Monday, September 23, 2013

Ansel Adams: Pictorialist

It is received wisdom that Ansel Adams rejected pictorialism. It is received wisdom that the the f/64 group formed at least in part in opposition to pictorialism. I have made the claim here and there in passing that Ansel Adams was in fact a pictorialist, and here I'm going to spend a little time digging in to that a bit more.

First of all let's distinguish between pictorialists and pictorialism. At the time Adams and f/64 were rejecting pictorialism, the movement had become one of muddy, blurry, scratched up pictures. There were a wide set of techniques in play, mostly it seems to bring some notion of physical work into the picture making process, and perhaps to ensure that each picture was a unique object like a painting. There was some sort of effort to make photographs which felt like fine art, created by an artisan with his own hands. This, as far as I can tell, is what Adams and f/64 rejected, it was a rejection more of pictorialists and contemporary pictorial technique than of pictorialism per se.

What is pictorialism? Well, according to Henry Peach Robinson, loosely interpreted, it is making photographs that look like paintings. The photographs, according to Robinson, should read as "real" whether they are or not (note that this criterion seems eventually to have been abandoned by many working pictorialists). Manipulation is OK, as long as the result appears truthful. Pictures should be beautiful, they should have the properties of repose and breadth, the pictures should invoke the sublime perhaps. These are all ideals of 19th century painting. There is none of this edgy business here, it's all about beauty and peace and virtues and so on. Pictorialism was also rightly accused of a sort of mawkish sentimentality. Robinson and his contemporaries certainly made sentimental Victorian twaddle about virtue and dying and so on. There was a fair bit of worship of nature and the past going on, as well. Natural things are good, old things are good. New things, things which taste of the modern hand of man are worth neither painting nor photographing.

What about Adams, now? Looks like paintings? Why, yes. If J.M.W. Turner had used only grey paints, his paintings would be practically indistinguishable from Adams' photographs, apart from the human figures Turner liked which Adams did not. Repose, breadth, the sublime, and beauty? All there in the frame. There's nothing edgy about an Adams picture, and they are very beautiful. Sentimental? My goodness yes, the most breathless sort of nature worship suffuses all the most popular pictures. While Adams lacks Robinson's Victorian obsession with death, Adams merely replaces that sentiment with a blind adoration of mountains, trees, and streams. Did Adams consider manipulation OK as long as the result "read" as true? Why yes, yes he did. While he did not paste in new skies, he didn't have to what with his fancy new panchromatic emulsions.

Adams' photographs are awash in the techniques of 19th century composition, he has strong diagonals, he places light tones next to dark to tell you what to look at, every frame is wonderfully balanced. All the specific methods used by painters to manage the viewer's experience of the frame, and to create feelings of repose and invoke the sublime are present in spades. Adams photographs make an almost perfect accompaniment to Robinson's seminal Pictorial Effect in Photography (excepting the sections on portraiture).

Adams arguably rejected the techniques and the look of his contemporary pictorialists, but there's just no way he wasn't a pictorialist.

Interestingly, Edward Weston to my eye was nothing of a pictorialist. His work is completely different, and looks nothing like 19th century painting. It's unsentimental, it is occasionally edgy. Also, it's pretty much entirely about sex.

For those of you who might be fans of 1970s rocks, Weston reminds me of old Aerosmith (sex, sex, sex, occasional drug use with sex, more sex) and Adams puts me in mind of post-reunion Aerosmith (unendurably mawkish ballads and hardly any sex at all and definitely no drugs -- but really well made power rock).

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