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
well said - you don't have to imitate his style or his eye to imitate his tenacity and his dedication to the art - a good hero for any photo artist
And it was in his seeing Paul Strands negatives, not prints but just the negatives, that he made the decision to pursue photography full time. The Southwest and Ansel Adams are inseparable. The further you search and research the better it gets. I have seen a great many of his photographs in galleries over the last 35 or so years and I am always in awe of the presence his photographs have. If a person were to study the work and lives of Paul Strand, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams they would have a Masters Degree in photographic living and understanding.
True greatness is never outdated, although the appreciation of greatness by a culture waxes and wanes with the times. It is a good measure of how the culture is doing spiritually and morally as to whether it continues to appreciate true greatness.
Ansel's work will continue to stand the test of time for many generations to come, just as the 17th century Dutch Masters are to this day, along with many other greats of art. There are few truly great photographic artists in our short history, but Adams is undoubtedly one of them and his work will continue to stand the test of time.
He was a great photographer and (by most accounts) a nice person too. But there is a distinction between AA and some of his followers, just as there is a distinction between Christ and some Christians (the sort who burned witches, for example).
Everyone can learn an immense amount from AA, but it is true that he was increasingly trapped in a single style of photography, largely to please his fans. Some of his early advertising work was superb -- a bar interior springs to mind -- and I've even seen a little of his reportage. Again, brilliant.
Today, many of his followers are addicted to the same subject that made him famous -- faux wilderness -- and imagine that the Zone System is the origin of sensitometry rather than a restatement of its basic principles, which were well established long before AA. Distressingly many are also convinced that the Zone System is what made him great, and that if they can attain the same technical mastery, they'll be as good too. The truth is that he was simply a brilliant photographer, even before he invented the ZS, but the ZS is easier to discuss.
In other words, if someone appears to put down AA, it's not necessarily the man that irritates them: it's some of his followers. The same applies to faux-wilderness pictures.
Not to detract from AA in any way, but one of my principal interests in photography is precisely flying by the seat of my pants, with the emphasis on flying - using the speed of photography to record fleeting incidents, emotions, expressions. I can only speak for myself, but I feel this has been the quality present in my best work.
I'll probably expose myself as a hack photographer, but I've always liked AA's work. I don't attempt to recreate his "style" or subject matter, but I do appreciate his results. I'm also a fan of Galen Rowell's work. AA for B&W and GR for color. GR gets criticism for his use of filters, but that's what I love about his work.
Interesting tidbit about GR and my VERY tenuous connection to him... I was flipping through a coffee table book of his work a couple years ago and came across a picture he took in Mexico years prior. I'm looking at the photograph and it looks very familiar even though I can't recall ever seeing it before. Then it hit me. I took the book into the bedroom and compared the pic to the nearly identical one on the wall, taken on my honeymoon 3 years earlier. At the time I took the picture, I had never even heard of GR other than his column in Outdoor Photography. I certainly hadn't seen the picture before. I was merely grabbing "interesting" shots while on our honeymoon. The only difference between the tow pics was the lighting (bright sunny day in mine, slightly overcast in his) and composition due to different focal length lenses. Otherwise, the composition is the same, the subject is in the same position of the frame, etc. While I never try to recreate others' works, I was pleased I looked at the same scene as GR and came up with roughly the same photograph.
You know, Chris, in one of the essays in 'Inner Game' GR stresses seeing and the mind's eye and that it takes a trained eye to recognize that an image one has taken is indeed different from another's. Most times, someone who lives in Jackson Hole might look at AA's Snake River Overlook and say 'Oh, yeah. I have that shot.' When it is in fact a completely different and, sometimes, substandard image of the same subject matter. The mind can associate a personal memory to an image that is similar in appearance and merge the two. A great tool for composition of familiar objects. GR would be proud of you.
Hey, thanks for the great remarks everybody. Glad you enjoyed the article.
Thank you Chris. I am fond of Adams and White.
Reading his early 5 books back in the late sixties, I remember laughing hard because he expressed his ideas based on his own terrible mistakes. It is like writting to remind oneself what not to do. In some countries of South America we knew it as the "Adams System of Zone Control" (Control de Zonas por el Sistema Adams) and was a highly technical issue fairly translated; a compendium of his tests, proposed charts, chemistry, etc. While flying for the Aerial Photo Group of the Peruvian Air Force, later in the seventies, we use to practice with the 4X5 Speed Graphics (not used for aerials) in our free times trying our best to "mimic" his style with little success. Eventually we will come with something but nothing even close.
The Adams exhibit (of about 120 pieces) was here last winter. I have to admit that while the content wasn't my "cup of tea", the quality of the printing was absolutely incredible.