No landscape photographer is as iconic to the genre as Ansel Adams. But can someone who worked primarily in black and white and whose heyday was over half a century ago still teach us anything today?
I had the chance to see an exhibition of some of his more iconic images a while back, having long been a fan but never really having the chance to see a collection of his actual prints up until that point. The experience gave me the opportunity to answer this question for myself. And I found that the answer was a resounding yes.
A Hard-to-Describe Quality
One of the first things that struck me was a quality that I can only call the “quietness” of the images. The compositions in his work were elegant but simple, and the scenes just drew me in. They invited me to look closer and contemplate. To notice the lights and darks and the play of the light across the land. The shapes and patterns of nature. I think this is partly a quality of black-and-white images themselves and partly a characteristic of his images in particular. The monochrome prints did not scream for attention the way many colors, and even black-and-white images, so often do these days, with bold color and/or dramatic perspectives. They had a simplicity and “quietness.” Kind of like nature itself.
If anything did shout at me, it was the craftsmanship of his prints. You could tell that meticulous care had been taken to achieve what he wanted in the final print. He is famously quoted as saying, using a music analogy, that “the negative is the score, and the print is the performance.” This philosophy was evident in his work.
The camera he used and the darkroom he worked in for “post-processing” were intimately connected. As many photographers know, he developed a very precise system of capturing an image and processing the resulting negative and print known as the Zone System, which was part of the training for any of us who cut our chops in the film era. This was a process where the end result was an image wherein all of the tonalities were precisely controlled, resulting in a well-crafted final image that showed what the artist wanted to show in the way he wanted to portray it.
I see our modern tools as an extension of and very influenced by what Ansel did with his darkroom. Obviously, he would be using Photoshop or some equivalent if he were alive today. Personally, I think he would be thrilled and a little envious of the amount of control that we photographers can now enjoy in crafting the final image. I was thinking of this as I created the above image of Pikes Peak in Silver Efex Pro, something that I was inspired to do after seeing this show. Normally, I had shown this image in color, but I like the black and white so much better now.
I do think that the importance that our tools have taken on today is magnified. Too often, the temptation is to look for the next piece of software or tip or technique that will get us the desired effect or a cool new look. So often, the attention becomes upon the tool itself and not as much on what we are trying to express in our images. It’s easy to forget that mastery of a craft does not lie on that path, but more with practice and time.
Another obvious thing that Adams excelled at was his use of light. He was a pioneer. Studying his work is a study of the use of light, both in where to have it and where not to. The latter point is worth considering in an age of HDR, where the tendency can be to have light and detail everywhere simply because we can.
Here is another beautiful example of his mastery of light and shadow: Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine.
I was struck by another quality in his work. He seemed not afraid to experiment and shoot something that was more “out of the box,” as in this simple abstract, Water and Foam. Landscape photography today has become so much about the big, wide, grand image that I personally think we see too little of closer-in details such as this. But these smaller details help to tell a more complete story and can at the least provide an outlet for personal expression and experimentation.
A Different Age
In the broadest sense, I think that this show gave me a glimpse into the differences between his time period and ours. He lived in an age where time and meticulous craftsmanship were among the most important parts of the aesthetic for landscape photography. He used a big, slow, view camera that could be awkward and cumbersome in the field. You couldn’t just snap off a quick shot to check exposure and composition. You were forced to spend time and pay attention.
We, on the other hand, live in the age of speed and convenience. It’s easy to try things and get instant feedback, but there can be a trap of not paying enough attention at the time and taking the attitude of “I’ll fix it in post.”
We are also living in a time of technical innovation and fast-paced change. With this constant change, there comes a hyper-focus on what tools we are using, whether it is what camera system, or what post-processing software, or perhaps what Photoshop plugins we employ. There’s a drive both on our part and on the part of advertisers who want to sell us their products to always look for tools and tips and what is the latest and greatest gear to have. There is nothing particularly wrong with that, but it’s also not going to make us fundamentally better artists. A little more time and attention to detail will take us a lot further in that regard.
Another big difference is that we are in a time when everyone can get their work seen by a huge number of people, and it’s a natural consequence that, in an effort to stand out, the “wow” factor becomes a much more important dynamic in our work.
If I had to summarize the lessons I learned from seeing this show, I think I would say that it’s valuable to slow down and put some extra time and care into the final image, to be less concerned with what tools I’m using and more concerned with how I’m using them to craft the final piece. And mostly, I should take care to make sure my work projects what I want it to and is not just an exercise in “hey, look at this!”
Also, don’t be afraid of big jet-black shadows.
See the Real Thing
Hopefully, all of this goes to show the value in closely examining the work of prominent artists of any medium, and gaining insight into how it might fit into your own creative work. I hope this article will inspire readers to visit a gallery or museum and see and contemplate the work of an accomplished master. And it should be noted that there is something decidedly different in seeing the actual physical work as opposed to seeing it online. That tactile experience, I would argue, is part of the value. The experience can be illuminating and thought-provoking.