most revered photographers, “Ansel Adams” provides 97 of the marvelously pristine works along with a thoughtful and evocative text. Among the incredible photographs included are those taken in Yosemite National Park, Kings River Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Yellowstone, places with which all Americans are familiar but which Adams grandly portrayed, in so many variations, for all time.