Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Ansel Adams

Here is a film clip. Hat tip to The Online Photographer. It's a short educational film from the 1950s about this photographer, you might have heard of him, guy named Ansel Adams. Narrated by Beaumont Newhall, written by his wife, Nancy.

It is straight-up hagiography. The Newhalls loved Adams, and it shows. It's still fun to watch.

Notes of particular interest:
  • West Clay St in San Francisco (Seacliff neighborhood) is much the same now as then, according to google street view.
  • Adams photographs do not stand up well at all to the terrible treatment the film gives them, with ridiculously weak blacks. Many of the pictures disintegrate into pointless jumbles.
  • While Beaumont Newhall drones on endlessly about technique, much of what Adams says is about artistic expression.

I had occasion over the last weekend to spend some time with the standard library of Adams' books. Examples, and The Print in particular, but I dipped in to some of the others.

A constant theme, which surprised me, is that on virtually every page Adams talks about artistic expression. All his technique is explicitly about conveying feeling, emotion, an impression of whatever it is he's shooting. He suggests that you can't shoot it if you can't feel it. He says explicitly that all the technique he teaches is subsidiary to the artistic expression, that these technical details are mere guidelines intended to serve the final expression.

This was a surprise to me. Despite having read all this stuff, probably several times, a decade or more ago.

It strikes me, after noodling on it for a day or so, that the problem with Adams is that he was completely inarticulate on the issue of artistic expression. It shows in his books, and it shows in the film linked to above. He believed in it deeply, but he had almost literally no explicit guidance on how to do it. He reminds me of Harold Hill in "The Music Man" teaching children to play music (or rather, not teaching them) by urging them to simply "feel the music" more or less. While Adams clearly wants us to, he hasn't the foggiest notion how to help us to do it.

In part, I somewhat snottily suspect that it's because Adams himself couldn't do it very well. He made many beautiful pictures, many of which seem to be getting at the sublime, the majesty of nature, but that seems to be about it. When there is anything expressive in one of his pictures, it seems to be essentially "Oh. Wow. Wow." and frequently there isn't anything expressive it all. They're brilliant exercises in technique.

The only really good thing I've come across that isn't more or less "Oh. Wow. Wow." is his portrait of Georgia O'Keefe and Orville Cox, which looks a lot like an accident. But what an accident!

And so we are left with 100s of pages of explicit guidance on how to retain shadow detail, how to burn and dodge, how to compress or expand dynamic range to give a full range of tone in the final print, and on and on. All this crap has become gospel to many.

But it's not what Adams had in mind at all, as near as I can tell. He explicitly tells us that none of it is gospel, and that all of it is subsidiary to artistic expression.

And yet, here we are, in a world where plenty of self-styled experts will snootily complain about blocked up shadows for no damn reason at all except that they think blocked up shadows are wicked and sinful.

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