Why I admire Ansel Adams
In 1997 I was given my first SLR camera, a Minolta XG-M 35mm with a 50mm lens and a camera bag. At the time, my mother was getting Outdoor Photographer magazine with a subscription and I would pour over the pages when it arrived at our stoop. I was realizing little by little that photography could be an outlet for creative expression and as a result of this I was beginning to develop opinions of professional photographers, based on the emotions I experienced when viewing their work. I have always believed that you could tell a good deal of a person by simply observing that which gives them the greatest pleasure. Private lives aside, the greatest measure of a photographer is the craft over which they labor and toil and so greatly enjoy.
My first mentor of the photographic mind was Galen Avery Rowell. As a columnist for OP (the least among his awesome accomplishments which include Everest, K2, Fitz Roy and National Geographic) he was a photographic influence to which I was exposed (no pun intended) early and often. It’s easy to be impressed by a technically perfect image made by an individual who was precariously perched on a half-inch crack, suspended as if in midair by chalky fingertips, shoe leather and sheer willpower halfway up a 4,000 foot sheer granite face with only a single belay line staving off certain death from a precipitous plunge. A quote comes to mind. ‘The best reason to climb a mountain is because it’s there.’ The only reason to brilliantly capture such fleeting Zen-like moments while in the midst of such arduous pursuits is an appreciation for life and being at one with your surroundings. (However, a smattering of insanity must be accounted for as well.)
As I learned more and my photographic horizons began to expand I came to notice the works of other photographers and some of those came to the foreground of my awareness, including Edward Weston, Dewitt Jones, Alfred Stieglitz, William Neill and Henri Cartier-Bresson. But I have not been moved, touched or challenged so much by any other as I have been by the legacy of Ansel Adams. That master of the Sierra (not Sierras, AA would roll in his grave at that insult), that King of the Yosemite, with his broken nose, cowboy hat and modified Woody wagon. When I first saw a copy of his print ‘Winter Storm’ I was knocked over by the detail and emotion that played out before me. But it was not until after delving into Adams’ literature that I realized that the masterpiece before me was more than just placement of the camera and composition before the click of the shutter. It was also his knowledge of his subject, his mastery over light, his meticulous attention to detail in the darkroom, his visionary seeing that brought about his beautiful work of art. I had in my possession an example of true perfection.
After reading his books, his autobiography, his articles and anything I could find that revealed a portion of the mind of this great photographer I find that not only can I learn from him but that as a photographer and as a man I relate to him. Though passed from this world some twenty-three years ago his body of work, both photography and literature, continue to move, challenge and inspire me. I had never had the privilege to meet this legend, but through his legacy to photography I know him: his aspirations, his frustrations, his despair and his joy.
However, through the further expansion of my photographic horizons I get the feeling that the name of Ansel Adams is a sort of dirty word among many of the new breed of photographers today. I continually find the need to defend my admiration of Adams and his work. It is as if others have the viewpoint that to admit to being a follower of Adams’ techniques and an admirer of his life’s labor amounts to no better than dropping a name to impress others with your choice of association. And with the advent of digital technology and the attempt to put an automatic camera into every hand in the world, the pervading opinion seems to be that Adams is an outmoded, archaic, prehistoric savant who’s contributions to our craft have passed their time and are now, somehow, unnecessary and superfluous. ‘Why take the time to learn what I can now just go out and do anyway?’ I know that digital photography is the next and logical step up from film photography. It enables the masses to bypass the developing and printing processes of yore in favor of near instant gratification. It’s what the people crave and I cannot fault them for that. After all, it holds appeal for me as well. But when people sacrifice knowledge and persistence for convenience and simplicity, something invariably suffers. In my humble opinion this is where photography is right now. As for me, I cannot turn my back on a thing that I love, that is such a part of me. I find peace in manually calculating exposure with an off-camera meter. I love anticipating the right moment rather than always bracketing and praying for rain. I love getting an exposure right at the camera and making adjustments later rather than making the changes because I could not get it right the first time.
I am a disciple of Ansel Easton Adams because he challenges me. Not to mimic his images but to find my own vision. Because he inspires me to be prepared, to not trip the shutter until I have exhausted all of the controls at my command to make the best exposure I can and not to fly be the seat of my pants. Because in him I find a fellow photographer and intellect, a kindred spirit, not an idol to be worshipped and imitated. Bacuase I strive to mirror his hard work and dedication, not his classic view of the Grand Tetons behind the Snake River. Because I share his need to pass on any and all knowledge that I may have that can help another fellow photographer to get it and I am willing to try new things and ways that had not previously occurred to me. Because I share his ethic and diligence. Beacuse I strive to be my own photographer, using him as a springboard and guide, not as an identity to don when it suits me. His legacy is not a goal for what to become, but rather a benchmark of what is possible.
So when I say I like Ansel Adams it’s not hero worship. It is respect and an affirmation of that which the greatest photographer of the twentieth century stands for and means to me in terms of self-education, preparedness and vision in my chosen craft.
Christopher A. Walrath
November 9th, 2007
Last edited by Christopher Walrath; 11-13-2007 at 08:44 PM. Click to view previous post history.
I too have a respect for this photograher, i.e., Ansel Adams.
I've some of his product and even recall a showing of his work at a big store in Japan many years ago. I went not once, but twice to the exhibition.
Your essay ... well said.
Someone wrote that AA photographed "faux wilderness".
I think that is a simplistic statement devoid of the shifting understandings of his time and the concept of "wilderness".
AA's major "wilderness" shooting, just about all of it the Southwest US plus CA, took place from the 1940's into the 1980's. It was a time when the concepts of "wilderness", "conservation" and "environmentalism" were as often in conflict as they were in agreement.
AA attempted to idealize what he firstly saw as "wilderness", but I think it is common understanding that he knew that the West had already reached a point where "wilderness" was more an ideal than a real. After all, in the 1950's, the man knew that Mono Lake was disappearing and that Lake Powell was filling Glenn Canyon. Yet he did not shoot Glenn - and I don't know - but doubt he shot Mono.
Rather, his very idealization of El Capitan was perhaps an unintended statement that only in the National Parks could you hope to shoot an "idealized wilderness" - even though the very concept of National Park suggests a "reserve" or "museum piece".
The conservationists of the 1950's were the forebearers of the environmentalists of the 1970's and later on. But they, born in an earlier age, still clung to the hope that there was a wilderness that could be preserved because of its "beauty". Environmentalists know that whatever remnants of "wilderness" remain MUST be preserved because of the ecological "necessity" to do so.
In some ways AA was both ahead of and behind his times. He thought he could instill a love of nature by shooting "landscape spectacles" that would inspire people to preserve (conserve) the "wilderness". But, in many ways, the "wilderness" he sought to preserve through his art was by then "faux" in that it had been "preserved" - although he, himself, would not (could not) admit that was the case.
The loss of "true wilderness" is our collective loss. And we are stupid if we criticize his attempts as some kind of "faux" exercise - when all we do is blather on the web and accomplish much less to impact the real world than what AA has.
Thank you for your fantastic article. I enjoyed reading it, and we all have to find our inspiration somewhere.
I admire Adams' work greatly, I've had the privilege of seeing many of his prints in museums and I'm always taken aback by the quality. I don't get emotional about it, however. Other photographers have that type of influence on me. Minor White is one of them. Andre Kertesz is another.
"Make good art!"
- Neil Gaiman
"...the heart and mind are the true lens of the camera".
- Yousuf Karsh
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit".
The fact that I like Adam's work, and detest street photography, probably classifies me as an art illiterate.
We should remember that Adams influenced the preservation of areas other than Yosemite, and that he shared his knowledge willingly with almost anyone who showed interest.
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Yes, Ansel helped to preserve a lot of land, King's Canyon et al. I appreaciate the comments and I am glad you all liked the article. Thank you.
I think this is a well thought out piece and I enjoyed reading it. It reflects many things that I have always felt , but never really was able to put into words. Since my short time here on APUG, I have seen many AA bashers who seem to be that way for reasons that you precisely point out early in your article. My own respect for AA lies principally in that, through learning the ZS and the art of visualizing the desired end result, I have never seen or thought about my subject more clearly, and thus my entire photographic experience is all the better because of it-----the whole process has become amazingly "fluid" and free.
His legacy, at least for me, is in what he has taught me and not really what he photographed. In addition I would say that his enthusiasm is so pervasive in his writings that it is infectious to me and what I try to do today, and I have not really experienced that with anyone else's work--although I admire others' contributions too. John Sexton was interviewed one time and was asked a question something about what AA's legacy was to him. It was, if I remember, his unfailing enthusiasm for what he did. He remarked that even at the age of about 80, Adams one day emerged from the darkroom with such excitement (child like) about finally getting the print that he had visualized when he made the negative in, I believe, sometime in the 30's.
Well, again, it is a good article.
Thank you Chuck. I'm glad you liked it.
Your welcome, and if Mr. Sexton reads this I hope I have remembered the interview with acceptable accuracy.
It's in Adams' autobiography and it (huh-hemm) might have been the forties, but who's counting. CLose enough for horseshoes, hand grenades and nuclear war.
This is why I am so against people using digital photography as their first and primary means. When one of my friends picked up photography with her DigiRebel, I did everything I could to get to her to understand what she's doing... Even offering her all my supplies in the darkroom and I'd teach her how to use it.
Sadly, she never took me up on the offer. When we go together to shoot at the racetrack, she frets over why her camera decides to make the track white (it's a new polytrack). I developed my slides that night and got perfect images.
When she frets about her camera not making the right decisions, I advise her on manually exposing a stop or two less. When she responds she's too lazy, I lay my face in my hands and weep.