What I Learnt from Ansel Adams

Tree and Sheep Overlooking the River Dart

Tree and Sheep Overlooking the River Dart*

Not, unfortunately, from seeing and hearing the great American landscape photographer personally but from his autobiography published just a few years before his death in 1984.  The book, as well as being a an enjoyable and captivating story of the life of a working photographer at the start of the 20th century, is also full of good, solid advice for today’s photographers.  Advice that is probably more relevant than ever in a world of throw away images where we dwell on photographs for milliseconds before swiping up/down or right/left and assigning them to the great bit-bin of digital trash.  Adams made images to last, both in terms of their content, choosing timeless themes of landscapes and nature, as well as in how he printed and published images for future generations to appreciate.

Ansel Adams was born in San Francisco in 1902.  He initially trained as a pianist, which was to be his intended career, until a trip with his family to Yosemite in 1916.  He wrote of his first view of the valley: “the splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious…. One wonder after another descended upon us…. There was light everywhere…. A new era began for me.”  His father gave him his first camera during that stay, a Kodak Brownie box camera, and he proceeded to photograph anything and everything with his usual hyperactive enthusiasm.  From then on Adams embarked on a career in photography revisiting Yosemite, as well as many other National Parks, hundreds of times over the course of his life and amassing a huge number of negatives as well as publishing books and prints and exhibiting his work all over the world.

Adams was not only a photographer but a great conservationist as well.  He was a member of the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club, the influential environmental organisation founded by John Muir 1892.  Adams tirelessly lobbied to create national parks and protect the environment from destructive development projects.  He used his photography to show us not just the beauty of the world but what would be lost if we did not protect it.

As well as taking (or making) photographs Adams also did much to raise the status of photography as an art form, both in his work with galleries like the Museum of Modern Art in New York and also through his writing and teaching.  It is in his writing that not only does his passion for photography come across so strongly but also his ability to explain its importance and legitimacy as an art form.  His great insights into the medium are a rich source of knowledge that we could all learn from, a few snippets of which I share here.

1. You make a photograph, you don’t shoot or take it.

This might seem a trivial distinction, what difference does it make as long as the image is captured?  Adams point though is this.  The terms ‘shoot’ and ‘take’ imply a conquest or an appropriation over something that is not yours.  The photographer’s job is not to take something away but to create something from what is already there.  Photography, as much as anything, is an attitude.  It’s about building an empathy with your subject, no matter if it is an inanimate object or a living and breathing being.  Once empathy and understanding is achieved then you can begin to make great art.

2. Photography should be a collaborative undertaking.

The popular image of the lone photographer working in war torn parts of the world, trekking over rainy hilltops or working in isolation in her darkroom though at least partly true is not the whole story.  Photography, like any creative endeavour, is about sharing.  Both the photographer sharing her knowledge but also being willing to learn from and be inspired by the work of others.  This means not just work of other photographers but in the wider creative and commercial world as well.  This is definitely something Adams excelled at.  He seemed to know personally just about every great photographer that was alive at the same time as him** and was humble enough to explain how they helped him form and shape his own view of the world through photography.

3. Your photographs should reflect your values.

Adams said “A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed, and is, thereby, a true manifestation of what one feels about life in its entirety.”  Adams was not just a passionate photographer but was also passionate about nature and tried to reflect both the grandeur as well as the minutiae of the natural world that he experienced and observed in the images he created.  He saw photography as a means of “expressing [this] affirmation and of achieving an ultimate happiness and faith”.

4. Be prepared for the unexpected.

Adams is probably most famous for his large format images of Yosemite taken with heavy box cameras requiring considerable perseverance, not to mention strength, to haul up mountain sides and along rocky pathways to capture one or two images before the light changes and the opportunity for an image passes.  Sometime however a transient images makes an impression on the mind and you need to be ready to capture it.  Adams relates a story of when he was driving with Edward Weston and passed a large field on “whose distant edge was an interesting assemblage of weather-beaten planks and posts”.  They stopped the car retracing their steps and went back to make the picture.  You always need to be prepared to capture that transient image and these days of course, with small carry anywhere camera, not to mention smart phones, there really is no excuse to not get that image.

5. Photography can tell the truth but can also be twisted and deformed more than any other art form.

In a letter to Dorothea Lange in 1962 Adams writes of his concern at how photography, when it tells the truth, can be magnificent, but when it is twisted and deformed it can be compromised more than any art form.  Adams was talking about the documentary photographers of the day and how they focussed on ugliness, squalor and despair rather than the beauty of nature and the world of man.  He wanted photography to show how we can have a better life and not to just “suggest the unfortunate aspects of existence”.  In many ways Adams was an idealist, perhaps because of his somewhat cosseted upbringing and prolonged exposure to the happier aspects of nature.  I wonder what he would think of how today’s photographers can literally manipulate any image and change it for their own means and give almost whatever message they want?

6. Photography, like any art form, requires hard work and lots of practice, there are no short cuts.

It’s generally recognised that in order to be good at something, whether it be computer programming, brain surgery or playing a musical instrument, you need to practice.  How much practice makes you good or even great is a source of constant debate but it does not seem unreasonable that the more you do something the better you’ll get at it.  Adams makes the point that for some reason photographers don’t think they need to practice much in order to be good, or preferably great, at their art.  In photography, more than any other art form, people seem to think that because they own a camera then they must be a photographer – something that is probably more endemic today than ever.  Why is this?  After all if I buy myself a Fender Stratocaster I don’t automatically become a guitarist or if I buy some paints and brushes I don’t become a painter.  The tools do not make’th the artist.  Adams said that “the siren calls of the hobby obscures the necessary extractions of art” meaning that we can get too seduced by the technology and buying gear for the sake of it than practicing how to make great images.

7. Hasty visits to a place can result in inconsequential images.

As he grew older Adams became less interested in travel to other parts of the world preferring instead to concentrate on creating images of his own part of the world along the California coast of which he said he could “work for a century, exploring with eye and lens”.  Whilst you might point out that California is a particularly photogenic part of the world to see out your days in Adams does have a point when he says “one must live in a region for a considerable time and absorb its character and spirit before the work can truly reflect the experience of the place”.  Maybe this is something we should all consider more.  Not just because no matter where we live there is almost certain to be a photographic treasure trove to be had on our doorsteps if we just look in the right way but also because as the impact of global tourism becomes better understood we could all benefit from staying at home a bit more.

* The image in this post is my own little homage to some of Ansel Adams’ tree images and was made using a Fujifilm X100F which I have had for just over a year now and will be publishing a 12 month review of shortly.

** Margaret Bourke-White, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jacques Henri Latrigue, Dorothea Lange, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston,  to name but a few.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

A WordPress.com Website.
%d bloggers like this: