Is Ansel Adams Still Relevant?

No landscape photographer is as iconic to the genre as Ansel Adams. But can someone who worked primarily in black and white and whose heyday was over half a century ago still teach us anything today?

I had the chance to see an exhibition of some of his more iconic images a while back, having long been a fan but never really having the chance to see a collection of his actual prints up until that point. The experience gave me the opportunity to answer this question for myself. And I found that the answer was a resounding yes.

A Hard-to-Describe Quality

One of the first things that struck me was a quality that I can only call the “quietness” of the images. The compositions in his work were elegant but simple, and the scenes just drew me in. They invited me to look closer and contemplate. To notice the lights and darks and the play of the light across the land. The shapes and patterns of nature. I think this is partly a quality of black-and-white images themselves and partly a characteristic of his images in particular. The monochrome prints did not scream for attention the way many colors, and even black-and-white images, so often do these days, with bold color and/or dramatic perspectives. They had a simplicity and "quietness." Kind of like nature itself.

View of Valley from Mountain, "Canyon de Chelly" National Monument, Arizona.

Craftsmanship

If anything did shout at me, it was the craftsmanship of his prints. You could tell that meticulous care had been taken to achieve what he wanted in the final print. He is famously quoted as saying, using a music analogy, that “the negative is the score, and the print is the performance.” This philosophy was evident in his work.

The camera he used and the darkroom he worked in for “post-processing” were intimately connected. As many photographers know, he developed a very precise system of capturing an image and processing the resulting negative and print known as the Zone System, which was part of the training for any of us who cut our chops in the film era. This was a process where the end result was an image wherein all of the tonalities were precisely controlled, resulting in a well-crafted final image that showed what the artist wanted to show in the way he wanted to portray it.

I see our modern tools as an extension of and very influenced by what Ansel did with his darkroom. Obviously, he would be using Photoshop or some equivalent if he were alive today. Personally, I think he would be thrilled and a little envious of the amount of control that we photographers can now enjoy in crafting the final image. I was thinking of this as I created the above image of Pikes Peak in Silver Efex Pro, something that I was inspired to do after seeing this show. Normally, I had shown this image in color, but I like the black and white so much better now.

I do think that the importance that our tools have taken on today is magnified. Too often, the temptation is to look for the next piece of software or tip or technique that will get us the desired effect or a cool new look. So often, the attention becomes upon the tool itself and not as much on what we are trying to express in our images. It's easy to forget that mastery of a craft does not lie on that path, but more with practice and time.

Front View of Entrance, "Church, Taos Pueblo National Historic Landmark, New Mexico, 1942"

Light

Another obvious thing that Adams excelled at was his use of light. He was a pioneer. Studying his work is a study of the use of light, both in where to have it and where not to. The latter point is worth considering in an age of HDR, where the tendency can be to have light and detail everywhere simply because we can.

Here is another beautiful example of his mastery of light and shadow: Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine.

Experimentation

I was struck by another quality in his work. He seemed not afraid to experiment and shoot something that was more "out of the box," as in this simple abstract, Water and Foam. Landscape photography today has become so much about the big, wide, grand image that I personally think we see too little of closer-in details such as this. But these smaller details help to tell a more complete story and can at the least provide an outlet for personal expression and experimentation.

A Different Age

In the broadest sense, I think that this show gave me a glimpse into the differences between his time period and ours. He lived in an age where time and meticulous craftsmanship were among the most important parts of the aesthetic for landscape photography. He used a big, slow, view camera that could be awkward and cumbersome in the field. You couldn't just snap off a quick shot to check exposure and composition. You were forced to spend time and pay attention.

We, on the other hand, live in the age of speed and convenience. It's easy to try things and get instant feedback, but there can be a trap of not paying enough attention at the time and taking the attitude of "I'll fix it in post."

We are also living in a time of technical innovation and fast-paced change. With this constant change, there comes a hyper-focus on what tools we are using, whether it is what camera system, or what post-processing software, or perhaps what Photoshop plugins we employ. There's a drive both on our part and on the part of advertisers who want to sell us their products to always look for tools and tips and what is the latest and greatest gear to have. There is nothing particularly wrong with that, but it’s also not going to make us fundamentally better artists. A little more time and attention to detail will take us a lot further in that regard.

Another big difference is that we are in a time when everyone can get their work seen by a huge number of people, and it's a natural consequence that, in an effort to stand out, the “wow” factor becomes a much more important dynamic in our work.

Lessons

If I had to summarize the lessons I learned from seeing this show, I think I would say that it's valuable to slow down and put some extra time and care into the final image, to be less concerned with what tools I'm using and more concerned with how I'm using them to craft the final piece. And mostly, I should take care to make sure my work projects what I want it to and is not just an exercise in “hey, look at this!”

Also, don’t be afraid of big jet-black shadows.

See the Real Thing

Hopefully, all of this goes to show the value in closely examining the work of prominent artists of any medium, and gaining insight into how it might fit into your own creative work. I hope this article will inspire readers to visit a gallery or museum and see and contemplate the work of an accomplished master. And it should be noted that there is something decidedly different in seeing the actual physical work as opposed to seeing it online. That tactile experience, I would argue, is part of the value. The experience can be illuminating and thought-provoking.

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42 Comments

Stuart C's picture

Those cliche quotes people keep dropping on every single Landscape related article certainly still seem to be.

J.d. Davis's picture

Heyday more than half a century ago? Adams worked from 1922 to 1984, the year of his death ~that's more than 60 years right there!

The bigger question is: of the two of you, who will be relevant in 2072?

Jeremy Thomas's picture

Indeed

Casey Chinn's picture

Ansel most certainly.

Richard Hart's picture

I just dislike (inexperienced) people quoting Ansel Adams as if he was a master for every kind of photography. . I see relevance in Renaissance portrait paintings. Inspiration is everywhere, its how you interpret it that counts

J.d. Davis's picture

It's the thing about 'kids' they think they invented everything!

Justin Sharp's picture

It’s hard to fully appreciate his prints in the digital age. I started with digital and his photos never resonated with me but now I use film and only print in the dark room. Then I saw a print of his in person and I finally saw the magic. He is a master printer. For instance, his famous photo Moonrise, Hernandez looks so different from the negative. How he was able to get that print from that negative is astounding. Personally, I believe that’s where his true greatness lies, with his prints (which really don’t translate to the computer screen. You need to see them in person if you ever have the opportunity).

Yin Ze's picture

"The negative is the score, and the print is the performance." Ansel "Irrelevant" Adams.

Joe Sesto's picture

Back in the '80s John Sexton, an Ansel Adams associate, held workshops that included 3 or 4 work prints of Moonrise. A straight contact-like enlargement, that was totally unremarkable...the sky was washed out. Then one that showed how parts were burned in, another how parts were dodged, masked, etc., and the effects of each Ansel's notes were on the backs of the work prints indicating what he had done, where and for how long. Each of the final prints took hours in the darkroom. If you read the description of how Ansel took Moonrise, it was not some tedious set up, multiple meter readings, etc. He was coming downhill saw the light on the cemetery crosses, jumped out of his vehicle, maybe an old International, set up the camera/tripod, got a reading on his primitive meter, put in a loaded 8x10 film holder, set the aperture, speed, focused and shot one film sheet, flipped the film holder for a 2nd shot, but the light was gone. As he got too old to work with the well worn 8x10 gear he went to a Hasselblad and shot color negs. A color print of one of those New Mexico pueblo churches was hanging at his memorial services. A Los Angeles color printer I knew made the 4x5 inter-neg and final print according to Ansel's dodging/burning in/correction instructions. I barely read this article as it lacked authenticity. I doubt the writer has ever seen an 8x10 enlarger..they are huge. Wynn Bullock's was in his Monterey garage darkroom under his living room. There was an odd shaped coffee table in the living room...it was for the enlarger's head.
Wynn started as a photographer in my city in the '40s before moving to Monterey.

Justin Sharp's picture

I heard an interview with his son (I think it was his son) who was with him when he took moonrise. I can’t remember the details, but for some reason he wasn’t able to use his light meter. He had to look at the moon and judge the amount of light and used that to determine the overall exposure. That even makes it more mind boggling. When he finished the first exposure, he reached to grab another sheet of film and the light completely changed so he wasn’t able to get another exposure. There’s a lot I disagree with his views philosophically (I align more with the pictorialists approach rather than the group f/64) but I cannot deny his mastery.

Ed C's picture

Oh no of course he isn't. He has almost no likes, no followers, never cranks up saturation to eye bleed levels, never once added vibrance. 🙄

Paul Asselin's picture

Love it!!!

Ed Sanford's picture

It’s interesting reading this article because yesterday over coffee I went through my Ansel Adams books purchased in the 1980s. What struck me was the tonal separation in his images which causes every element to have a purpose. The “simplicity” of his compositions were their strength. His technical competence was based on hard work and management of details. Of course, he is relevant in the same manner as Bach is still relevant centuries after his death.

Casey Chinn's picture

So true

Carl Marschner's picture

Ansel Adams will ALWAYS be relevant. He showed the beauty of what you can capture when you just capture what's there and do it well.

Adam Simpson's picture

Ofcourse he's not relevant -/s he relies too much on actual technical skills rather than lightroom and photoshop. 😑 The real question is what would he be capable of with all the modern advances.

Scott Wardwell's picture

The way people keep referencing Adams to this day, proves he is more than relevant. F-Stopper writers should hope they are as relevant even while they are still alive. And what is with this Pavlovian fixation on "relevance" and the endless parade of articles on the subject and how photography is impacted? Take a goddamn picture and show us your photography chops. No one cares about your pontificating.

Stuart C's picture

No one cares about it, yet you took time out of your life to comment on it.

Why do you have an issue with people writing articles about things? It’s kind of how the website works.

Thatcher Freeman's picture

The way people keep commenting on F-Stoppers articles to this day, proves they are more than relevant. F-Stopper commenters should hope they are as relevant even while they are still alive. And what is with this Pavlovian fixation on "relevance" and the endless parade of articles on the subject and how photography is impacted? Take a goddamn picture and show us your photography chops. No one cares about your pontificating.

Yin Ze's picture

Is Fstoppers Still Relevant?

Stuart C's picture

Relevant enough for you to log in and comment?

Yin Ze's picture

same reason people rubberneck on the highway at something horrific.

Stuart C's picture

If that makes you feel better about doing it then good for you.

J.d. Davis's picture

Barely!

Steve Powell's picture

Nope

Jim Brooks's picture

Unfortunately, to many, Ansel Adams is irrelevant. Most image producers never had to sweat it out overnights weekends, print after print. Most of you have missed the feeling of watching the print appear in the developer. The magic. I would have given anything to be in Adam's darkroom. Now it's grab the mouse, sit back, and let photoshop do your magic for you. I believe the line is "Who cares we will fix it in photoshop" The "art" of photography has long since died. Anyone can be an image producer now. However, very few can be Ansel Adams.

Chris Rogers's picture

yeah when i'm editing my images i'm just blowing through them. I get some good results but lately i just feel like i'm farting out photo after photo. I'm trying to take a slower approach but it's never going to be like working in an actual dark room.

Jamal Matteson's picture

Why not get crazy and....you know....shoot film and develop it?

Chris Rogers's picture

I did for a little while with a nikon N80 for but it got too expensive for me. I don't make as much money as I used to :'(

antonio martín's picture

Aún se puede aprender mucho, muchísimo de el.
Quizá para aprender a editar había que leer y ver sobre el, conocer un poquito el porque trabajaba así y porque lo hacía así, no es el material , ni los medios, al igual que en la pintura, es el porque y el como

J.d. Davis's picture

Palabras sabias mi amigo

Steven Seidner's picture

You have exceed my expectations of how stupid can an article be titled!

Michael Panucci's picture

Over 50 years ago I had my first darkroom and not shortly after recognized the genius of Ansel Adams.
Now, with print processing by 3rd parties you grasp the greatness of his composition and light.
An Immortal Pioneer.

David Udin's picture

tl;dr: yes

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

My first reaction to the headline is: "Is Rembrandt still relevant? Is Michelangelo still relevant?"

Ok, now I better read the article.

Jamal Matteson's picture

What I want to know is why all of the hipster douche bag "instagram photographers" think plopping some moron in a brightly colored raincoat in EVERY DAMM SHOT is so relevant. 😒😒🙄🙄

Paul Asselin's picture

Ya see, Adams tried to do a shoot of a guy wearing a yellow rain slicker climbing El Capitain but by the time he got his camera set up the climber had fallen into the valley. Adams shot anyway and the capture is a work of art.

Christopher Boles's picture

Until you have shot film, using the zone system for your exposures and development, will you understand what it takes to get a good negative. Then to go into the darkroom with that image and create something worthy to hang on the wall, then you will understand the genius that Ansel Adams was. His prints are something to be cherished. Nothing is what we call a straight print. We put more exposure or less where we want emphasis, hot developer to bring out a portion of the print, and an acid stopper the stop the print from going too dark. Then we can see the pure black to the pure white in what we saw in the original scene. There is nothing simple about film and paper.

Mark Seawell's picture

Well said. And though I'm a digital photography I have friends in low places (greybeards) who HAVE printed on 4X5 film plates and shown me the process..no thank you! Ansel was a mathematician masquerading as a photographer...a genius and as someone else above said as relevant as Rembrandt. Simply the gold standard.

Yin Ze's picture

ansel is not relevant because he didn't use presets.

Ed Sanford's picture

Ha ha ha ha…. Great comment…