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.
Chris, thank you for your heart felt appreciation and tribute to Ansel, I enjoyed it immensely and personally think that just about every photographer working today owes him some degree of thanks for his influence. Whilst I prefer other photographers work I have AA to thank for his influence in my use of the Zone System even though I apply it in a totally different way to the great man. However, it was reading Ansel's views on pre-visualisation that was the most significant of his influence on my photography for his words made me go out and work to perfect that very important aspect of making photographs.
I'm glad you all liked the article.
Amen! Thanks so much for expressing the sentiments of this APUG'er and I suspect many more of us. We all owe Ansel a great debt of gratitude for showing us how to think before we trip the shutter; and for developing the methodology that allows us to create that which is in our mind's eye.
Chris: I too learned much of my photography through the work and writings of Ansel Adams - though, I suspect, many years before you. I have always believed that the craft of photography is as important as the art. One without the other is like love and marriage - though we all know it happens but it's not a pretty sight! You don't have to like his subject matter to appreciate him and I almost defy anyone with a soul to look at an original print and not be moved. His robotic disciples are another matter, of course. I'll never forget a visit to Yosemite and the sight of a bunch of photographers jostling to get their tripod legs where they thought Adams had placed his! It's THOSE people who give Adams a bad rep.
Thanks for the thoughtful and well written article. Keep it up!
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AA is so far and beyond 99% of photographers, having laid down many of its great precepts, that people don't know what to make of it. If anything AA was a perfectionist. He lived the life. People look at his lithographs and its hard to fathom that he was a photographer first. AA set a record that has yet to be matched.
It is interesting how people look at Ansel. I was hanging a show at a friends coffee shop and two women were looking at the photos as I hung them. One came up and thought they looked great, "just like Ansel Adams"! I thanked her and as they walked away, her friend whispered something to her. She came back and apologized! I told her it wasn't a problem since Ansel's work is why I bought a camera and to be compared to one of the greatest photographers ever was quite a compliment!
BTW. I saw an exhibit of Ansel's in 1983 and rushed out the next day and bought my first camera, a Minolta X-GM (which I still have). Shot two rolls of B&W, took it to the one hour lab and couldn't figure out why my pictures didn't look as good as his! Thus began a long journey...
I am currently re-reading Ansel Adams' biography (4th time) and it is such a great read. I love the way Adams words and orders his thoughts. I have always been able to relate to something that Adams was sharing with his contemperaries, as well as his legacy. I'm glad you all liked the article. It was written to get people to look at their own photography, take stock and relate to others around them. I hope that I have, at least to some extent, succeeded in my aim. Thank you all for your affirmations and kind words.
Do you have the American Experience DVD on Ansel? I found it to be VERY inspiring. I was fortunate to see the Ansel Adams at 100 exhibit at the SF Museum of Modern Art (bought the book as well!) Really a great show!
I'm wondering about the arguments used by the digital supporters that Adams would be using Photoshop if he were with us today. Also, isn't it true that, per The Negative, many of the photos he took were not "in camera" but extensively modified in the darkroom.
Rambling thoughts. I troll not. Adams is my personal favorite.
I hope you are not a troll and so I'll respond. I believe this is gross misconception. I imagine that AA, like all b&w photographers who do their own processing and printing, had to work some prints over pretty good to achieve his visualization at the time of the exposure. He was not perfect! And, neither are any of us.
Originally Posted by ehparis
However, in his words, "What is important to visualize may be summed up as follows: The basic compositional aspects, -- The basic tonal values and the emotional values of light and darkness, and -- The style (the personal quality of the photographer's "seeing")."
I think it is accepted that the Zone system is meant to bring the visualization full circle i.e., from the mind's eye to the physical print. Again, in his words: "Our problem is one of visualizing the desired print, and then exposing and developing to get a negative which will yield such a print without complex manipulations (reduction of the negative or fussy adjustments in printing)."
So, IMO, there is no escaping tonal adjustments in the printing process. It remains true, I think, that the better the quality of the negative, the easier the printing process will be and that was what Adams strived for, IMO. And honestly, I think that's what we all strive for (using whatever exposure/dev system or no system at all) that do b&w work.