Ansel Adams at 111

The Tetons and the Snake River by Ansel Adams. Image in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Tetons and the Snake River by Ansel Adams. Image in the pub­lic domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ansel Adams, born on 20 Feb 1902, would have been 111 years old today. His approach to pho­to­graphy, requir­ing a pre­cise tech­nique, coupled with a sens­it­ive heart, and a per­cept­ive mind, is as fresh today as it was in his hey­day, in the early part of the 20th cen­tury. Even a curs­ory search for his name on the web­sites pop­u­lar with the more involved pho­to­graph­ers, APUG, Large Format Photography Forum, or, yields 20,000 unique posts and com­ments about him, many of which are recent.

Why is Ansel Adams so rel­ev­ant today? In short: Adams con­tin­ues to inspire pho­to­graph­ers. He has been inspir­ing me for a long time, so let me share my per­spect­ive with you, as my small way of say­ing a thank you to this amaz­ing man.

I think there are three aspects to what makes Adams unique in the can­on of the most import­ant pho­to­graph­ers of all time: his artist­ic style, his pre­cise teach­ings, and a happy life. It is the inter­twined nature of those three that makes the man so spe­cial — and so inspirational.

Adams’s bold, yet sens­it­ive, some­what roman­ti­cised style in his pho­to­graph­ic art of land­scape, shown in a vis­ion of a per­fec­tion that may have not even exis­ted at the time he took his most fam­ous pic­tures, like Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, or The Tetons and the Snake River, is strik­ing for its pur­ity and bal­ance. He was not afraid to break new grounds, for example by visu­al­ising, and then print­ing, his skies dark, or even deep black — if you have only seen his prints in a book, or on a com­puter screen, you must try to see one at an exhib­i­tion. Nothing will pre­pare you for the visu­al and emo­tion­al impact of those skies when you see them in his real, sil­ver-gelat­in prints! Sometimes, he felt he had to erase the impur­ity of what he con­sidered to be human-made scars on nature, like the let­ters LP still barely show­ing in Winter Sunrise, taken from the town of Lone Pine in California, which I see as an expres­sion of his polit­ic­al lean­ing towards con­ser­va­tion­ism. No mat­ter what the sub­ject might have been, he prin­ted his pho­to­graphs to a level of express­ive and tech­nic­al per­fec­tion that tra­di­tion­al, wet-dark­room pho­to­graph­ers have always been striv­ing for. Even as a mas­ter, he is known for hav­ing enjoyed the pleas­ure of accom­plish­ment, when he had finally arrived at a print he was work­ing on, just like a child would. We all know that great feel­ing of sat­is­fac­tion one gets when we cre­ate some­thing that has reached the peak of our present abil­it­ies. However, his con­stant pur­suit of mas­tery is as an import­ant part of his style, as any more eas­ily defin­able char­ac­ter­ist­ic would be.

Learning through prac­tice, which he has always emphas­ised, is key to any craft, espe­cially such a manu­al one as tra­di­tion­al, film-based pho­to­graphy. However, one has to start some­where, and this is where the second aspect of what is so unique about Adams comes to mind: his teach­ings. Adams wrote a lot, but noth­ing in pho­to­graphy books quite com­pares to his tri­logy that sum­mar­ises all of his tech­nique — far, far more than just the Zone System, and all of it in the shortest pos­sible amount of space: The Camera, The Negative, and The Print. These are con­sist­ently the most often recom­men­ded three pieces of read­ing that any aspir­ing ana­logue pho­to­graph­er would hear about. It is not easy to think through everything that a per­son knows about a sub­ject, and it is even harder to put it in a small amount of space. It is much easi­er to write big­ger, thick­er books that are pop­u­lar nowadays, than to edit our thoughts down to just the bare essen­tials, all val­id­ated through own exper­i­ence, logic, and sci­ence. There is no pad­ding there, every page is as use­ful today, as it has been in the past, even if some product names may have changed. However, it was not just the books. Adams was con­stantly run­ning work­shops, in which he taught his tech­nique, through­out his life. When I was going through my pains of want­ing to improve the qual­ity of my pho­to­graphy in 1999, it was those three books of his that have helped me learn how to work with large format film, and how to strive for an express­ive print. Sometimes I wish I had lived in his days to have atten­ded one of his work­shops. I am very for­tu­nate, how­ever, that I still have a chance to learn from his best stu­dents, whom he chose to be his assist­ants: John Sexton, and Alan Ross.

As he points out in his won­der­fully hon­est, funny, and a mov­ing book, An Autobiography, he has not really been fin­an­cially suc­cess­ful until well into his 60s. Many may not know that he has nev­er earned the astro­nom­ic­al sums his prints com­manded — those prices were earned by art deal­ers and those who had the wis­dom to buy from him earli­er in his life. Even in his very last years, he would only charge $800 for his finest prints — his per­son­al record — know­ing they could imme­di­ately be resold for ten times, or more, than that amount. He was acutely aware of this — he once gif­ted print of his to a friend of mine remind­ing him: Don’t sell it now, keep it, it will help you buy a house one day. Nonetheless, he has man­aged to make ends meet, liv­ing without excess, but liv­ing in what his auto­bi­o­graphy oozes with: hap­pi­ness. Was there a secret to his life?

What makes Ansel Adams so inspir­ing in the 21st cen­tury is pre­cisely that he was able to live a full life that many people would envy now: doing mostly what he loved, and earn­ing just enough to hap­pily get by — cer­tainly not liv­ing in poverty, but clearly without the grave entrap­ments of wealth. It must have taken a lot of wis­dom to pare down his needs and to focus on what was essen­tial, in itself a mark of char­ac­ter. Though I have nev­er met him, based on all that I read, saw, and heard about him, I real­ised that his life was focused on his artist­ic expres­sion, which had sparked the hap­pi­ness, and was fur­ther fuelled by the won­der­ful response he was get­ting when he was teach­ing oth­ers, at his work­shops and through his writ­ings. I see that Adams had cre­ated a won­der­ful bal­ance in his life, where each ele­ment was in uni­son with one anoth­er, help­ing him feel con­tent even in the toughest of times.

Perhaps that is a recipe for a happy life. It inter­twines oth­er­wise sep­ar­ate ele­ments: artist­ic cre­ativ­ity, per­sist­ently dis­cip­lined think­ing, and an oblig­a­tion to relent­lessly pass use­ful skills to oth­ers in the soci­ety. When I dream, I like to think of myself as still being able to teach oth­ers when I am in my 70s and bey­ond. I hope to be rel­ev­ant because of my skills, and because of my work — maybe less because of IT, which will change and which will be for­got­ten, but hope­fully more because of my pho­to­graphy, through which I wish to share a way of see­ing the world as a com­plex, abstract, yet a hap­pily con­tinu­ing place.

Happy Birthday, Ansel! Thank you for inspir­ing me.


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