Yes, You Should Still Be Studying the Work of Ansel Adams

There is a good reason that Ansel Adams' name has stood the test of time through the years. As one of the photographers in history who gets studied the most, Adams' work continues to be used as an example to photography classes and studies around the world. One of the reasons why he is still revered around the world is because of how carefully his images were crafted and how difficult they are to recreate. Digital and printed recreations of his images just don't quite have quite the depth and quality that his original prints do.One of the reasons why his work is so intrinsically unique comes from his careful creation of film negatives and his mastery of darkroom image processing. 

In this video, Ted Forbes highlights some of the elements in Adams' work that really set him apart from other photographers during his career as well as photographers today. A true study of the work by Adams would take much more time than a short article and a YouTube video, but this short documentary goes over enough that it paints a good picture as to why Adams' work is still relevant today as are his approaches to photography. There are several techniques that he used in his work within the darkroom that simply don't translate into digital photography. There are, however, many characteristics demonstrated in Adam's photography that can be studied and incorporated into photography today.

His approach to composing his images is one of meticulous thought and deliberate choice. Whenever I get the chance to study any of his photographs, I always try and figure out why he chose to include the elements in the scene that are present. How does the foreground play into the composition? Why are the shadows darker in this shot versus other shots? Is he using any leading lines, and if not, why? In his books, Adams' details how much time he would spend in a single location just waiting for the light to get to a certain condition for a single shot. I have always found that every time I study his work that I have something new to take into the field to try and make my own landscape work better than before.

It's true, there are scores of other amazing photographers both in history and present day that are worth learning from. However, there is a very real reason why Ansel Adams continues to be one of the most well-known photographers of all time. His work speaks for itself and there is a massive wealth of knowledge over the craft of photography to be learned from studying his approach. Who are some of your favorite photographers, either in history or present day? Who do you enjoy studying as a way to perfect your own craft?

[via The Art of Photography]

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26 Comments

Spy Black's picture

Adams sucked at dodge and burn however. I guess he figured non-photographers would pick up on it, and he was right of course, but I've handled some of his stuff back in the 80s, and there wasn't a single tech in the lab I worked on at the time that wasn't better at it than him. Hindsight may be 20/20 of course, but man he didn't seem to give a shit about the effects of his dodge and burn.

Well if the "Authorized Edition" poster sized prints that I have seen, and that I own two of, are truly "authentic representations" of his ability to dodge and burn, then I would have to say he was extremely skilled. So who is being truly authentic, you or the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. No offense but I would side with the trust, not to mention the many books of his.

Are you sure you handled his actual prints? I mean those Authorized Edition prints look amazing, including his many photos in books, most of which were printed while he was still alive.

Spy Black's picture

You don't have to believe me, but it's what I saw. It wasn't so much the burn as the dodge that was obvious. Maybe it was an early work, dunno. I handled a lot of famous originals back then by people like Adams, Weston, Stern, etc.

Anonymous's picture

I call bs on this cheesy comment slapped out in C- English comp. It's catcalls are unsubstantiated, the choice of terms and general tone are juvenile.
~~~
Adams was in fact a technical genius in film-to-print of the first order unsurpassed to this day. His association with the M.I.T. professor Minor White led to a complete understanding of every process involved in chemistry-based photography with mechanical cameras. They created a symphonic process known as the Zone System; the testing of one's personal equipment, method of exposure, and application of chemistry; to be able to pre-visualize the final print for maximum emotional response.

No photographer with any sense who as even casually flipped through his book series; The Negative, The Camera, The Print would talk the smack to which I reply. This says nothing of his eye, which was superb across genres.

I won't stand for willing learners who may be reading here to be exposed to such dreck without challenge. And for their sakes I recommend Adams' books via your local library. See how a master thinks no matter the technique. Revel in the application of science to art. It will do more for your photography than any camera or technology can.

Spy Black's picture

Sorry if I've insulted your god, but I know what I saw. It stuck out to me because of of it. If you don't want to believe me, I can tell you in my best C- English that I don't give a shit.

Anonymous's picture

An immature rant does not have the power to insult anyone but the person who wrote it. As long as no willing learner in photography is misled by your doggerel, which I believe I've ensured, I'm good. Thanks for your concern.

Spy Black's picture

The only one insulting themselves here is the person making pseudo-intellectual comments with $50 words. I'm sure you're impressing yourself however.

Matthew Saville's picture

THIS. And yet today, we have some folks saying dumb stuff like "I don't see what the big deal is, his work isn't very inspiring, it's kinda boring, and today anybody can beat his work thanks to Lightroom and Photoshop and raw processing"...

Sorry, but any landscape photographer who doesn't recognize the timeless accomplishments of Ansel is either full of themselves, or delusional / blind.

Regarding the "purist" mentality that the F/64 group had:

While Ansel did do massive amounts of tonal manipulation, the important thing to note is that he still DID draw a very stark line in the sand, and he didn't cross it.

In Moonrise Hernandez, for example, what "dedicated" landscape photographers today will probably notice is that Ansel did NOT do one thing which is now quite common: He did not re-photograph the moon with a much more telephoto lens, and then superimpose that larger moon onto the smaller distant landscape. There are innumerable more examples of this line in the sand that he refused to cross. I know that Edward Weston was quoted talking about how sometimes he would wait for hours and hours and not make an exposure because the sky wasn't right. Dropping in a "stock" plate image of a sky didn't even cross his mind.

Simply put, among other things he held sacred the sense of scale and proportion that keeps the mind's eye squarely planted in reality. In B&W you can manipulate tones all you want, and the human eye still can perceive that while it is an artistic rendering, it is still an *ACCURATE* representation of what was actually there, to be photographed in the first place.

This is partly why I harbor such strong disapproval for advanced photo manipulation today, in landscape photography. It does a huge disservice to the natural world itself, because the event in the photograph never ACTUALLY happened. It was dramatically different.

Many will argue that even contrast and saturation adjustments cross this line too, and I understand that argument. Which is why I personally keep those sliders at a low level when doing my own editing. I'm just saying, I wish landscape photographers were more willing to draw lines in the sand for themselves, be vocal about it, and then stick to their guns.

Anonymous's picture

I wonder if you are familiar with another giant of emotionally charged b&w film photography, Jerry Uelsmann. He is a functional opposite of Adams, but something tells me that Adams probably loved his work:

http://www.uelsmann.net/works.php

Eric Robinson's picture

Thanks for sharing the link...great stuff.

Matthew Saville's picture

John, that (Jerry Uelsmann's work) is definitely a gorgeous collection of photographic art, which I can have a ton of respect for because it makes no attempt to pretend to be a real photograph, it is clearly art for the sake of art.

Whether or not Ansel was a fan of Jerry's, I couldn't say, but I can still deduce from his works and writings that Ansel very firmly drew a line in the sand when it came to certain photomanipulation, and to the best of my knowledge he NEVER crossed that line. Because, simply put, he felt that there were certain things about perspective, scale, and subject matter in general that should not be distorted, added, or subtracted beyond what a single focal length and exposure could capture.

Anonymous's picture

Uelsmann is real photography. In fact it speaks so strongly to photography and photographic processes it's some of the most important photography in history. I think you conflate the style photographic realism with "real photography," I do not take that view. My view is broader, I suggest you look at early photography, for instance Steichen & Steiglitz, which is solidly impressionist, and is "real photography."

Photographic realism is what you create for instance for evidence in a court of law ie unemotional unbiased record capture. Your "line in the sand" notion is an artificial contrivance from my pov, because of course Adams manipulated perspective with the view camera and tones via the zone system. The scene he was looking at did not look like what he gives you for an image, necessarily. We don't agree anywhere here, but thanks. No I don't wish to continue this small discussion, but we'll talk on other topics here. I'll be forced to go do research for which I do not have time.

Matthew Saville's picture

John,

The "line in the sand" is simply an increasingly useful tool for both photographers and viewers today, due to the fact that photographers are more frequently flat-out lying about their photos, ...and then are getting frustrated when many viewers are highly disappointed to find that an image is a "wild" composite.

In short: Don't lie about your photos, especially if the reason for lying is simply that you're insecure or disappointed about your current inability to capture stunning photos with a single click.

If you follow this one simple rule, then you won't have to worry about drawing lines in the sand, because that will be your line in the sand: being proud of who you are as an artist, not secretive or frustrated.

Anonymous's picture

With all due respect for your apparent sincerity, I find no value in any of that, either as observation of the photographic world or as advice on photographic practice. As writing it is (I repeat - with all due respect for your apparent sincerity) disturbingly unequivocal without good grounds.

So we disagree on what looks great, what photography is, it's history, and the evaluation of all those things together as a position on art and practice.

Matthew Saville's picture

"I find no value in any of that"

So, in short, you're saying, DO feel free to lie about your photos, even lie about what you actually saw in the real world, get frustrated and discouraged about your ability to capture photos, and then bash anyone who dares to ask questions or postulates that an image might have been composites when you're so aggressively denying it?

Have fun with that! Sounds like the worst hobby ever.

Anonymous's picture

Here you go again like a broken record, what is about civilly ending a conversation when given a hint that you do not understand? I was not bashing you, and you were not asking questions. I was offering gentle direction but perhaps you'd prefer some serious criticism;

1. You are not an effective writer, and that is partly why your statement has no value to me. It's amateur psychology and unlearned piffle.
2. Your ideas hold no value because they are, like the photos you have posted with your ostentatiously affixed name, immature works in progress that don't merit sharing outside a casual circle of friends.
3. Though you might, I don't have a photo hobby. I practice photography. And I do not suffer pushy egotistical youngsters who think far more of their talent than is demonstrated in fact.

Have a great day.

Matthew Saville's picture

Broken record? I recommended honesty and self-confidence among landscape photographers, and you claimed such advice had no value. So, I asked if you were okay with the opposite of honesty and self-confidence. It is you who are being evasive at this point.

PS: Never give an unsolicited critique if you don't have the guts to also put your own work out there. That's cowardice. Which in my opinion is a worse state of existence than the attention whore you'll undoubtedly accuse me of being for putting my own work out there. Thanks for the bashing, though. Honesty is always refreshing.

If you're too elitist to see photography as a mere amateur hobby though, that tells me all I need to know about your own work. I've paid my bills with a camera for years now, but I still consider the un-paid pictures I shoot to be a fun hobby.

Eric Robinson's picture

I’m just wondering why you need ‘lines’? What point do they serve? I’m my opinion arbitrary ‘lines’ in sand or any other medium only serve to limit creativity. If you wish to limit yourself by including them into your work flow that’s fine but don’t wish for other to follow. The idea that a photograph has to be an accurate representation of a scene to my mind is rather pointless. Each person will view a scene in their own way, while the scene itself will change moment to moment constantly changing producing an almost infinite possible renditions. Therefore trying to capture an image which lays claim ito revealing some ultimate truth about a subject or scene is rather meaningless. As for the natural world caring, I think that’s taking anthropomorphism to the extreme.
Hill and Adamson two of the earliest photographic pioneers 1843 were not hampered by such restrictive constraints often doctoring their negatives to achieve the desired result.
Btw there is a fantastic exhibition of their work on in Edinburgh at the moment.
https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/perfect-chemistry-photograp...

Anonymous's picture

In fact Adams was not all about "realism.". Categorizing what are highly romantic & emotional works as realistic is a common mistake, perhaps because their subject matter is straightforward.

Adams best works however do not duplicate "what was there" rather they emulate was there, in the process expressing the absolute technical best of what was possible in film negative craftsmanship with mechanical cameras and a light meter. Craft, science, and art, all togetherl at once, in the tradition of great printmakers who worked in traditional media. Look at his books; "The Negative," "The Camera," "The Print." Mind boggling mastery of the use of a view camera, but done to get the camera out of the way and express his vision.

Consider on the other hand that "realism" might be more strictly seen in Lee Friedlander snapshots: https://www.artsy.net/artist/lee-friedlander/works

The anti-Adams as a shooter, no uptight science or craftsmanship, but still directly about what a camera can see and nothing else ie very "photographic." Either artist's original works are probably as valuable, with Adams perhaps fetching more because of their size, fame, intellectual accessibility, and decorative value, while Friedlander is probably more important to art history for breaking the mold.

Matthew Saville's picture

@John,

You're correct in that, especially since the vast majority of Ansel's work is in B&W, ...it is all just a creative emulation.

However, my point remains: Why didn't Adams then just go wild, and drop a moon into his landscapes whenever it suited him, or swap skies altogether if the clouds just weren't very exciting that day?

He drew his line in the sand, and didn't cross it. He knew that viewers still appreciated knowing that what was captured was indeed correctly proportioned, timed, and generally "seen" on that day and time that Adams was actually there. This "truth" is still inherent in the photograph, and easily survives side-by-side with the understanding that burning and dodging and tonal manipulation is the "artist's prerogative".

Anonymous's picture

Your idea of emulation (and probably of art and of photography) & mine do not jibe. I would never use the word "just" before "creative emulation." Emulation is to, respectfully take a form and attempt to better it, be it a poem or a painting style, building hot rods or learning to sing. It is a first class method of approach to any serious subject and when you are successful at it with artist's tools, you do create fine art indeed. Everyone in most any field of effort emulates someone else's work, we all stand on the shoulders of giants to see farther. But, and this is important: I stated Adams emulated nature, he took what nature offered and manipulated it to improve it.

Adams did not "just go wild" and drop in a moon because he didn't have to to get the result he was after ie he didn't need a gimmick. He had a better eye, more class, was better educated, than someone who would run to that shortcut. Dropping in a moon is commercial cheeseball stuff by comparison, as is swapping skies. Adams in this regard was a photographer, not a graphic artist. His end product is not about being loud and hyperbolic. He was about the sublime and intellectual and sincerely emotional.

We don't completely disagree, but we are not on the same wavelength either. It's pretty much impossible to go on at length in a comment forum but I thank you for the input. Talk to you again on some other issue.

Matthew Saville's picture

@Eric,

Simply put, it's just a personal decision, and every artist is free to make whatever decision DOESN'T restrict their creativity.

Oppositely, in fact, a "line in the sand" kinda has the same effect as choosing a prime lens instead of a zoom: it can actually FOSTER creativity, instead of limit it!

As a landscape photographer, when I impose a limit on myself with regard to over-the-top photoshoppery, it pushes me in all the best kinds of ways ways- to get up early and not miss the sunrise, to carefully plan a trip around an event or phenomenon instead of randomly going places at sub-optimal times of day / year etc.

If your passion is to simply create artwork and you don't care how many ties to reality you cut during the creative process, then go ahead, have fun! All types of artwork can be appreciated in their own right.

However it also comes down to the subject matter, at least a little bit. Imagine, for example, that Henri Cartier-Bresson's entire body of work was NOT made by waiting for "the decisive moment", but instead was done almost completely in a dark room by cutting and splicing negatives etc.

If you think that even such a massive detail still wouldn't diminish the value of Bresson's work, then I'll play this third and final card: What if Bresson flat-out *LIED*, and insisted that his totally doctored photographs were in fact "real" single exposures? How do you think a large chunk of viewers / fans would feel, if the truth was ever revealed?

In short, regardless of whether you draw a strict line in the sand, or no line at all, your viewers would probably appreciate not being lied to, whether intentionally or simply by the omission of important information.

This does not mean that all photographers should disclose every edit they perform, absolutely not. It simply means that photographers, if they're so passionate about photography instead of painting or sculpting, ought to feel at least a faint connection to doing the "real world" a

Matthew Saville's picture

TLDR:

1.) You're the artist, make your own rules!
2.) Often, restriction actually FOSTERS creativity, instead of stifling it.
3.) Depending on your subject matter, an appropriate amount of disclosure and honesty is appreciated by viewers.
4.) If you chose photography instead of painting or sculpting for no reason other than "the tools of the craft make sexier toys for me to drool over", ...then just own it, be proud of your personal craft, and call yourself a digital fine artist, instead of a photographer.
5.) If on the other hand any of the above makes you upset, and you wish not to give up the title of photographer, then reconsider where you've drawn your line in the sand.

Roger Knopf's picture

In response to Matthew Saville's original comment, I believe people who now say "what's the big deal" might be ones who have never seen any of the actual prints, only reproductions. I agree with Forbes disclaimer, they lose a lot in translation. Growing up between Carmel, where Adams lived and San Francisco where he grew up and had his studio and patrons, it's an area of a high concentration of his output and I have been lucky to see many of his prints in museums and galleries (and even in his house once, after he had passed though). Forbes is absolutely right. Much of the joy i get from looking at his books is derived from what I remember seeing in the prints. Besides the quality, he liked to print big and the size adds the grandeur of the huge landscapes.

Anonymous's picture

Persons trained in art history know they see better, this is a fact that is hard to relate to youngsters who have not bothered with Gombrich's "Art & Illusion" and can't tell Giotto from DaVinci.

Visiting museums to look at the paintings and sculpture, reading art history for it's own sake, and talking to painters and non photographic artists and teachers is more beneficial in accelerating the quality of one's work than any new camera. You will in the end be limited by your eye, your intrinsic intellectual and emotional response to pictures ie your artistic talent. But, you'll get whatever talent you have in full forward gear sooner by studying classic & modern art in serious museum settings than by memorizing DxoMark values.

Don't take my word for it if you prefer Tony Northrup's. Throughout his super solid technical reviews of every aspect of modern digital photography, he'll interject that if you want superior results stop watching reviews of equipment (especially if you already own gear) and work on your vision and editorial judgement. He is implying what he (and college professors in the fine arts) knows from experience: most people don't see particularly well with respect to artistic output, this is why great art is rare.

Look at Ancient Greek mosaics, religious iconography of the Middle Ages, learn how a new perspective marked Renaissance painting, a new humanism expressed Rembrandt portraits and Vermeer scenes of home life. Read how "Impressionist" was an insult, how "The Armory Show" changed the art world, how new scientific discoveries were expressed in modern abstraction. It's a lot of fun and is invaluable if you are any sort of artist or a pro who simply wants to do their personal best.

Eric Robinson's picture

Spot on John could not agree more.