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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Art Of Vision

Learn to connect with the landscape like the great masters Ansel Adams, Minor White, Philip Hyde and others

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Foreground grasses and the background shoreline are rimmed by golden sunlight along Indian Creek below Indian Valley in the northern Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, California. The warm elements in the composition contrast with the dark tones and mystery of the surrounding forest.

Recently, about two months apart, top photobloggers Marc Graf and Jim Goldstein both wrote about the same topic. Graf advised "Always Do That 180," and Goldstein published "Pro Tip: Always Check The Views Behind You." These blog posts, both advising to look behind you while you're photographing for additional photo opportunities, reminded me of my father, pioneer landscape photographer Philip Hyde. He said, "A photographer must look around."

Graf and Goldstein are in good company. My father wasn't the only influential photographer of the natural scene who talked about looking in all directions while in the field. Indeed, a number of well-known photography teachers and image makers took the idea a step further, teaching that when out photographing, if you slow down and quiet your mind, you not only look around more, but you notice more everywhere you look.

In the mid-1940s, Ansel Adams founded the first-ever college-level photography program to teach creative photography as a full-time profession at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. Before that, some schools taught commercial photography as a profession, but art photography was considered a spare-time pursuit. Adams modeled the structure of his new photography department on the piano conservatory, breaking down classes into small instructional groups, individual practice sessions and project assignments.

Shortly after obtaining funds for his revolutionary new school of photography, Adams received a Guggenheim Fellowship to photograph the national parks. He didn't know how he would both teach the eager students, who had already formed a long waiting list, and execute his national park project. Help came from Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, who at different times were curators at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, authors and photography critics. The Newhalls recommended that Adams hire a young man by the name of Minor White to help him teach.

Also captured in Indian Creek, this fresh snowfall gives the location a different feeling altogether. In a color representation of Ansel Adams' famous Zone System for metering and establishing continuous tones throughout an exposure, complex leading lines in the sloping woods and its reflection keep the eye of the viewer interested in the scene while the still waters and shadowy tree branches in front help to frame the composition and add depth.
White first sat in on a class at the school that Adams taught during the summer session, 1946. A young sergeant named Philip Hyde, my father, just discharged from Armed Service in World War II, also attended that class, and met Adams and White for the first time. In observing White's interactions with students, Adams soon realized that he not only would hire White permanently, but within two weeks, Adams decided that White was capable of taking over as lead instructor. Some of the students didn't like the idea because the advertising named Adams as teacher, but they soon discovered that White had much to teach. Besides, Adams promised to stop in often, and he did.

Some of White's teaching methods were unorthodox, to say the least. He related esoteric practices, various religions and the occult all to photography. Benjamen Chinn, also a World War II veteran attending the school on the G.I. Bill, said that the students admired and respected White, but that they poked fun at him for talking so much about the psychology of photographs. After the Carl Jung tradition, White grabbed unrelated subjects and showed how they connected to each other and everything else. One morning, Chinn said, the students all brought the San Francisco newspaper to class. They suggested to White that he do a psychic reading of the paper for them. They asked White if he would show them how each article in the paper related to what they were photographing.

Yet, having studied under Alfred Stieglitz, White also brought Stieglitz's idea of equivalents to the West Coast. He quickly embraced Adams' Zone System and taught it as naturally and clearly as Adams did. His psychology paid off for the students as they found meaning within themselves and a deeper connection to photography, which in turn improved their work by leaps and bounds.


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