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walking in the light: a life in photography

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ansel Adams

I recently reread the introduction to the book Ansel Adams at 100. The book came out at the same time as the AA exhibit was traveling the world back in 2002. The intro. is by John Szarkowski, who has written many insightful commentaries and histories on photography. For some reason these words about the growth and changes in Adam's work over his lifetime really made me think about how a person can evolve as a photographer over the course of a life.

Here are the words:
His early work was defined in graphic terms--dependent on the choice of vantage point and framing. Later, coherence increasingly was dependent on the perfection of the tonal scale which binds the picture together.

Without even looking at specific photos, those words seemed to ring true as I thought of Adams' late 1920s image of Half Dome--Monolith. Certainly his use of a deep red filter to darken the sky and the strength of the tonal range helped to carry the day in this photo, but it was his vantage point and the awesome strength of this hunk of granite that made the photo compelling. Compare this to Moonrise, Hernandez, NM some 20 years later, which I did in my mind. More so than the small crosses and the simple buildings in this photo, the range and perfection of the tonal values raise this potentially mundane image to the photographic heights. It is one of my favorite photographs of all time. I turned the pages to find those photos, and I knew Szarkowski was on target. Of course, there are lots of things yet to say about Ansel Adams' work--I don't think we will ever run dry of his inspiration, technically nor emotionally--but I think Szarkowski's analysis is informative. As our vision modifies itself as we age, each thing we “see” as a potential subject will demand of us the application of principals, technology, vision, even our changing senses of love and life and who we are to the photograph that we end up creating. It is daunting to think about the possibilities, yet inspiring to think of what Adams, at least, was able to do up to the end of his long life.