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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Under The Big Sky

Montana-based photographer Jay Wesler’s black-and-white landscape images are born from the same sense of grandeur seen in Ansel Adams’ iconic work

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Jay Wesler’s stunning black-and-white photography carries on in the tradition of Ansel Adams. His grand vistas convey a feeling of space and an unspoiled landscape where dramatic mountains and soaring clouds captivate the viewer and inspire us to go out and experience the place. Wesler, a young 30-something photographer who has chosen black-and-white for its intrinsic emotions, says, “For me, black-and-white evokes certain feelings. People see in color, and black-and-white kind of makes you look in a different way at familiar scenery.” Above: “South Crazies,” Crazy Mountains, Montana.

Comparing a landscape photographer’s output to that of Ansel Adams is a tricky proposition. Heaven forbid that the photographer also shoots big, bold landscapes in black-and-white. Then he must surely be a note-for-note knock-off of the great one himself or a delusional so confused as to draw no parallel to America’s greatest landscape master.

Thankfully, when I called Jay Wesler to discuss his work and proposed framing it against a backdrop of Ansel Adams, not only did he relish the comparison and cite Adams as an inspiration, but he took the time to explain the critical, if sometimes subtle, distinctions in their work.

“For me,” Wesler says, “Ansel is such a genius, first of all because he created the Zone System, which I’ve been using ever since I learned it. It’s helped me create fantastic negatives. After learning the Zone System, I continued to look at his work and really studied it and how he used contrast. That was big for me too, because, moving back to Montana, which is Big Sky Country, the landscapes out here are tremendous—huge, open-range landscapes with mountains. Ansel really influenced my photography, especially with the skies.”

Bear Creek, Montana.
Wesler left his Montana home to study photography and found himself learning to make landscapes in, of all places, downtown Chicago. At Columbia College in the late 1990s, he was fortunate to learn classic darkroom techniques, including Adams’ Zone System, as the photo world shifted almost instantly from film to digital.

“At college, I really got into black-and-white photography,” Wesler says. “I spent a lot of time on Lake Michigan in Chicago. Growing up in Montana, I always had an affinity for landscapes, and I would go to the lake and just concentrate my work on landscapes around Chicago. It started clicking right there—using graphical elements, the rule of thirds, clouds. I would just see nature, and it was very good inspiration for graphics—the overall aesthetics of nature, how complicated it is, but it’s also minimal sometimes, too.”

It was in this era that Wesler also began to incorporate a more contemporary design philosophy involving the spare organization of space into his more traditional photographic pursuits.

“I like minimalism a lot,” he says. “I use more of a minimalist approach versus the grand view. I think Ansel is more like ‘check out this huge, grand scenery,’ and I try to isolate my landscapes a little bit more, even making them abstract.”

Black skies are inherently abstract, and they abound in Wesler’s portfolio. That, too, shows Adams’ influence.

“I think, for me,” Wesler says, “the definitive Ansel Adams photograph is “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941.” I actually went to a seminar, and John Sexton was explaining how Ansel printed that shot. It just blew my mind when he showed a straight print with no dodging and burning. Right there, it kind of opened up my mind—well, I could just blacken out the sky. I got into using a deep #29 red filter to really make the sky black and then burning in the sky. It gives huge impact to scenery versus just a straight print. The straight print had gray sky, not even black. You can’t really even see the moon in there.”


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