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Matinee: 'Ansel Adams, Photographer' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

26 October 2013

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the fifth in our series of Saturday matinees today: a twenty-minute documentary on Ansel Adams with a few intriguing features.

Directed by David Myers, the 1958 film was written by Adams' friend Nancy Newhall and narrated by her husband Beaumont Newhall, curator of the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House at the time.

Even better, though, the film presents Scriabin's Prelude and Bach's Prelude in C Major performed by Adams himself, who is shown at the piano early in the the film.

But we were already won over by the very first scene: a view from the air of the Golden Gate Bridge and the city of San Francisco beyond it. There was no bridge when Adams was born in the Western Addition and the family home was still being built on the dunes along the Golden Gate to the west.

It's familiar turf to us. We lived in the Richmond district and would often take a long walk down Lake St., passing the former home of another famous photographer, William Dassonville. He was a bit older than Adams but the two knew each other.

Peter Palmquist describes their relationship in an essay published in Dassonville, a 1999 catalog of Dassonville's work:

In the mid-1920s, a lanky young pianist-turning-photographer named Ansel Adams met Dassonville at a Camera Club meeting. "Dassonville, he learned, was a neighbor," Nancy Newhall writes. "Dropping in to see him now and then, Ansel absorbed the idea that photography could be an art." Adams remembered the older photographer from these years as "very kind to me" and generous with technical information unlike other photographers who "just hated to give away secrets."

Adams, of course, would go on to write some of the most important books on photographic technique ever published, generous himself with sharing his secrets.

There are numerous online galleries of Adams' work. Here are a few to get you started:

And finally, we're happy to reprise a lightly-edited review we wrote of the Adams show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2001, on the centenary of his birth.

The Still Images of Ansel Adams

Part I

"I believe that the electronic image will be the next major advance," Ansel Adams wrote 20 years ago. "Such systems have their own inherent and inescapable structural characteristics, and the artist and functional practitioner will again strive to comprehend and control them."

And here we are, nearly 100 years after his birth (at three in the morning on Feb. 20, 1902), trying to wrap our brains around the digital image as artists and practitioners. Fortunately Adams is still a presence, too, (even though he left us Easter Sunday, April 22, 1984) with special exhibitions planned around the country to honor the centennial of his birth.

Recently we visited the San Francisco Modern Museum of Art's "Ansel Adams at 100" showing through Jan. 13 in San Francisco and next year at the Art Institute of Chicago from Feb. 2 to June 2; The Hayward Gallery, London, July 4 to Sept. 22; Kunstbibliothek, Berlin, Oct. 10 to Jan. 5, 2003. And in 2003, the show travels to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Feb. 2 to April 27; and the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, July 9 to Nov. 4.

Meanwhile you can enjoy the companion (and excellent) multimedia presentation with a fast Internet connection. The show sent us back to our stack of Adams tomes and once again we found he repaid our attention.


Adams fought in the front lines of the war to legitimize photography as an art form. When people were still talking about photographs as "sun pictures" made by light and resolved by chemicals, as if no human might intervene, he championed the Zone System, which he developed with Fred Archer as a teaching aid at the Art Center School in Los Angeles, "to achieve a visualized image, with almost no limitations on the visualization itself."

Adams knew that the range of brightness in the world is far greater than any emulsion can capture, that choices inevitably have to be made by measuring light and consciously placing it on the scale of possible exposures. And that these choices are creative ones. "As long as we must be able to work from a range of subject luminances that are to be represented as we want them to be by a range of gray values (or color values) in a print, the Zone System seems certain to provide an extremely useful framework," Adams wrote.

"It is important to realize," he explained, "that the expressive photograph (the 'creative' photograph) or the informational photograph does not have [a] directly proportional relationship to what we call reality." They unavoidably resemble reality, he pointed out, in their imagery but "if it were possible to make direct visual comparison with the subjects, the differences [in tonal values] would be startling."

It's important to remember, then, that his images are not intended to be a representation of some place. They are a very finely crafted and planned (or visualized) manipulation of tonal values derived from the image of the place. He composed on the negative a score he could play over and over again in the darkroom.

And that would be enough to make him worthy of our attention. But Adams more than most let us accompany him on his shoots and sneak into his darkroom. He wrote voluminously and well about what he was doing and remains, whether you agree with him or not, one the craft's finest teachers.

But let's start at the beginning. One hundred years ago.


Near the end of his life, Adams spent many hours with Mary Street Alinder working on his autobiography, which was published in 1985. It has a skimpy index, oddly, but is profusely illustrated, the images appropriately serving as a kind of index themselves.

In it, we learn a lot about his childhood. He lived in isolation on the dunes in the northwest corner of San Francisco beyond the Golden Gate before it had been bridged. The 1906 earthquake damaged the house his father had built there but didn't ruin it. He says he was delighted to find the wooden works of a treasured 1812 grandfather clock spilled across the floor because he could finally play with them. Hardly. It was repaired then and treasured later in his own home in Carmel, keeping remarkably good time. The same could not be said of his nose, which was broken when he tumbled in an aftershock on his way to breakfast.

As a child, he was so agitated that a doctor prescribed a daily two-hour rest in a darkened room every afternoon. He could hardly contain himself there, though. He wanted to be outside, exploring the shoreline from Fort Scott to the east to the cliffs above China Beach to the west.

He so detested school, its memorization for the sake of memorization, that his father had to continue his education at home. But that independent education was informed by everything around him, from condoms that washed up on the beach to the contractor's office on the dunes as housing was developed there following the earthquake.

A block away from home, lived Miss Marie Butler, an elderly piano teacher who agreed to take on the young Adams. She made "no adaptation to my usual scattered approach," insisting on "grueling exercises and repetitious scales" until he was ready to try "a little phrasing." She insisted the notes be right, but was patient with his interpretation. "She never played or demonstrated music that I was working on. I had to express the music myself."

"Gaining the techniques to produce beautiful and precise sounds," he wrote at the end of his life, "I began to express my emotions through music. I am convinced that explanation of emotion in art is accomplished only in the medium in which it is created." The work, that is, speaks for itself. "This came to me powerfully years later when I turned to photography."

In fact music became the metaphor he most often employed in his argument for art when he turned away from the piano to express himself in photography. The tones of his monochromatic images were like the musical phrasing of the compositions he had studied, which themselves resembled the negatives he printed over and over, understanding nuances he had not appreciated at first. His appreciation for the variables in performance became a way to understand the variables in printing.

His technical knowledge, exhibited in a series of superb treatises (The Negative, The Camera, The Print, among them), was impressive. He claimed to be able to visualize the effect of a particular lens/filter combination on any of several emulsions (Polaroid, too, by the way) using any development concoction and technique and printed on any paper. And to prove it, he developed the Zone System, measuring important tones in the scene with a spot meter and consciously exposing them to known values or zones on film, then processing that film to extend or contract the tonal range of the film to achieve a specific, intended affect in the print.

All this was necessary, he said, to be able to create an image, rather than merely record one. To express an emotion, not to record a setting. Above all, to have authority over accident.

Take, for example, Moonrise over Hernandez. With not even a fraction of a second to spare, he pulled his station wagon to the side of the road, set his view camera on its tripod and got the shot. But as he tells the story, it's no accidental masterpiece, but the result of his command of his tools, knowing which lens to use, which filter (a deep yellow Wratten G, No. 15) -- and with no time to look for his light meter, remembering the footcandles of the moon (250 per square foot) to calculate the right exposure for the print he imagined.

This approach to photography was inspired by Miss Butler, no doubt, but informed by his life-long love of the natural world and, most importantly, fed by the need to argue for photography as art. In his time, photography was a job (he had a commercial studio for a while) and a craft but whether it was an art or not, and what kind of art, was much debated.

As a young man, Adams learned to print negatives from a neighbor, William Dassonville. Dassonville, himself a photographer, was also a chemist who made his own papers and emulsions. In fact, Dassonville expanded into photo paper manufacturing with a plant on Market St. that produced his Charcoal Black paper and other artistic effect emulsions. And Adams used it through 1933.

But in 1932 Adams helped found the Group f/64, which revolted against the "oppressive pictorialism" that Dassonville favored, arguing that photography should be what only photography could be and not emulate the romantic compositions of figurative painters. "The members of Group f/64 believe that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself," as they wrote in their manifesto.

Adams subsequently created some memorable images that, in fact, were false to the actual scene. "Moonrise," chief among them, with its twilight sky burned black. But he significantly manipulated every print in the darkroom -- in performance, that is, dodging and burning like a conductor bringing up the strings and quieting the horns.

Part II

In this part, we'll take the tour we promised you of the centennial exhibit honoring Ansel Adams, currently at SFMOMA before it hits the road through 2003. We'll also appraise Adams' legacy for today's photographer.


Adams is well represented in print, but the centennial exhibit at SFMOMA is special not only for hanging the real thing in all its glory, but for assembling a collection of images that illuminate his method more than measure his achievement. A show, that is, for photographers, not collectors.

It's documented by "Ansel Adams at 100," an extraordinary book, printed on 115 lb. French paper, in which the 114 monochromatic images are reproduced using tritones that appeared as screenless as a gravure to our naked eye. They are remarkable to see but expensive to own, the paperback going for $50 ($35 at; $105 for the $150 hardback). John Szarkowski, director emeritus of New York MoMA's photography department and curator of the exhibit, authored the text.

If you attend the show, you can flip through the book at side tables in the Learning Center, a darkened room you enter via the last room. In the middle of the room is an island of computer stations hosting the multimedia presentation of Adams and his work that calls on reproductions of his work and QuickTime videos of his television appearances and documentaries to explain and demonstrate what he was up to. You can, for example, see Moonrise as a contact print and in two different prints Adams made over the years.

We can also recommend the MP3 audio tour ($5) with remarks by Szakowski and Adams himself on over two dozen items.

The show is divided into several named rooms, generally presenting his camera work chronologically. Later prints often appear alongside early ones, making it easy to compare Adams' different interpretations of his own work.

Room 1 or Crux presents images he made as he was becoming acquainted with photography. Many of his later subjects were objects of interest early in his career. Lamentably, the paper isn't identified, but images printed before 1933 may indeed by on his neighbor Dassonville's famous Charcoal Black. They appear slightly yellowed and textured.

In Room 2 or Learning you'll find albums of images Adams made during Sierra Club outings. He made 125 of these (now part of the Bancroft Collection at the University of California) primarily as catalogs. Club members would view the albums to order prints for $1 or $2.50 for a print on "parchment" (probably Charcoal Black). Adams approached the task much like a wedding photographer, though, taking multiple views of the same scene and displaying them all.

The albums might be considered an interesting record of his apprenticeship in composition. If they indeed revealed some refinement. But they primarily demonstrate his comprehensiveness and discipline.

Also in this room hang huge canvas reference prints, one labeled "telephotography" to mark the use of a telephoto lens to capture McDonnell Peak and Benningron Glacier.

Room 3 or Motive demonstrates Adams' first use of the Zone System to intentionally expose luminances in the scene to specific values on the negative. Two Dead Trees Against Black Sky almost seems like two arms thrown up to howl in horror. But look closely and you'll see the "white" of the dead branches are actually a much darker gray, the sky even darker.

This image also argues his interest in the cycle of nature rather than merely pretty pictures of the environment. We see not just photogenic spring blossoms, but leafless branches.

In this room you'll find a series of compositions taken at the same time of Lake McDonald Glacier in Montana. The grouping is itself of interest, as Adams moves the horizon and prints the weather, more than the geology, of the place. There are three distinct images which you may not immediately recognize as having been taken at almost exactly the same moment.

Seeing the show in groups of images like this is one of its unique advantages. We recommend you do not peck along picture by picture, no matter how crowded it is. Step back, take a seat on one of the low benches and wait for a lull in the traffic.

In Room 4 or Responsibility we see some of his more well-known images. A series of the Geyser at Yellowstone is a testament to his patience in the field. And we even get an urban scene of Broad Street, N.Y., the "caverns" of the financial district he photographed when he become the advisor to the newly-created Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art.

But most impressive is his image of Mount Williamson from 1944, taken near the Japanese relocation camp at Manzanar, Calif. Considered a security risk after the United States entered World War II, 110,000 Japanese (70,000 American-born citizens) and a smaller number of Italian-Americans were removed from their homes and communities to be relocated to camps -- even as their children were enlisting in the armed services.

Adams went there to photograph the internment camp at the request of its director Ralph Merritt, an old Sierra Club friend, publishing Born Free and Equal in 1944. Adams said he was "profoundly affected" by the camp and "the remarkable adjustment these people had made." He explained, "With admirable strength of spirit, the Nisei rose above despondency and made a life for themselves, a unique macro-civilization under difficult conditions. This was the mood and character I determined to apply to the project."

One day, as a storm broke over the mountains, Adams watched it approach Mount Williamson, drove out to a field of huge boulders extending several miles before the mountain, set up his 8x10 camera on the car's rooftop platform and composed Mount Williamson. The stones are arrayed before the mountain with the dignity of the encamped Japanese, the sunlight boldly highlighting them.

Here you'll also find his Surf Sequence, a set of five images of a wave washing the sand beneath his tripod. Szarkowski speculates Adams was just snapping the shutter hoping to get something interesting to print and that the sequence was created in the darkroom when Adams liked several of the shots too much to dispose of any of them.

Indeed, it wouldn't work as an animated GIF. The sequence isn't about motion, but reflects the sort of abstract expressionist "series" of related images popular in the Bay area then.

Room 5 or Reconsideration has several interesting groups from the last third of Adams' life when he spent more time in the darkroom than in the field.

Among the new images are some of Yosemite's El Capitan in the winter of 1968. Its dark snow and white fog make you wonder how often Adams has cast white things gray and blue things black.

Here you'll see that moon rise over Hernandez, too (in 1941).

A print of Aspens, Northern New Mexico (1958) from 1958-60 and another from 1976 are hung side by side. In the early print, the light is reserved for the leaves on the small tree, almost as if it's a first glimpse, while the latter print reveals much more of the background without losing the brightness of those leaves. A second glance? A look back?

And two images of the same tree by the Merced River, one taken in his youth (Autumn Evening) and one in old age (Early Morning), are so different in tonality you don't immediately recognize that the view itself is the same. Proving his point, no doubt.


Adams has become larger than life, suffering a backlash against his influence as well as the support of well-meaning but untutored admirers. But it would be short-sighted to discount his importance.

You can admire this self-described "hyperactive" child at the very least for his rigorous devotion to the technical requirements of his craft. Sometimes we hardly believe he could calculate the consequences of his choices of equipment, film, processing and printing. But when we remember the testing he did, we only marvel.

This mastery of craft has another side, though. More than most, he let us accompany him on his shoots and sneak into his darkroom. He wrote voluminously and well about what he was doing.

He shows would-be photographers both how to approach the intimidating technical aspect of the medium and one way to meld it with the more ephemeral lyrical aspect.

As we wrestle today with the digital medium -- the intricacies of our versatile hardware and the complexities of the software darkroom -- his example can only be illuminating.

But he also had a sense of what it's all about.

"Photographers are, in a sense, composers," he wrote in his autobiography, "and the negatives are their scores. They first perform their own works, but I see no reason why they should not be available for others to perform. I am sure that scanning techniques will be developed to achieve prints of extraordinary subtlety from the original negative scores. If I could return in twenty years or so I would hope to see astounding interpretations of my most expressive images. It is true no one could print my negatives as I did, but they might well get more out of them by electronic means. Image quality is not the product of a machine, but of the person who directs the machine and there are no limits to imagination and expression."

Consequently, he refused to destroy his work to increase their value. "I cannot accept the value of artificially produced scarcity as more important than the value of creative production."

Instead, he bequeathed his negative archive to the University of Arizona's Center for Creative Photography (which now includes the archives of Edward Weston, Sonia Noskowiak, W. Eugene Smith, Wynn Bullock, Fred Sommer, Harry Callahan and others). Twenty years later his negatives are printed there under supervision by students.

Adams also created the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, which published the show catalog. If the Center functions like a repository of musical scores, the Trust operates much like a sculptor's foundry.

So he also established tackled two important issues faced by any artist in photography: what happens to the archive of images and who prints them after the artist dies.

He began his career breaking the stranglehold of romanticism on photography, unembarrassed by the sharp detail his lens could provide or the unfaithful tonality of the print or inevitable optical distortions. And he continued it with the development of the Zone System as a method of enabling personal expression in photography. At the end, he provided for his negatives and the reproduction of his images.

Now that he has left the stage, his images stand alone in the spotlight to express his vision. Untarnished by the fashion of their day, elemental as nature, they are as fresh to new eyes today as they were when first printed.

For those who have seen them before, they continue to enchant. Beyond the beautiful crust of the earth or the complex tonalities of a print, you can feel some resonance still with the soul of that restless man who first met the world at the Golden Gate.

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