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Monday, April 6, 2009

Landscape Masters Through Time

Photography’s greats must find philosophical constants while embracing change

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Dykinga’s vision has evolved such that many of his current images like this feel more immersive for a viewer by having detailed foreground objects and an overall feeling of being in the photograph.
The history of landscape photography is closely tied to the history of exploration in the American West. Photographers since the birth of the medium have explored wild lands for art as well as science. Much has changed in a century and a half, yet surprising similarities remain between the first landscape masters and those working today.

Photographers like Eadweard Muybridge and Carleton Watkins utilized the wet collodion process. Difficult even in ideal circumstances, it required the mixture and application of a light-sensitive emulsion to a mammoth 16x20 glass plate, with the corresponding exposure and development before the emulsion dried. Thus the term “wet plate” was born—as was 150 years of constant technological challenge and innovation that marks the interaction between talented photographers and the landscapes they explore.

Ansel Adams And Early Landscape Photography In America
Though 50 years of work preceded him, Ansel Adams is the spiritual father of American landscape photography. Not only is he perhaps the most recognizable name in all of photography, but his work transcended art and science to make him an icon of popular culture as well.

“It’s rare to find a landscape photographer,” says Carr Clifton, “or any photographer who hasn’t been touched by Ansel Adams’ black-and-white work of the exquisite landscapes of the American West.”

Like Watkins and Muybridge before him, Adams made many famous photographs of Yosemite National Park. What set him apart was his work’s timeless quality. Technologically innovative and advanced enough to surpass much of the printing done today, Adams’ photography was simple enough to maintain a direct connection to the earliest pioneers of the medium.

As a teen, Adams came to nature before photography and ecology became a driving factor throughout his life. That conservationist thread still runs through landscape photography today and perhaps is stronger than ever. Adams’ exquisite black-and-white prints were only possible thanks to the photographer’s innovation of the Zone System, a technique for exposure and processing to provide the utmost control over every tone in an image. His technical curiosity, as reported by those who knew and worked with him, as well as a habit of reinterpreting prints on modern equipment throughout his career, inspires “what if” questions about how the master would work today.

Adams’ quest for beauty and preservation of the natural world with a love of innovation would serve him well were he working today. No matter how the tools change, today’s masters want the same things Adams did: to provide the public a glimpse of the unique beauty of America’s wildest places, and in so doing, protect those finite natural resources.

“What Ansel wanted to do was to make you feel what he felt when he pushed the button,” says Jack Dykinga.” To do it, Adams refined not only his skills as an artist and outdoorsman, but his ability to work wonders in the darkroom. Today, that skill would likely be considered “postproduction.”

A trained musician, Adams often is quoted as saying, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance.” Whether or not today’s landscape masters hear his words as they make choices about cameras and film, printers and postprocessing, one thing is certain: They step out of his shadow to stand on his shoulders every time they take a picture.


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