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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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.

15 Comments

    Mr. Plant. I agree with your conclusion that Adams, Weston, et al, would indeed be encouraging with finding one’s own voice. I also want to say that despite the reputation of Adams as a perfectionist, his work, although technically solid, was not perfect, in that his photos required more than simple enlarger exposures. He drew detailed and exhaustive maps of his images, delineating areas of burning and dodging.
    One of his more famous photos, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico”, transformed over the years in print. The dark, dramatic picture we know best grew from a subtle, multi-tonal view befitting the low-contrast setting he saw. The dark versions, generally printed for his museum series, reflected both his changing vision and his advancing age. He just didn’t want to go through all that damn dodging any more!
    So yes, he was an artist who encouraged in others the same growth that he went through. And yes, his reputation as a perfectionist is overblown.

    “And while digital photography easily gives us the tools to achieve technical perfection…”

    Hardly. Mr. Plant, have you ever shot film? Medium format film? Large format film? If you did, then you would not be here espousing your arrogant views that digital gives technical perfection. Far from it. Digital gives flawed perfection. Film gives supreme technical perfection. Try it, and you will end up happily recycling your stale and cold and flawed digital camera and sleep better at night.

    Hi Clint, I shot large format film for ten years prior to switching to digital. I can say without hesitation that neither digital nor film “gives” technical perfection. It is up to the photographer to achieve technical proficiency. And although large format film exceeds all but the highest megapixel medium format digital cameras in terms of resolution, digital capture offers several other technical advantages, most notably dynamic range. And the instant review capabilities of digital cameras allow the photographer to achieve precise focus, depth of field, and exposure. And many digital photographers today are using a variety of digital darkroom techniques, such as exposure blending, focus stacking, and image stitching, to create images that far surpass the technical limits of film in terns of resolution, sharpness, clarity, and exposure range.

    Great article Ian. Really enjoyed it.

    Clint- you’re very rude and disrespectful. Don’t bother to comment next time. Read Ian’s polite comment and then get over yourself.

    I have recently been working on a new post processing technique that draws a lot of inspiration from the techniques mentioned in the article. I have found the using the Digital Zone System to edit my photos has made a drastic improvement on my final images!

    While the Zone System may be a 75 year old technique, it still stands true to its near flawless theory.

    I put together a rather lengthy training package that is 3 hours and 40 minutes long that shows anyone how to take advantage of the process using Photoshop.

    It is available on http://www.zone-edit.com

    I read your article with great interest. Having spent much time studying both Adams the man and Adams the artist, I find that your article gave insight to how and why he achieved his art. Adams was an innovator, and I feel strongly that he’d embrace the digital technology and photo manipulation tools that exist today.

    Ian,

    Good article. I,like many here enjoyed large format photography,4×5 and 8×10 and when shooting film,preferred them to roll film. Also, like many, I was inspired by Ansel’s work and vision, but also, his mastery in the darkroom,which I hold equal to his vision. Since what he achieved in the darkroom, “finished” his images and if you’ve ever seen a few of the “before and afters”,you know what I mean.
    New photographers are sometimes pulled into this thinking, that everything in the image needs to be sharp, in order to be considered “real photography”, by real photographers and we all know, this is not the case.
    I think we all agree, that knowing “how to” achieve this perfect sharpness is indeed important, but knowing when and if to use that “tool” is at our discretion and not a component of every image we create.

    Good article Ian. The marvel of digital, is instant feedback, which speeds up the learning process by leaps and bounds. I also agree win Ian that digital captures moments and it can capture them at speeds of thousands of a second. We can captured the exact moment of a geyser irrupting in Yellowstone, the magnificent of a sunset, the moment two Rams slam head-to-head in the rut season, the expression of victory at winning a gold medal or the agony of defeat or the tears of grief as a firefighter carries a dead child from a burning building? My teachers are Sean Bagshaw, Chip Phillips, and Ian Plant. These people not only capture a moment they bring it to life through their post processing art. Check out Ian’s tutorials on blending. Embrace the technology of computers, laptops, ipads, cell phones, and most importantly, Digital Cameras.

    Hats off to you Ian…

    Put a room of photographers together and invariably they discuss post-processing techniques and “rules”.
    Rarely do I hear anyone mention how he feels about an image. And our modernist hero, Ansel Adams, the tight renderer, often mentioned that he “felt an image”.

    As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing as objective technical excellence. Instead, it is all relative to the message of the photograph. The art. You know, the thing we try to produce.

    Honestly, do you make photographs to show off your technical expertise, or to tell a story? If the former, you are a technician, not an artist.

    The camera and post-processing are tools only, use them wisely.

    And yes, since 1969, I’ve worked with film (35 mm to 4×5), and now digital.

    Jerry

    Bernard,

    I disagree with you. Adams was a perfectionist. The fact that his cataracts and age diminished his ability to discern what he was doing does not take away from this (there are several interviews with assistants talking about the change in his prints and it was not “He just didn’t want to go through all that damn dodging any more!”) Have you ever read any of his books, seen any interviews with him (or his assistants), know anything about his process and technique? From your comment it sure does not seem like you have studied or know much about Ansel and his photography.

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