Weston and Adams: A long winded Context for Personal Technique

Discussion in 'Photographers' started by df cardwell, Nov 30, 2005.

  1. df cardwell

    df cardwell Subscriber

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    A Spin-off from this thread:http://www.apug.org/forums/showthread.php?t=22049

    This rambles, so if you're in the mood for a straight line, right to the point post.... well, you're warned. But it's a little background, and a small speculation about how things came to be, and where we might go.


    Way back when, a young guy wanted to be a photographer. He took a course of study, learned the state of the art in photo technique and went off to make his fortune. In a short time, he was at the top of his craft and profession. He grew over many years, like all good artists, but his passion and commitement to photography and his friends and family remained the focus of his life and image making.

    The days he grew up in, photography wasn't digital, or electronic. It was considered very modern and up to date. But the concept of exposure was based on experimentation and recognizing light and scenes that fit the outcome of experiments you had done. Making an exposure didn't involve light meters and electronic shutters that were accurate to a 1/10th of an f/stop, and our young photo hero didn't care because exposure wasn't really about that. Exposure, he said, was holding the shutter open until you sensed the subject was about to move. The aperture was set to account for the light.

    That got photographers close, and the development took care of the rest, resolving what was begun when the image was made. Our photographer used Pyro, not for any aesthetic reasons, or any desire to be like anybody else, but because it was what he learned when he took the course. He tinkered with it, but he learned about that, too. His development technique was simple, but profound: he had a basic time to observe, and then he turned on safe light and took a look at the pictures. He had made enough good prints from bad exposures that he had learned how to coax a negative along to give him what he needed. He learned to give enough exposure that inspection let him make excellent negatives, and he became famous among his photographer friends for his high success rate.

    This is a snapshot of Edward Weston around 1916. He never changed HOW he made is pictures, only what the pictures needed to show. He said he 'felt' the exposures, which is pretty easy to understand because he shot everyday, and knew the conditions under which he made pictures. And using Pyro, in is formula, let him put the plates in a tank, of his own construction, and let them sit until they were ready. After you go through this process a hundred, or a thousand, times you get to be pretty consistent with it. Since he was using orthochromatic films and since Pyro desensitized the emulsion, it was pretty fool proof. But he had become pretty astute, nevertheless.

    In time, he became friends with a tall photographer with a snappy brain, a big heart, and a wild passion for nature and photography. Sometimes the tall guy, lets call him Ansel, nailed the image, sometimes he out-thought himself and screwed up. Sometimes the thinking he had to do killed the picture. But he had a gift, was good company, and was improving by leaps and bounds.

    And one day the kid ( Ansel ) woke up with the the big newsflash. His psychology was totally different from Edward's. Or from Edw's son Brett, for that matter. And different from old Stieglitz back in New York, or Paul Strand's, who by the way was some kind of photograper who didn't seem to even have to think about what he was doing and made the most perfect negatives ANYBODY had ever seen. But he had had all that hammered in to him by Clarence White, so what do you expect ?

    Yep, Ansel was different. He had to think about what he was doing, and up till then photography was pretty much an intuitive process that just ate thinkers like Ansel for lunch. But things were changing, it was a lot different than when Weston was starting out, and Ansel devised what we call today an "expert system" that organized what he knew about making pictures, into a method that would let him make a good picture even if he was carried away by some incredible sunrise in the mountains, or, by some view of the valley after climbing the sheer wall of a face to get to the perfect spot, exhilarated and oxygen deprived, and too stunned by what he was looking at to be able to make a damned picture the way Weston would do it. And in time, he improved the expert system, integrating it with a simple form of sensitometry so that other folks could make pictures that conveyed what they FELT even if they weren't totally intuitive geniuses like Weston and Strand.

    The fundamental tempermental differences between the two amigos Weston and Adams illustrate the two extreme ways to make astonishing pictures, and provides the necessary context for understanding the Zone System.

    Minor White came along, learned Adams' way of working, and modified it a bit to make it more accessible to folks who were tempermentally more like Weston who were, by then, faced with a completely different photographic world than had Weston.

    And since then, many folks have tried to improve, simplify, or clarify parts of Adam's Zone System. And along the way, the world being what it is, we generall have focussed on the numbers, the data, and the stuff that can be dealt with with out having to change ourselves , because it is always more convenient to argue data than to transform oneself. The tough part of that is that whether one wants to be a musician, a doctor, an engineer, or a guitarmaker, sooner or later one has to learn the craft and that always means changing a little bit, or a lot.

    For a photographer, even a Zone System photographer, or Beyond The Zone System, or Just a Little Bit This Side of the Zone System photographer, that happens. One learns what the paper does, what it looks like, what the relationship between tones look, feel, or even sound like TO YOU and nobody else. That is the transformation point, and that, to a photographer, is what Organic Chemistry is to a Pre Med Student, or Thermodynamics is to an engineer. Without that context, the numbers, the logs, the curves and the formulae just swim at random.

    Ansel recognized that he 'saw the world' in ten Zones. Usually. Black, White, 6 tones with detail, and two transitional steps. He had a bold vision, and really wasn't much of a pussyfooter. He played a big piano. He was tall, and loud, and took up all the space in the room. His technique suited the huge Yosemite landscape, and the California light. He was lost when he went back east: didn't see anything to take pictures of. Didn't even feel comfortable in Colorado, although New Mexico fed his soul.

    So, even if you have a Post Romantic Soul like Adams, but live in New England, it's likely that you'll have to deal with a landscape of gray-on-gray, with skies completely different from Yosemite, and the immediacy of the landscape rather than the huge vistas of California. My own answer was a scale of 12 Zones, a dozen steps between Black and White, giving me 2 additional textured steps that help me deal with Michigan, or Cape Breton, or what lay in between. Which, of course, means my numbers are totally different, my gamma or CI is totally different, and my choice of materials, a little different. Many other photographers have followed this path, and many have successfully transported a ten zone scale to the Midwest, or Massachusetts with great success. We see what we see.

    So, is this criticism of BTZS, or the Zone System ? Not a bit. Am I critical of anything ? No.

    That's not true. I have taken a lot of time to sort out my image making, which I don't regret, and am happy to be where I am. It could have been faster, but growing up in the '50s and '60s there was an inevitable Technology is Wonderful approach to the craft that wasn't easy for me to manage. I'm not stupid, just more like Weston than Adams. Not an Engineer. With a chain of remarkable mentors, I was lucky enough to put it all together, and have been happy to share this perspective along the way. I've even done quite a few Interventions with folks left shattered after "Workshops with Eminent Photographers Gone Horribly Wrong". I've usually been able to get the view camera out of the bonfire in time, and help the poor soul get back to making snapshots of bunnies and puppies.

    I think there are some really great shooters out there, who can really teach well.

    But I worry that with the loss of really gigantic photographers like Adams and Avedon, and Cartier-Bresson, we're left to emulate only the Drumbeaters and Miracle Workers who are better self promoters than image makers, and hardly teachers at all. We've lost track of Minor White and Richard Zakia, and a score of others. And a couple generations of View Camera expertise has been lost, in spite of the pretension of folks claiming to have photographed The Creation with an 11x17 camera.



    Any system is limited. Without the limits, it would go nowhere. I guess the only thing I would have the nerve to preach right now is that what you can learn in the darkroom, by simply playing with paper, is probably the most important thing one can do. When you see a range from black to white, that you made, regardless of the number of steps or the uneveness of densities, you're on your way. And the only method that works everytime is your Own System.

    .
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 30, 2005
  2. reellis67

    reellis67 Subscriber

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    Whew! To respond succinctly, I agree.

    - Randy
     
  3. Jim Chinn

    Jim Chinn Member

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    Intersting post. The greatest knock against photography being art is that it is so centered around technique and equipment. As great as Adams was as a photographer I think one of the legacies he left behind has crippled many would be photographers and that is the cult of the Zone System or the Ansel way or what ever you want to call it.

    More energy has been expended and time wasted as thousands of little Ansels peer through every book, essay, article in order to copy his methods and technique. And yet if they do not have a vision or a voice of there own with regards to subject and approach the work often appears lifeless and derivitive.

    The learning process in any art usually involves emulating a particular style method of another artist. As one learns and works they hopefully evolve a more personal or unique approach or style. With photography it seems it is very easy to stay stagnant with most of our time spent worrying about this or that developer combination, or paper or film etc. it is easy to fall into the trap of saying "when I finally get my technique down and my prints look as good as Adams I will be where I want to be".

    At some point one needs to stop the experimenting and work on what is in the viewfinder or the gg.

    Of course one needs to strive for excellence in craft. Good technique and craft are essential. But they often become and end unto themselves.

    At one point one needs to say enough, use one system, one developer and film combo and just expose film and print the subjects that excite them.
     
  4. Claire Senft

    Claire Senft Member

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    I could hardly agree more with the opening statements. I would also offer my own strongly held opinion that the metodology that you choose to use is going to be as much unfluenced by your personality as it will be by your intrinsic talent. Having a method however simple that works for you and getting there as soon as circumstances allow is not to be under valued. It is fine to be aware of what others have done, are doing or their plans for the future but concentrate on using film and papers to the extent circumstances allows and your personality permits.

    FAILURE is to be expected. Rather than avoiding failure, which I believe to be impossible, embrace it, hold it close and learn how to deal with it. Do not allow yourself to become discouraged. In every failure is a wonderful is a wonderful opportunity to learn. In ocassional failures the photograph achieved maybe accidentally be far superior to what you had intended as a photograph. So be alert. Be persevering.
     
  5. Bill Mitchell

    Bill Mitchell Member

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    Your "history of the great photographers" is way, way off. Breaking the zone system into 12 zones is a lot like Spinal Tap adding another number to their amplifier knobs. And if you grew up in the 50's then you're too old to be smoking weed before posting a philosophical treatise.
    Uh, what's your point again?
     
  6. jimgalli

    jimgalli Subscriber

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    I do about as well when I forget the meter at home as otherwise. And lately I'm equally comfortable with a packard shutter as an electronic Compur. I've had more fun with the 2D Kodak and antique lenses in front of the packard than anything else I've done. If I'm having fun, the pictures usually show it.
     
  7. df cardwell

    df cardwell Subscriber

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    12 zones.

    You're probably right. But it was Ansel that had been drinking.

    Actually, it was Minor White's idea.

    But it was so, so long ago.
     
  8. Jim Chinn

    Jim Chinn Member

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    I agree that everyone has to find there own comfort zone with technique, but it becomes easy to be paralyzed by it also. I went on a little road trip one Saturday and drove about 80 miles with my 4x5 to photograph some machinery I had seen on another day. How it happend I don't remember, but I dropped my light meter I had had for several years and it broke. Crestfallen, I was stumped. Wasted all that gas and time. then of course I thought for a moment, used the sunny 16 rule, opened up one or two stops to ensure I got good exposure in the shadows. Amazingly, the negs turned out about perfect or as well as they would have been with a meter.
     
  9. Peter Schrager

    Peter Schrager Subscriber

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    well done

    Well done Mr. Cardell! If only some would be photographers actually took the time to find out what the materials will bring them then their success rate would go up incremently. Wasn't it Adams who said that after 10.000 negatives you start to become an artist? Try it and see.....
    Peter
     
  10. roteague

    roteague Member

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    I would have to disagree with you on this point. There are still many "gigantic" photographers in the mold of Ansel Adams, but like everything else it depends upon your point of view. People like David Muench, who many consider the finest landscape photographer living, or John Sexton, Jack Dykinga, William Neill and Joe Cornish. Personally, I would take a Dykinga over an Adams.

    FWIW, I find the focus of your topic very narrow. Black & White photography, Zone System, BTSZ - while all well and good, they do not define the extent of fine art photography. There are many fine color photographers.
     
  11. roteague

    roteague Member

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    Does that mean if you shoot transparencies you can't be an artist?
     
  12. BradS

    BradS Subscriber

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    Me too.
     
  13. Gerald Koch

    Gerald Koch Member

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    A bit off topic but worth relating.

    When I was in college they had to offer a dumbed down version of organic chemistry specifically for the pre med students. Evidently they were incapable of passing the course offered for chemists and engineers.

    Sort of frightening in a way when you think about it. Here are people who will be holding patients lives in their hands and they can't pass organic chemistry.
     
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  15. df cardwell

    df cardwell Subscriber

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    Quite right !

    FWIW, it was hard to keep it focused: it began in response to another B&W thread, and I hadn't remembered to mention a connection ! Thanks.

    http://www.apug.org/forums/showthread.php?t=22049
     
  16. Claire Senft

    Claire Senft Member

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    Well I know that I meant no slight to photographers working in color and I do posess a great appreciation of their work. Color work is equally, though differently, as visual and as technical. Certainly I much appreciate the color work of Elliot Porter, Ernst Haas. Robert Marplethorpe has do some work in color that I have seen that is outstanding. This is intended as an enlargement of Robert's list of photographers working in color. Some of the color advertisments done during the 20's and 30's are both technical and visual triumphs made using 3 color carbon. There is, I believe, some photographersworkers still working in a completely analoug 3 color carbon. Sorry am I that I can not even aspire to be their equal.
     
  17. David Brown

    David Brown Subscriber

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    ... and then practice, practice, practice!

    I own many of the books, and have read a lot more. There is no panacea for me in any of them. A little ZS, a little BZTS, a little BS ... :wink:

    VC paper wasn't "the answer". "Improved" films, no. "Classic" films, ditto. A different type enlarger head, split grade, water baths ...

    (and fancy timer is on the way :cool: )

    However, making MORE pictures does more for me than anything. Don't get me wrong, I am a fundementals evangelist. No technique and nothing happens. But once fundamentals are mastered, there's a lot of film still to be burned to find the "IT".

    Techniques are tools. Tools facilitate making something, they are not the end themselves.

    Cheers, y'all.

    David
     
  18. vet173

    vet173 Member

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    Lets add to the story of St. Ansel and the group 64 a little bit. I have recently became aware of Mortinson, better known as Adams nemesis. A truly great photographer. How come he is never on the most list of great photographers? It's because Ansel and group 64 actively suppressed him and pictorial photography in general. To promote your style is one thing, to suppress a different one is just plain wrong. What was Ansel afraid of?
    I still give Ansel all the credit he is due. If it wasn't for his endeavors, a lot of the places we love to shoot might not be there. I've shot zone for over 30 years. I am now exploring BTZS. Ansel is great but he ain't no Brett Weston. I still admire Ansel and his work, but he has lost his sainthood in my book.
     
  19. MenacingTourist

    MenacingTourist Member

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    I "discovered" Mortinson some time ago on another forum. His work really knocks my socks off. I can't guess why he's not more popular because I have odd tastes. Adams to me is like Picasso and I'm tired of seeing and hearing about both of them. There was a time where Picasso was everywhere and it really drove me nuts. Adams, for me, is starting to get there. I guess when you're beat over the head with something it stops being special.

    Don't get me wrong, they both are great, but I prefer a buffet style. That's why Mortinson and Meatyard are so fascinating to me. It's a different set of sensibilities that isn't so "popular".

    Alan.
     
  20. df cardwell

    df cardwell Subscriber

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    The gist of this is not to do with whether Ansel, or Bill Mortensen or whomever was any good, it was to compare Adams to Weston ( friends ) and to point out how Adams found his own way to make the pictures he wanted to make.

    Today, one is generally not taken seriously by a large portion of photographers if one doesn't own a densitometer. Which points out how far things have drifted from the days when a fully intuitive approach was the norm.

    If there was a problem back in the 1910s,1920s, and 1930s, it was too much vision and too little technique. Adams helped balance that, besides paving the way for analytical types to find a way to make their own pictures.

    Nobody has had better, or more effective technique than Edw Weston, but his approach is laughed away ( at least at APUG ! ) by those who take a technical position on photography that would skewer Adams for being unscientific.

    What lesson there is to be taken is that there is a suitable way for anybody to make good pictures, and no single System, Method, or School works for more than about 30% of the population.

    So, if your seat of the pants method doesn't work, look at The New Zone System Manual by White, Zakia, and Lorenz. If BTZS gives you perfectly made pictures that look like somebody else made 'em, try something else. Push the envelope. Play.

    For that matter, taken with a little salt, Bill Mortensen's "The Negative" is very interesting, and suggests an important concept 21st System Shooters miss all too often, and that is aiming for the middle of the usable range of a negative rather than at the 'perfect' minimum exposure results in more superb pictures on the wall, and less wasted time in the field. It is forgotten today, but essential in those old days when a light meter was an unproven new device.

    .
     
  21. Donald Miller

    Donald Miller Member

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    I think that it is very constricted to compare Adams and Weston on the basis of technique alone. There is the matter of vision in addition to technique.

    Adams took photographs of found scenes in nature...quite easy to do. Given a tank full of gas and enough time spent in the wilderness those scenes appear to anyone.

    Weston explored form and relationships of forms...requires a lot more awareness, in my opinion.

    Visualization as it is applied to Adams is about relegating and portraying tonal values within the limits of materials.

    Visualization as it applies to Weston is the ability to perceive relationships between shapes, lines, forms.

    Technique between the two artists is markedly different. Weston was able to portray tonal balance as well as Adams...perhaps even better. Adams could not see as well as Weston, in my opinion.
     
  22. Eric Rose

    Eric Rose Subscriber

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    I could not have said it better Donald. My thoughts exactly.
     
  23. avandesande

    avandesande Member

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    I find Adams work tonally harsh in many cases. Weston persued a 'quieter light'
     
  24. df cardwell

    df cardwell Subscriber

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    I suggest neither.

    Although this is absolutely not the place to do it, one can draw on primary sources ( Weston and Adams ) and trace their development as artists, and friends, and track their nearly identical artistic aims and how they were expressed by extremely different methodology.

    I chose Weston and Adams primarily for the available sources to illustrate the idea that rigorous, effective, and expressive technique can have roundly different execution. The point is that Adams was a second rate intuitive photographer. In order to fulfil his potential, he found a new way. Without Weston as counterpoint, this makes no sense for we have lost the awareness that exposure can be 'felt', that our eyes can be trained to 'see', and that one can make exquisite negatives that print easily without a Jobo, X-Rite, or spotmeter. Weston is as good a representative of the 'intuitive photographer' as we could hope for, although his son Brett would suit equally well, or Steichen, Stieglitz, Emerson or Strand.

    Any one of us could be temperamentally closer to Adams than Weston, or the other way around. But Adams found his way, and opened a door for technically adept photographers to make expressive images. But the 'expert system' existed to serve his vision. He knew, or at least in the thoousands of pages he wrote, he claims to have known what he wanted the picture to look like. And he knew what he saw. And they were seldom, remotely similar. How he transited from Reality to Expression he called Visualisation, and he did it through the Zone System of exposure and development. It was a personal technique born of the need to use his analytical gifts to overcome his own intuitive shortcomings in order to consistently make images that could stand next to his friend Weston's.

    Whatever tools one can use to make good pictures are suitable tools: sensitometrical principles, a doctorate in photochemistry, ample amounts of red wine or lucky underwear. But a narrow orthodoxy which demands only approved technological approach, or even one analytical approach over another, is short sighted and deadly.

    Baudelaire counselled us, "Technique, on its own, is impotent to create anything."

    Conversely, the need to posess adequate technique to support one's vision is axiomatic.
     
  25. jimgalli

    jimgalli Subscriber

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    So, you're saying Weston would have been able to get 4 good negs while the sun was still on the crosses except Paul Strand would have set up his tripod in front of both of them, and Mortensen would have made a picture of the 3 of them having it out reflected in the Pontiac hubcap with a Verito? I think I'm beginning to get it.
     
  26. df cardwell

    df cardwell Subscriber

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    It would have been so much better had I said it your way !

    Thanks !

    .