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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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And, more broadly, why can't we borrow techniques and styles from the broader art world beyond photography? It's interesting to note that a key component of the Group f/64 manifesto was a rejection of artistic techniques and compositions "derivative of any other art form," especially painting and the graphic arts. Adams and other members of the group sought to create and define a unique photographic artistic style. The Pictorialists, in the view of Group f/64, were devoted to principles of art borrowed from painters. But is there really anything wrong with this?
Jökulsárlón Ice Lagoon at twilight, Iceland. Photo by Ian Plant.
The irony of the Group f/64 position is that other forms of art had been heavily influenced by photography long before Adams ever picked up a camera. New scholarship suggests that the artistic revolution which began in the Renaissance and continued in the following centuries was the result of painters using primitive optical devices (the precursors of the modern camera) as aids in their creative process. One of the most famous of these optical devices is the camera obscura, essentially a giant pinhole camera, which many art scholars suspect may have been instrumental in the rise of perspective-based painting (take a close look at the paintings of Vermeer, in particular, and you can see a distinct "camera-like" look to the compositions). And 19th-century Impressionism was greatly inspired by photography and the concept of a "snapshot." Impressionists sought to represent spontaneous action and fleeting light in their paintings, much in the way a photographer would do. There's little doubt that photography changed the way artists saw the world. So, if photography could influence other forms of art, why can't other forms of art influence photography?
Although I agree with Adams that photography, as an art form, is unique and special, I think that we have a lot to learn from other artistic traditions. Creativity knows no boundaries, and today's nature photographer can gain a lot from even a cursory study of the broader art world. And while digital photography easily gives us the tools to achieve technical perfection in ways even Adams couldn't imagine, the flexible DSLR is the perfect tool for the photographer seeking to break free from the bonds of the dominant paradigm that has arisen in recent decades, largely inspired by his work. There's no reason why we can't adhere to Adams' tradition of linking the viewer to the landscape, yet step away from his visual style and explore other kinds of artistic expression.
|The Group f/64 Manifesto
The name of this Group is derived from a diaphragm number of the photographic lens. It signifies to a large extent the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image which is an important element in the work of members of this Group.
Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the "Pictorialist," on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.
The members of Group f/64 believe that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.
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Winter Woods Abstract. Photo by Joseph Rossbach.
And whereas Adams focused on the sharpness and clarity captured by a photograph as being something singular to photography—its ability to faithfully capture reality in a way not offered by other art forms—I hold a slightly different view. Adams was right—photography's connection with reality is unique among art forms. Painting, sculpting, drawing: They all start with nothing—a blank canvas or sheet of paper, or an uncut block of stone—and through the creative thought and actions of the artist, something is produced from nothing. Not so with photography, which is much more reliant on the real world around us. A photograph is created when actual light reacts with film or a digital sensor; the photographer triggers a shutter, snaring a selective and fleeting slice of the surrounding world.
The photographer's creative tools, therefore, are rooted in this capture process. Filters, lenses, aperture, shutter speed, choice of perspective and patiently waiting for pleasing convergences of light, color, composition and mood—these are how a photographer stamps a creative imprint on his or her work. This connection with reality isn't merely a technical detail. It is, above all, what gives photography its power to move people. This is the wonder that's exclusive to photography: the magic of plucking a fleeting moment—a real moment—from the living world and freezing it for posterity.
For me, a photograph's inherent tether to the moment is much more compelling and unique than its clarity or sharpness. The pinnacle of the art form is to wait patiently for random forces to temporarily assemble into something meaningful and beautiful before spinning along on their merry way—and in the process reveal something significant about the subject and perhaps the artist, as well. Famous French photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue said it best: "Photography to me is catching a moment which is passing, and which is true." This is something that photography, of all art forms, is perfectly and uniquely suited to do.
And, lucky for us, today's DSLR is the "ultimate moment" capture device. Nothing—simply nothing—matches the DSLR's entire package of speed, flexibility and image quality. Instant feedback on your LCD means you can check right away to see if you caught the perfect moment, or whether you need to charge once more into the breach and try again. With the equipment of Adams' day, technical perfection and spontaneity didn't usually go hand in hand. Now, you can have both, if you desire—or, you can let perfection take a backseat and explore a somewhat messier, albeit less restrictive, form of artistic expression.
I'm privileged to work with a group of talented photographers on my Dreamscapes blog. Although we're no Group f/64, and we certainly don't aspire to any unified artistic style, we're all seeking to expand the boundaries of the Ansel Adams photographic paradigm, some gently, others with a bit more vigor. Embracing the use of atmosphere, intentional camera blur, long exposures, mixed lighting, abstract compositions and other unconventional approaches, we seek to explore mood, moment, emotion and the fleeting, yet meaningful random convergences of our constantly changing natural world. And there are many other photographers out there embracing a whole host of alternative techniques and artistic philosophies, producing some remarkable art in the process. I'm excited to see what the future holds for us all.
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These days, I'm drawing my inspiration from the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson and painter John Singer Sargent as much as I am from Ansel Adams—perhaps even more so. And although these artists had little or nothing to do with nature, I find their unique artistic visions to be a refreshing way of approaching our natural world. Art—any art—achieves its greatest expression when it's infused with a mix of outside influences. Photography is no different. I find myself taking baby steps into a broader world of expressionistic photography, and I encourage you to proceed more boldly than me. It's up to you whether you want to stick with the existing tradition or color outside the lines, but you'll never know which is best for you until you explore your options.
And I think that Adams, rebel that he was, would agree.
Ian Plant is a full-time professional nature photographer, writer and adventurer. He's a frequent contributor to Outdoor Photographer and the OP Blog. He's also the author of instructional nature photography books, including the critically acclaimed Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition, an artistic tour de force spanning several centuries and different artistic media in its quest to reveal the composition secrets of the great masters. See more of Plant's work at www.ianplant.com and at outdoorphotographer.com/blog.
|Pictorialism Vs. Group f/64 Modernism
Pictorialism: The photographer abandons "straightforward" photography in an effort to create an image rather than simply recording it. "Proper" sharpness, clarity and exposure are secondary (or even unimportant) to the Pictorialist. A photograph is a vehicle for projecting mood, emotion and the photographer's own artistic vision. Arguably, the Pictorialist offers a more impressionistic view of the world.
Group f/64 Modernism: Clearness, definition and sharpness are primary important elements to this artistic paradigm, as is a more "traditional" or faithful rendering of subjects. Real-world objects can be art, in and of themselves, and a simple presentation, without the photographer imposing too much of his or her own aesthetic on the subject through the use of artistic contrivance, is the best way to show the subject.