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Adams Remembered

Posted by acdtest on February 10, 2003

Adams Remembered

his month marks the 101st anniversary of the birth of the celebrated American landscape photographer Ansel Adams. The anniversary is one I ought to remember as the transcendent work of this great artist played a not insignificant role in my life; in fact was responsible for one of its turning points.

After spending years training for a career in music, I quit conservatory having convinced myself — rightly, as I then thought (and today still think) despite protestations to the contrary by mentors and teachers — I lacked the native gift required to excel in the field, and as a matter of necessity turned instead to the world of business where, to my utter surprise and mild horror, I became fairly well-off (if not genuinely rich) fairly quickly. After spending some ten years at this, I glimpsed into my future, and was there confronted by the bleak and depressing prospect that the most my life would ever accomplish would be to make more money. Well, money is important only when it’s lacking, and as one of my favorite movie lines goes (this one from Citizen Kane, and as verbatim as I can remember it): “It’s no trick to make a lot of money — if all you want to do is to make a lot of money.”

So, at the ripe age of 30, I left the world of business, and struck out on a new career in the world of the arts — sort of. What I did was take up a career as a photographer of architecture. This seemed for me a natural as architecture was one of my lifelong interests, I already had a secure knowledge of basic photographic technique which knowledge I was certain I could expand easily to become expert, and by my taking on a well-chosen clientele I felt certain I could earn an at least bread-and-butter living by my efforts.

And so it worked out just as I’d envisioned — better than I envisioned — until one day I encountered an original print of this by Adams (click on thumbnail for larger image):

and I was lost. I then and there abandoned photographing architecture forever, and embarked on a course that for years after was determined to follow in Adams’s footsteps.

So what’s with that photograph?, you may ask It’s simply a pretty picture. And indeed it’s nothing more than that — until, that is, one has seen at first hand an original Adams print of that pretty picture, whereupon the pretty picture immediately becomes something infinitely greater; something almost unimaginable for one with no prior experience of an original Adams print. The initial experience is one of aesthetic shock; or better, aesthetic arrest, to use Joyce’s language. One even has some difficulty seeing the print as a photograph so physically different does it appear from an ordinary black-and-white photographic image. The blacks are impossibly deep; the whites, impossibly radiant; the gradation of tones from deepest black to most brilliant white, impossibly rich, subtle, and delicately detailed; and the lambently luminous whole so seemingly three-dimensional one imagines one could reach one’s hand beyond the print’s surface and deep into the image itself.

All that is the product of Adams’s prodigious technical skill, and as well an essential element of the uncopyable core of his singular visual genius. That technical skill can be acquired by most dedicated photographers possessing a good photographic eye, but even when acquired is but groundwork only; a matter of craft the possession of which is expected of any serious photographer working in black-and-white. Adams’s art, however, goes beyond — way beyond — questions of craft in his mature landscape work (his early work is, well, early work, reflecting the perversely in-fashion painterly look of the time, and his non-landscape work unremarkable).

At their best, Adams’s prints of landscape subjects transfigure and transcend their subject matter, and render in the processed image not the subject’s outward appearance, but its mystical center as Adams “previsualized” it when looking at the framed view of the scene on the ground glass of his large-format view camera. (“Previsualization” is Adams’s term for seeing in the mind’s eye the finished processed print of the image seen on the ground glass.) “I look upon the lines and forms of Nature as if they were but the vast expression of ideas within the Cosmic Mind,” said Adams. Indeed, and it was precisely that, not the “lines and forms of Nature” which he captured in his prints, thereby permitting us to experience it as well.

I’ve never met a serious photographer, myself included, who, for the first time ensorcelled by an Adams’s print, did not initially imagine he could exactly match its qualities if he worked assiduously at learning all the necessary techniques. Indeed, Adams himself fostered and encouraged such an idea, and enthusiastically shared his methods and techniques with others, wrote detailed books on the subject that are still earnestly studied classics in the field, and was generous almost to a fault with his time in giving personal help and guidance to other serious photographers. Thousands — again, myself included — have benefited from his teaching, but none — not one — has ever succeeded in producing a finished print of a landscape subject that could be mistaken by an experienced eye for a genuine Adams-visualized and -made print.

There’s a famous story of the great critic and photography historian Beaumont Newhall who one day, while thumbing through a magazine, unexpectedly came across an Adams landscape image the original print of which was known to him. His fresh apprehension of the image made him literally fall back in awe on the couch on which he was sitting, murmuring to himself that Adams must surely be the greatest photographer who ever lived.

The story is not apocryphal, and in his assessment Newhall was not far wrong.


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