I've been familiar with the name Ansel Adams since my early childhood. My father was a keen amateur photographer who, like Adams loved landscape photography. Not only did my father adore his work, he also studied the great man's darkroom techniques from one of the technical books he wrote on the subject. When I’m not working in the total darkness of a studio, I too love getting out and shooting landscape. I find it really addictive, trying to capture that elusive image that does justice to the beauty you see around you, never an easy task is it? When you look at the work of Ansel Adams you realise what can be achieved by a master craftsman.
But we are jumping ahead here; so let me start at the beginning by telling you about Adams, the now famous and much lauded American photographer. He was born in California in 1902 and by all accounts was a restless child who couldn't settle. However, it was a family trip to Yosemite that was to give him the inspiration and focus for the rest of his life. At 17, he joined the Sierra Club, a group dedicated to the preservation of Yosemite’s natural beauty.
His first photographs were shown at an exhibition in 1921 and throughout the 1920s he experimented with various photographic techniques, trying different types of soft focus lens and chemical combinations in the darkroom. In 1927 he published his first portfolio titled ‘Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras’.
It was the 1930s that proved to be a crucial decade for Adams, both technically and artistically. In 1932, his friend and fellow photographer Edward Weston set up the f64 group: a group of photographers dedicated to making images the way the camera saw them, rather than the way the eye saw them, f64 being the smallest and sharpest aperture on a camera’s lens. According to the group’s manifesto, ‘members strived to take pictures that were purely photographic in nature and not derived from any other art form’. Although the group was disbanded in 1935, its influence on Adams was considerable.
In 1933 he travelled to New York to meet the great Alfred Steiglitz and Paul Strand. These meetings changed Adams artistic philosophy, especially the theory that Steiglitz proposed about ‘Equivalents’. Adams said that ‘Steiglitz’s doctrine of the ‘Equivalent’ as an explanation of creative photography opened up the world for me”. Steiglitz ‘theory of the equivalent’, was that he could show a photograph and describe it as an equivalent of what he saw and felt, rather than an exact depiction of the scene, a revelation to Adams. In 1936 Steiglitz also arranged an exhibition of Adams’ work in New York, a success that brought his work both recognition and to the attention of the East Coast collectors.
For the next five decades, Adams continued to photograph Yosemite and other parts of the American wilderness and his work is synonymous with the very finest in black and white landscape photography. I would describe Adams as a master craftsman in every sense of the word. To achieve the very best exposure, he invented his own ‘Zone’ system of metering and exposure. Adams was a genius in the darkroom and understood the complexities of an immense range of individual chemicals and toners, their uses and their reactions to each other. In his published portfolios, Adams lists the many different chemical combinations used to achieve each individual print.
I find it interesting that Adams never ‘bracketed’. A simple technique, shooting the same image at various f stops or shutter speeds, especially useful to compensate for changing light. He only shot one, perhaps two shots of the same image at the same settings, making all the necessary adjustments in the darkroom. He said that people who bracket "don’t know what they’re doing".
Instead, he used each individual negative, almost as a blank canvas in the darkroom where he was able to enhance its original characteristics to achieve spectacular results. He said that "the negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways”. He also said a classic about darkroom techniques "dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships".
I’m very fortunate to have seen his work before and I also have a couple of his books, each beautifully printed. But to see his work at first hand is a wonderful experience. His images are perfection I think; they radiate the characteristics of a man at the very top of his game. The sheer technical quality of each image, the tonal range he achieves is visually astounding. And then there’s the composition, Adams said "there are only shapes, configurations in chaos until the artist gives them form" and of course he’s right.
Not only was Adams the great technician, but he was also the great artist, the perfect combination. In this exhibition we can clearly see Adams the artist and Adams the technician in every image on display. Those of us who have tried to photograph water will know how difficult it can be to get everything right. To capture the essence of moving water is a technical challenge, but believe me, apart from some of his very early images, Adams achieves near perfection in every photograph. Bear in mind that he was capturing these images with large format plate cameras that had to be carried, along with a heavy wooden tripod and other equipment miles into the wilderness!
In this first image of Fern Springs, Dusk, Yosemite Valley, about 1961 we see water gently flowing over rocks. It’s a wonderful composition, of tones and the arrangement of the white water as it flows over the rocks.
The next image from the exhibition is one of his classics entitled, Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California, about 1937. It captures that moment when dark storm clouds pass and sunlight returns to light the very tops of the mountains. To see it on show is wonderful, the image is about 3 feet square and the tonal range is enormous. It captures the moment beautifully and the densities of light and shade are amazing.
To show his mastery, there are three very large murals on display. Adams had to print these in strips, pinning his printing paper vertically to a wall and turning his enlarger to the horizontal to project the image onto it. These individually exposed strips were then pasted onto large boards about 10 feet x 8 feet in size. The results are superb, you can’t see the joins and the sheer size of the image gives a near 3D view of the mountains, sea and sky.
In this image of Whalers Cove, Carmel Mission, taken about 1935, we see a large expanse of water with rocks in the foreground and in the background. It’s printed about, as I said, 10 feet x 8 feet in size and provides a magnificent panorama.
I love this image, reminiscent of the work of Herbert Ponting, the Australian photographer who accompanied the Scott expedition. Here, Adams’ shoots through a tunnel of rock with overhanging ice that provides a wonderful composition. The image is only about 9 inches by 7 inches and is entitled, From Wawona Tunnel, Yosemite, about 1935.
This is another of Adams’ most famous photographs entitled, The Teton’s and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1942. The photograph on show is about 3 feet x 4 feet in size, large enough to transform the viewer back to the same view point as Adams. It’s a great image and once again, it’s the huge tonal range is that makes it so interesting.
Another image of water that works so well is this photograph entitled, Stream, Sea, Clouds, Rodeo Lagoon, Marin County California, 1962. This photograph is about 3 feet x 4 feet and is a tour de force of tones and densities when viewed close up.
The exhibition has many images of waterfalls and this one is particularly fine. It’s entitled Waterfall, Northern Cascades, Washington, 1960.
Finally, here is an interesting photograph, entitled The Golden Gate before the bridge, San Francisco, about 1932. It has all the elements of a great Adams image. He’s captured those beautiful white clouds, plus the darker shades of the hills and water.
I have to say that this is the best exhibition that I've been to this year and it lived up to all my expectations. The exhibition is well laid out and well lit and there is plenty of information available about the photographs on show. Apart from the images, there is also an area showing some documentary videos of Adams talking about his life, work and his techniques, all well worth watching. I’ve said this before; it really is worth visiting exhibitions, seeing work at first hand. Believe me, it’s better than looking at any book, no matter how well it’s printed.
Despite living in the flat marsh lands of East Anglia rather than the majestic mountains and lakes of Yosemite Valley, the exhibition has inspired me to go out and shoot some more landscapes, I hope the exhibition inspires you in the same way!
The exhibition, Photography from the Mountains to the Sea at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, runs until 28th April 2013.
Details about opening times and ticket prices can be found via the Museum’s website.
I appreciate that not everyone will be able to get to London to see the show, so I’m pleased to say that there is an exhibition guide that features the work on display entitled At the Waters Edge. The guide only costs £20.00, plus postage, good value when you think that some of Adams’ books now sell for vast amounts of money. Anyway, this guide is very well printed and has lots of information about Adams’ work and life. The guide can be obtained via the Museum's online shop, and would make a great Christmas present.
My sincere thanks to Jenny Stewart at the National Maritime Museum for arranging the use of the images.
It’s worth mentioning that Ansel Adams was not the first person to photograph Yosemite Valley, ‘discovered’ just after the California Gold rush of 1848/9. A lesser known photographer, Carleton E. Watkins was certainly one of the first to photograph the valley, showing his work at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. Like Adams, he also used a large format camera, but his ‘mammoth camera’ as he called it, produced negatives 18x 21 inches in size, quite a beast to haul around the American wilderness! His early work also influenced Congress to establish the valley as a National Park in 1864. Sadly, his life did not end well; he lost his studio and all his negatives, his life’s work, in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. In 1910 he was committed into a mental institution where he died 4 years later. Look up his image of ‘Mirror Lakes’ it’s a masterpiece.
The eccentric English photographer Eadwaerd Muybridge (more widely known for his multi still images of moving horses and people) also photographed in the valley, competing directly with Watkins for print sales. Another photographer, Irish born Timothy O’Sullivan, (once employed by Matthew Brady during the US civil war) also documented the valley from 1867 to 1869 for the US Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. Finally, and more up to date, Ansel Adams’ friend Edward Weston, born nearly 20 years before him shot widely around the Yosemite and the west coast of America and was a huge influence on Adams own work.
I briefly mentioned the influential f64 group of photographers,1932 to 1935, the group included; Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, & Willard Van Dyke.
I also mentioned Alfred Stieglitz’ theory of ‘equivalents’, well worth further research.