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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Beyond Ansel Adams

Adhere to the Ansel Adams tradition of linking the viewer to the landscape while exploring new visual styles and artistic expression

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Mustard Spring at sunset, Biscuit Basin, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Photo by Richard Bernabe.

Ansel Adams' contribution to the art and craft of landscape photography is both far-ranging and deeply imbedded with us today. There's little doubt that he set the beat to which we all still tap our feet, and his near-far, sharply focused style of shooting has dominated landscape photography for three-quarters of a century. For lack of a better way of putting it, his obsession with technical perfection reigns supreme. But should his visual style really be our only choice?

I think we can answer "no" without showing any disrespect to the great master. Although his influence on nature photography is undeniable, photography isn't religion, and Adams wasn't a prophet—even though he had the wild beard and piercing eyes for the part. Simply put, no one should feel compelled to follow his path. And, to be perfectly honest with you, I believe Adams would wholeheartedly endorse a healthy dose of artistic experimentation, especially if it means breaking with long-standing tradition. You see, Adams was a bit of a photography rebel in his time. He boldly took on the existing artistic establishment, offering a new way to see the natural world—making himself a household name in the process.

Stormy skies over the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. Photo by George Stocking.
During the later 19th and early 20th centuries, the Pictorialist photographic style—which might best be described as equal parts expressionistic and impressionistic—became a prominent artistic movement. The Pictorialists purposefully emulated artistic techniques developed by painters, letting technical precision take a backseat to mood, emotion and creative expression. Heavy use of atmosphere, motion and even intentional defocus all found a home in the Pictorialist tool kit.

Adams, however, felt that photography was a unique art form, one which shouldn't conform to existing standards. Adams cofounded the famous Group f/64, which expressly rejected Pictorialism in order to promote a new "Modernist" aesthetic that was based on precisely and sharply exposed images of natural forms. Group f/64 declined to follow the Pictorialist impressionistic visual style in large part because it ignored photography's unique ability to render images with clarity and sharpness simply unobtainable by painters. Adams recognized that the camera offered photographers a chance to create a view of the world unique to the medium—so why cast that aside simply to conform to prevailing standards? Instead, he took a chance, breaking with established artistic norms—and the rest is history.

Adams expressly advocated what he called "straight photographic procedure" or "straight photography." Although he didn't pursue a pure documentary approach devoid of artistry, I think it's fair to say that there was a whole lot less "artistic contrivance" in Ansel's work than in the work of other photographers at the time. Arguably, Adams was somewhat constrained by the cumbersome nature of his bulky 8x10 field camera, which demanded a precise, perfectionist approach. On the whole, however, Adams' philosophy was to let the subject speak for itself, revealing through careful composition and exposure the inherent beauty of the landscape. It was inspiring photography, but arguably not as expressionistic as the work of the Pictorialists.

Other photographers at the time took a much different approach, however. Photography legends, such as street photography master Henri Cartier-Bresson with his handheld Leica rangefinders and the famous Stieglitz, felt free to experiment with a more impressionistic view of the world, taking a forceful transformative approach with their subjects and often throwing technical perfection out the window. As Cartier-Bresson once famously said: "Sharpness is a bourgeoisie concept." I can almost imagine Adams' head spinning at this notion. And I can't help but wonder: Why can't we borrow something from these alternative creative traditions embodied by Cartier-Bresson, Stieglitz and others?


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