Carmel Coast, USA.
Phase One XF 100MP, 240mm lens, 1/1600 second @ f8, ISO 50
Earlier this year, Tony Hewitt and I took a group of photographers around South West America in the footsteps of America's great landscape photographers. Naturally enough, Ansel Adams was one of them.
In preparation for the trip, I read a biography about Ansel and was fascinated to learn how much he has been misunderstood by many photographers.
At the risk of overly simplifying the issues, in the early 20th Century, Ansel Adams and Edward Weston were pushing to have photography recognised for what it was, not for trying to emulate painting. At the time, the 'Pictorialist' movement was doing everything it could to make photographs look like paintings.
Adams and Weston pushed the idea of 'straight' photography, meaning they wanted their images to look like photographs, not paintings.
Throughout their careers, their views on what photography should and shouldn’t be gradually changed as they worked it all out. I think Ansel summed it up pretty well later in his life as follows:
“A photograph that is merely a superficial record of the subject fails as an aesthetic expression of that subject. The expression must be an emotional amplification, and this emotional amplification relates to point of view, organization, revelation of substance through textures, tonal relations, and the perfection of the technical expression of all these elements.”
I loved reading this. For years, photographers who didn't like Photoshop and the ability to edit and interpret their work have held up Ansel Adams as a legend who produced photographs 'straight out of camera'. Of course, anyone who has read Ansel's books knows that this is far from the truth, however it is also true to note that Ansel questioned himself about how far he could push a photograph before going too far.
For instance, using a Yellow filter in black and white film photography would darken a blue sky, giving a more 'natural' result. Using a red filter would turn a blue sky almost black, which was far from natural but looked pretty damn good, and I think Ansel agonised over this for many years. His famous Half Dome was the first time he went to the 'dark side' with a red filter and a black sky, but he repeated the black sky 'interpretation' with his Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. These are probably his two most famous photographs, so what does that say?
My message: Photography can be as interpretive or as 'straight' as you want it to be, just let other photographers do what they want and don't worry about it! And photographers who do enjoy the dark side, keep this little piece of photo trivia up your sleeve. Even the great Ansel Adams expects our photographs to have some 'emotional amplification'.