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

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.”

“Cool Breeze,” near Canyon Ferry, Montana.

Continues Wesler, “It just makes the scenery very dramatic. I like more of a dark tone, a moody feeling. I used to print with subtle gradation, and then one day, I just said, “Well, okay, what if I just make this completely black?” That print—wow—it just really stood out. And ever since then, since 2007, I’ve been working on this theme called Big Sky Country. I like to put maybe the bottom third with landscape and then the top two-thirds with black sky. I think it makes it kind of abstract, gives a mood, and it really produces the effect I want—the impact.”

It turns out that Wesler isn’t so much a landscape photographer as he is a skyscape photographer. He gazes up at clouds the way others might study geography or flora. It makes sense if you’re trying to create graphic, minimal landscapes out there in Big Sky Country.

“I think even if I lived in central Illinois I would be photographing the same way,” he says. “I really like using the sky. I’m a cloud chaser, for sure. I plan out shoots based on that. I love clouds, and I love sky and the way it complements the scenery. I would much rather point my camera up than down.

“I see a lot of work,” Wesler continues, “where you start off with a very wide angle and use your composition rules, the rule of thirds, and then you point your camera down so that you have a little bit of sky. I see a lot of that with photographers who photograph in Utah. I’ve been to Utah. The first time I went, I followed examples of different photographers and the general ways to make landscape photographs, but it wasn’t really doing it for me. It didn’t have the impact. Then I got into blackening out the skies, and then if you have some clouds in there, it just makes the scene. It makes it very dramatic, especially when you use that burning-in technique.”

Fall trees, Grand Tetons, Wyoming.

Drama is key. It may, in fact, be the decisive factor in whether or not Wesler deems a shot a success. If it has power, if it grabs your attention, it’s good.

“I kind of have a guerilla approach to photography,” he says. “Chase down that scene or go to a location really fast because the moon may be rising or the clouds or the light. Chasing dramatic weather, too, that’s important. Dramatic weather makes for dramatic scenery. I like shooting midday. I think it’s the contrast thing. So when there are clouds in the sky in a shoot during midday, and then you really burn in that sky, it’s going to have a real impact. That silvery sheen on those clouds will make them stand out. I want impact. I think, well, would I hang this on my wall?”

To create impact, Wesler relies on the same tools landscape photographers have always used—large-format film and darkroom magic. But that’s not all he relies on. He came of age at the perfect time to be a traditionalist and an early adopter of digital capture. He doesn’t believe in excessive digital manipulation, but he does also use a digital camera.

“A lot of it has to do with my education at Columbia College,” he says. “I was right on the cusp with digital. I do have a digital camera and I do shoot digital. I use traditional black-and-white techniques that I would use in the darkroom. I try to stay in that traditional dodging and burning area with black-and-white.”

Wesler is neither a traditionalist who applies old approaches to new materials nor a Luddite who has condescended to work with the tools the market has foisted upon him. He’s a bit of a technological hybrid because he’s also a pragmatist.

“I bring both,” Wesler says. “Film for the 4×5 is like two bucks a sheet. It’s getting expensive. And in Montana, I have a nice darkroom setup but, wow, no one hardly develops film anymore. It’s all digital. I’ll shoot frame after frame of digital, and if I really like it, I’ll bust out the 4×5 camera and say I need this on film. I send out the digital file and have them developed on 4×5 negative, or I send it out to have it printed. I like to have that chemical reaction somewhere. I like using film because I like the darkroom. It gives that magic.

“Ansel is a big influence on my printing,” he continues. “It’s great to look at an actual Ansel Adams print and compare your own prints and see the quality. I’m a big fan of high-quality stuff, really sharp detail and really high contrast—the impact factor. His earlier stuff is much more subtle in the contrast and everything. Whereas his work in the ’50s, wow, I think you can really tell. He boosted up the contrast a lot more.”

Wesler’s “Bad Moon Rising” image shows the moon rising over the Crazy Mountains, which was shot with a Canon EOS 5D. It’s an image with obvious similarities to Adams’ “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941” that Wesler cites as his favorite. And he knew he was on to something as he was making it.

That brings up yet another influence Ansel Adams had on Jay Wesler: returning to a location again and again. Interestingly, whereas Adams was more meditative, Wesler is more frenetic. When he refers to chasing clouds, he means it quite literally.

Jay Wesler’s Gear
DSLR: Canon EOS 5D, Canon
EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L, Canon EF 17-40mm ƒ/4L
4×5: Linhof Technika V 4×5 field camera, Schneider 150mm lens, Nikon 90mm lens
• B+W #29 red filter
• Manfrotto 190 Series tripod
with a compact ballhead
• Kodak T-MAX 100 film
• Sekonic L-758DR DigitalMaster light meter
• Beseler 45MXT enlarger with variable-contrast cold-light and Schneider lenses (50mm and 150mm)

“I’ve read where he used to go back to certain spots that he scouted out,” Wesler says of Adams, “and he would go back over and over again. I think he would approve of me because I do the same stuff. I have little routes that I hit. That being said, I don’t think he would approve of me chasing around scenery. I think he kind of scouted out a place and just hung out. I’ve read he would just sit there and wait for the clouds, whereas I’m kind of like a cloud chaser.”

Skies come first. The land will follow.

“I tend not to go on long hikes or anything like that,” Wesler says. “I like traveling the dirt roads in my truck and just chasing the light. Here in Montana, it’s kind of nice—the weather could change every 10 minutes. Most of the time, it’s sunny. I’ll go online and check out cloud coverage and see where it’s moving, and where the light is. And, yes, if the clouds are in the east, I’ll go east and check it out. I look out my window, and say, ‘Okay, where am I gonna go?’ There’s always something around here.”

Jay Wesler is a fine-art photographer who specializes in black-and-white western landscape imagery. To see more of his work, visit www.jaywesler.com.