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Critical Appraisal of Ansel Adams

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Published: Tue, 09 Jan 2018

There is an open question that defines photography theory as much as it plagues it: does a photographer take or make a photograph? Ansel Adams’s 1935 book, Making a photograph: an introduction to photography could well be considered the definitive response. A photograph remains an abstraction, even in its most primitive state as a sort of document or record and Adams’s skill lies in his ability to conceal his role as contriver, abstracter, imaginist, within the rhetorical apparatus of scientifically objective reality. He shuttles, perpetually, between the reality of texture and the affectation of emphasised texture; his is a statement about the difference between something existing and something being noticed, which partly accounts for his famous privileging of black and white. When unnecessary distractions arise from ranges of colours are removed, the impact of an image can be multiplied.

In efforts to define- or perhaps contain it, the practice of photography has been laboriously distinguished from other visual forms and practices, particularly painting and film. Adams is interesting because he refuses the forces of classification, not static enough for photography, too theatrical and contrived for regular representational convention. In the article “Looking at Photographs,” Victor Burgin writes:

The signifying system of photography, like that of classical painting, at once depicted a scene and the gaze of the spectator, an object and a viewing subject…. Whatever the object depicted, the manner of its depiction accords with laws of geometric projection which imply a unique “point of view”. It is the position of point-of-view, occupied in fact by the camera, which is bestowed upon the spectator….
Even more emphatically than painting, photography maps an animated, infinitely subjective and ever changing world into a two dimensional, static image of a finite moment. Classical and highly stylised black and white images, such as those that have made Adams most famous, take the abstraction one step further by removing all colour from our inescapably multicoloured world.

The use of colour in photography has been shunned repeatedly by many purists working to a realist agenda. Compared to black and white it is considered more superficial, crassly realistic, mundane, less abstract, ultimately less artistic. Altering light and shade in the darkroom enables a degree of artistic dishonesty. The camera may not lie, but the photographer very frequently does, especially the photographer with an artistic agenda. Whenever he dodges shadow detail and fires up highlights, increasing contrast or altering tone, Adams exercises and demonstrates a contrivance that amounts to a sort of visual poetry. Adams is on record confessing to severe manipulation of Moonrise over Hernandez, (below) but more significant still is probably his interest in subjects which lend themselves so well to monochrome representation.

The night scene is extraordinarily affecting, partly because, as a genre, it is most famous for high contrast monochrome. It is the only time in our world really does seem black and white, so the image is almost an accurate representation, but not quite. It is the slightly alienating quality of this image, the slight lack of fit between representation and mental expectation, which makes it so beautiful. Many of Adams’s images are arresting because they are tuned to the timing of our mental calculations: they are ready to predict and confound our expectations by subtle acts of artifice and they play constantly, and good-naturedly, on the moment of our realisation. The monochrome of Adams is not a symptom of self-aggrandising pride in his iconic artist status, but a device to play with emphasis and expectation, a way of forcing us to look at the world in different ways.

As both teacher and technician, Adams is probably most well known for testing Edwin Land’s Polaroid film technology and assisting aspirant artists with the workings of his own Zone System of photography, something he developed while teaching at the Art Centre School in Los Angeles in 1941. The Zone System was designed to assist photographers with manipulating the range of grey-scale tones in their negatives, through the use of a light meter. The system accounts for Adams’ enchanting range of distinct shades of grey, and use of black and white in his 1958 photograph, Aspens (below).
As an artist, Adams encouraged photographers to manipulate the tones of their work during the developing and printing stages. Very significantly, he often compared printmaking to a musical performance, noting similarities between the tonal values of a negative and the notes on a musical score. As with musical scores, prints were opened up the interpretation and change once they had been produced. Adams’ vision seems to have been a democratic one; he promoted an open attitude in the arts- not jealously guarding his techniques but teaching and sharing them- and his openness and humility is surely reflected in his unusual preference of natural subject matter.

Nevertheless Adams’s technical accomplishments often distract from his original intentions- he hoped that many of his photographs would be expressive of his radical aesthetic and political ideals. Aesthetically, Adams was profoundly influenced by Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz promoted a photographic philosophy of the “pure”, asserting that his photographic prints represented “equivalents” of his feelings. Similarly, Adams claimed that art photographers created “a statement that goes beyond the subject” and captured “an inspired moment on film.” Art photographers were compared favourably to regular photographers. If a photographer from each party came out with an identical image of a scene, the art photographer would be preferable, in Adams’ eyes, by virtue of his philosophy- his attitude- simply more authentic. To Adams, ordinary photographs were mere “visual diaries” or “reminders of experience,”

While the landscapes that I have photographed in Yosemite are recognized by most people and, of course the subject is an important part of the pictures, they are not “realistic.” All my pictures are optically very accurate – I use pretty good lenses -150; but they are quite unrealistic in terms of [tonal] values. A more realistic, simple snapshot captures the image but misses everything else. I want a picture to reflect not only the forms, but [also] what I had seen and felt at the moment of exposure.


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