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  1. #1
    df cardwell's Avatar
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    Weston and Adams: A long winded Context for Personal Technique

    [COLOR=Blue]A Spin-off from this thread:http://www.apug.org/forums/forum37/22049-negative-appendix-2-film-test-data-testing.html [/COLOR]

    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 df cardwell; 11-30-2005 at 12:48 PM. Click to view previous post history.
    "One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid,
    and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision"

    -Bertrand Russell

  2. #2
    reellis67's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by df cardwell
    And the only method that works everytime is your Own System.
    Whew! To respond succinctly, I agree.

    - Randy

  3. #3

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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.
    "Fundamentally I think we need to rediscover a non-ironic world"
    Robert Adams

  4. #4

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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.
    Claire (Ms Anne Thrope is in the darkroom)

  5. #5

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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. #6
    jimgalli's Avatar
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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.
    He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep..to gain that which he cannot lose. Jim Elliot, 1949

    http://tonopahpictures.0catch.com

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    df cardwell's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bill Mitchell
    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?

    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.
    "One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid,
    and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision"

    -Bertrand Russell

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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.
    "Fundamentally I think we need to rediscover a non-ironic world"
    Robert Adams

  9. #9

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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. #10
    roteague's Avatar
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    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.
    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, [font=Arial]William Neill[/font] 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.
    Robert M. Teague
    www.visionlandscapes.com
    www.apug.org/forums/portfolios.php?u=2235

    "A man who works with his hands is a laborer; a man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman; a man who works with his hands and his brain and his heart is an artist" -- Louis Nizer

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