Ansel Adams: Analog Photography and the Creative Process Revisited

I recently visited the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, to view an exhibit of Ansel Adams works titled Ansel Adams: Eloquent Light. The show ran from May 29 through November 7, 2010. In total, I made four trips to the museum to see this exhibit.

Ansel Easton Adams was born in early 1902 to parents Charles and Olive Adams in San Francisco, California. As a boy, his family traveled to Yosemite (which had become a national park in 1890) when he was about 14 years old, an experience which provided life-long inspiration. As a young man he studied to become a concert pianist, but was hampered by arthritis in his hands.

Adams first acknowledged photograph is an image dating to 1927. His formative photography years were in a period of photographic innovation; new films were being introduced, having replaced dry plates… photography was not yet 100 years old. There was a tremendous amount of knowledge and insight to be gained in the exposure and development of film images, which Adams pioneered into what is now commonly referred to as the zone system of photography.

Adams worked in numerous photographic genres over his lifetime, but nature/landscape is certainly the one he is most renown for. Additionally though, he made portraits (including a rich image of American photographer and filmmaker Paul Strand), advertising images, and still life images. His foray into color photographic imagery was for both commercial and personal endeavors, although in my personal view his color work is largely unsatisfying, I suppose because it simply looks like a good color photo to me. He was unable to adapt his black and white zone system ideals to color film materials. Conversely, Adams black and white work is iconic and instantly recognizable by millions of people around the world. Adams died in 1984 from heart problems aggravated by cancer.

Moonrise
Hernandez, New Mexico

Ansel Adams, 1941
Black and White Photograph
Approximately 15” x 19” matted to approximately 24” x 30”

Arguably Adams most famous image was shot after a day of unsatisfying photography in the Chama Valley of northern New Mexico. Driving back to the lodging in Santa Fe, Adams happened upon the scene of the sunset and reflected sunlight lighting the town of Hernandez. The light was ethereal; illuminating the crosses of the cemetery, delineating the adobe church and scattered buildings. The range of mountains on the horizon line are capped with a light snowfall, and framed with clouds and moon. The moon is indeed rising1, and years later would pinpoint the date and time of the photo. Adams framed the shot with a large portion of the very dark sky to balance the foreground elements beautifully, classically referencing the rule of thirds. The image has to me both symmetrical and asymmetrical elements; my eye travels in a “Z” pattern back and across the layers of elements. The rich silver gelatin print has tremendous luminance, depth and balance.

I have read several accounts of the making of this image, two slightly different versions by Adams himself, and one from his assistant and biographer, Mary Street Alinder2. All accounts contain this information: Adams was driving the group back to Santa Fe when he saw the light falling on the lonesome town. He almost had a wreck stopping the car in the roadside ditch, and began yelling for help assembling camera, film, and light meter. The light meter was never found before the image was made, and Adams estimated the scene exposure based on the luminance value of the moon3. There was only time for one exposure of film; before he could make a second image, the light faded. With the filter conversion factor and an exposure that somewhat underexposed the film, the final negative proved to be one of the most difficult for Adams to print. Adams later regretted his exposure choice and wished for an extra half an f/stop (50% more) exposure to add detail to the foreground.

Over the decades that Adams printed Moonrise, his personal vision of the image evolved. The print shown in the Amon Carter is at least the fourth original print I’ve been able to view in my lifetime. It is certainly the richest, most vibrant of the prints, with velvety-black sky and shimmering light reflected in the crosses of the cemetery. Once, a few years after the image was made, he was convinced by his assistant Mary Street Alinder to make and show a “straight” print of the image as a teaching tool4 in his workshops.

Adams was not always as meticulous about record keeping as he was with other facets of photography. As years passed, he variously attributed several different years to the making of the image. In his book Examples, The Making of 40 Photographs, Adams tells of Dr. David Elmore of the High Altitude Observatory at Boulder, Colorado making a definitive calculation on the date of the photograph. Through a site visit and computer calculations, it was decided that the image was made on October 31, 1941 at approximately 4:05 p.m. Ever after, Adams accepted this scientific endeavor as the definitive date for the image5.


Still Life
San Francisco, California

Ansel Adams, c. 1932
Black and White Photograph
Approximately 15” x 191/2” matted to approximately 24” x 30”

A work rarely seen in the exhibitions I have attended, Adams Still Life is a direct contrast to Moonrise, and the almost universally accepted notion that Adams was exclusively a landscape photographer. An assemblage of objects that could be found in any kitchen, Adams grouped a liquor bottle, a milk jug, eggs and an egg slicer for a natural light exposure with his view camera. The natural light was provided by a skylight, and was supplemented by a single white reflector6.

Adams appears to have been using this still life as an exercise in seeing. The delicate tonality and well-rendered shapes tell of time spent under the camera dark cloth, gazing at the reversed and upside-down image. He spent quite a bit of time manipulating both the objects and the shape of the view camera in order to achieve the final result. This image from 1932 was created before his groundbreaking work on the zone system, and was achieved through exposing three sheets of film, each at a different time7 (he knew nothing at this point in his career about reciprocity failure).

Studying this image I was struck by the soft and smooth reproduction of the perfectly peeled egg under the cutting wire. Up close, you can see that the wires are pushing into the egg slightly, giving the mental impression of the upcoming action of slicing it. The shadows are quite luminous, and there is a large amount of information to be gleaned from the print, a facet of the 8” x 10” negative size. This setup Adams created is a very pure and simple of way to work with photography (or painting, for that matter)… a single light source, augmented by a reflector. For “studio” type photos, it doesn’t get much simpler than this, yet the resulting image is dramatic, dynamic, and very memorable.

Looking at these two images in a single exhibition is interesting. In comparison, they are both images made on black and white film, both with an 8” x 10” camera, and both are printed roughly twice life size, which is a very minor enlargement indeed when talking about a piece of film this large. The prints are both exquisite in detail and depth, and represent the artist’s inner vision in printing.

However, in contrast I think these two are about as far apart as an artist can get in their work. Still Life was created with forethought, careful planning and execution. Three exposures were made at different exposure times to insure the best density negative for printing. The scene could easily have been shot again the next day, or even day after day, to get it right (assuming Adams had a good supply of hard-boiled eggs).

Moonrise was, simply put, a grab shot. There was no planning, no time to waste, and problematic events occurred to hamper the creation of the image. There was barely time to set up a view camera, focus and frame the image. A single sheet of film, underexposed at least half an f/stop due to a missing light meter, is all that physically came away from the scene. The artist’s mind that made Moonrise was quite different in 1941 than it was in 1932 when it made Still Life… the 1941 mind knew there were great technical problems to overcome in the processing and printing of the very precious single negative, and immediately set forth in a series of actions designed to overcome as much as possible the less-than-perfect image captured. The 1932 mind would probably have not been able to process the negative to a printable form, and certainly Moonrise would not have been up to the standards Adams set for work to be displayed.

There is a reason why Ansel Adams’ body of black and white photographic works is the single most recognizable in the history of photography: focus. Not the type of focus obtained with the view cameras geared standards, but focus of intent. This singular focus and awe that he obviously felt when he viewed the world is as relevant today as it was in 1941.

Footnotes

  1. Adams, Ansel. Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. New York Graphic Society, Little, Brown and Company, Canada, 1983. Page 43.
  2. Alinder, Mary Street. Ansel Adams: Some Thoughts About Ansel and About Moonrise”. Alinder Gallery, 1999. Sourced from www.photo.net at http://photo.net/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=001Wam
  3. Adams, Ansel. Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. New York Graphic Society, Little, Brown and Company, Canada, 1983. Page 41.
  4. Alinder, Mary Street. Ansel Adams: Some Thoughts About Ansel and About Moonrise”. Alinder Gallery, 1999. Sourced from www.photo.net at http://photo.net/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=001Wam
  5. Adams, Ansel. Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. New York Graphic Society, Little, Brown and Company, Canada, 1983. Page 43.
  6. Adams, Ansel. Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. New York Graphic Society, Little, Brown and Company, Canada, 1983. Page 113.
  7. Adams, Ansel. Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. New York Graphic Society, Little, Brown and Company, Canada, 1983. Page 113.

Bibliography

  1. Amon Carter Museum Exhibit Ansel Adams: Eloquent Light. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX, May 29 through November 7, 2010.
  2. Adams, Ansel. Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. New York Graphic Society, Little, Brown and Company, Canada, 1983.
  3. Alinder, Mary Street. Ansel Adams: Some Thoughts About Ansel and About Moonrise”. Alinder Gallery, 1999. Sourced on November 9, 2010 from www.photo.net at http://photo.net/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=001Wam
  4. Alinder, Mary Street. (Unknown date.) Retrieved November 10, 2010 from www.alindergallery.com (description of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico print for sale).
  5. Press Release, author unattributed: Amon Carter Museum Exhibits Ansel Adams Photographs. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX, April 26, 2010. Sourced on November 10, 2010 from http://www.cartermuseum.org/press/releases/amon-carter-museum-exhibits-ansel-adams-photographs
  6. Attributed: Burt Chernow. Ansel Adams: Classic Images. Housatonic Museum, Bridgeport, CT, undated. Sourced November 10, 2010 from http://www.hcc.commnet.edu/artmuseum/anseladams/details/moonrise.html
  7. Ansel Adams: American Experience. A PBS documentary film by Ric Burns, TV 2002. Sourced in DVD format from www.netflix.com.

© 2010 Britt Stokes

Comments

  1. Ansel Adams was a most interesting person. He would enjoy looking at HDRI photographs, which is what he was doing with his zone system. It is just a little easier to do now, plus it can be done in color which he was not able to accomplish.We mow have Clyde Butcher in Florida who was inspired by Ansel Adams and is taking some of same types of photographs that Adams did.

  2. Nice story Britt. I too visited the exhibit the last summer while I was in town. Great show. It pulled on a lot of heart strings. Glad you got a chance to view it and enlighten readers.