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 photo.net, 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.