Art and Photography Term Paper

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Ansel Adams: An Analysis of the Importance of America's Most Popular Photographer

Of all the great black-and-white photographers, Ansel Adams was the blackest and the whitest. -- Kenneth Brower, 2002

Today, Ansel Adams is widely regarded as the most important landscape photographer of the 20th century, and is perhaps the most best known and beloved photographer in the history of the United States. As a firm testament to his talents and innovations, the popularity of his work has only increased over the years following his death in 1984 (Szarkowski 1-2). This photographer's most important work concerned the last remaining vestiges of untouched wilderness in the nation, particularly in the national parks and other protected areas of the American West; in addition, Adams was an early and outspoken leader of the conservation movement (Szarkowski 2). This paper provides an overview of Adams and his historical significance, followed by a discussion of the medium he used and the time period in which he worked. An analysis of the historical and artistic influences on Adams is followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.

Review and Analysis.

Background and Overview. The superlatives simply fly when discussions of Ansel Adams are had; while the photographer had his critics, by and large, the American public loved the man and his work. "Anyone can understand the art of Ansel Adams," Brower notes, "whose images just knock one over. What role does that leave the critic?" (133). Anyone who has seen an Adams' photograph -- which is to say virtually everyone -- is immediately impressed with both the quality of the composition as well as the clarity of execution. According to Fischer (1996), "The photographs of Ansel Adams stress self-realization through identification with a natural setting" (365).

Historical Significance of Ansel Adams. Adams has left a profound legacy by generating continuing and renewed interest in the conservation of the wilderness areas of the United States, as well as introducing innovations into the field of nature photography. For example, in his essay, "Layers: Looking at Photography and Photoshop," Flagan (2002) points out that "anyone familiar with photography, and especially the large-format variety, will perhaps recognize immediate echoes of another process, another system, invented many years prior in the 1940s by Yosemite legend and modernist photographer extraordinaire, Ansel Adams" (10). The photographic process referred to here was the invention Adams called the Zone System. This technique was based on the principles of densitometry (the term is used here in relation to the optical density of photographic negatives and is usually referred to in previous studies as sensitometry); Adam's Zone System, developed in collaboration with Fred Archer in the early 1940s, is a method that permits a photographer to coordinate exposure readings with exposure and development controls based on a pre-visualization of the final photographic print (Flagan 11).

The first step involved in understanding and using Adams' Zone System involves a division of the continuous, analog grayscale of a photographic print into ten discrete units, or what Adams termed "zones." In order to maintain a separation of the zones from other measurements, such as exposure readings, Adams assigned them Roman numerals, thereby capturing the entire range of tones from of the deepest black (where all the silver in the paper has been exposed), to the brightest white (rendering nothing but the paper base), on a scale of 0-X (Flagan 11).

When taking photographs in the field, photographers using the Zone System would set up their equipment before the selected scene and perform a series of meter readings; the photographers would then envision what they would like the desired final print to look like and make the exposure accordingly. According to Flagan, exposures would normally be made for the deepest shadow area with detail, which would fall on Zone Ill in Adams's system, and then develop the negative with contraction or expansion of the highlight values, in essence controlling contrast through changes in development time. The photographic product that resulted, as Adams himself, noted, was not that much concerned with the "reality" of the scene: "Many consider my photographs to be in the 'realistic' category. Actually, what reality they have is in their optical-image accuracy; their values are definitely 'departures from reality'" (Adams cited in Flagan 11).

One of the more interesting and important aspects of this contribution is the manner in which it foresaw the introduction of digital photography in the closing days of the 20th century. In fact, following its introduction in 1941, Flagan suggests that it is impossible to exclusively consider photography an analog operation today since every photograph conceived using this system (and the author notes that there are many) was pre-visualized based on this table of ten discrete values. "It was composed and manufactured according to these ten units, and largely presented as the creative result of applying various zones to elements of the original scene," he says (Flagan 11).

Adams was also not above revising the various elements of his photographs in response to criticism; for example, according to Brower:

The public has always liked Ansel Adams, even if the critics have not. (This no doubt explains the sour opinion of many of the critics, e.g., 'Dirty snowdrift'?) In this 1978 McKinley, Adams simply darkened the shadows on the peak but not beyond the tonal range the eye accepts. I confess that the print is a little dark for my taste (I prefer intermediate prints I have seen of this image), but it is within the realm. These are McKinley shadows as one might perceive them at dawn from Wonder Lake. The 1978 print is not just more dramatic; it also conveys more information. Adams's darkening of shadows accentuates the topography of the mountain, sharpening the knife-edge ridges, bringing out the massif's third dimension. (133)

The relevance and importance of Adams' work can also be seen today from the popularity of his photographs that toured the country on his 100-year anniversary in 2002; further, Adams' photographs are widely regarded as being "the most natural and timeless there is, both in terms of subject matter, which helped spawn the National Park system, and interpretive vision, expressively channeled as an inner, personal style" (Flagan 12). Likewise, Brower (2002) enthuses that as far back as 1955, Adams "was even then recognized as the foremost landscape photographer on earth" (132). Such praise is not without foundation, certainly. For example, Adams was an early proponent of achieving maximum optical clarity through his association with the f-64 group (f-64 being the smallest available aperture, which provides the largest depth of field), and advanced the lens-based component of photography to its sharpest and clearest rendering to date, thereby ensuring that everything from near to far in his photographs was resolved with the same crisp, distinct details (Flagan 12).

The importance of this approach to contemporary photographers cannot be overstated and remains a vital component of his legacy. According to Flagan, Adams was the first photographer to take landscape images and reduce them into their respective visual components using his Zone System. This approach seemed to be the catalyst that moved the medium of photography from the realm of merely reproducing what the camera saw to one where the photographer became the composer as well. In this regard, Flagan notes that with Adams' Zone System, individual values were complemented "without risk of retracing the Pictorialist's penchant for broad painterly strokes. But consider also that there is no detail without value. Every object in a photograph is composed of contrasting changes in tone: optics simply enhance their borders, just like an aperture makes any differentiation possible" (12).

Therein clearly laid the genius of Adams: "Without these gradations, photography is only light-sensitive materials responding to an absence or excess of light, with all the gray values, divisible to infinity, of the Zone System found in between" (Flagan 12). These gradations are clearly visible in Adams' work, "Moon and Half Dome," for example, shown in Figure 1, and his "Trees, Stump, and Mist, Northern Cascades," shown in Figure 2 below.

Figure 1. "Moon and Half Dome," Ansel Adams, gelatin silver photograph, image size approximately 8'x10."

Source: The Ansel Adams Gallery 2005.

Figure 2. Trees, Stump, and Mist, Northern Cascades, Ansel Adams, gelatin silver photograph.

Source: The Ansel Adams Gallery 2005.

In his essay, "From Aesthetic Education to Environmental Aesthetics," Fischer (1996) suggests that it was this ability to switch back and forth "from environmental the aesthetic criteria of value [that] led Adams to a photographic style which recalls the great stylists among realist painters of nineteenth-century America" (366). Likewise, an environmentalist, William Turnage, believed that there was a clear association between Adams and the Rocky Mountain and Hudson River schools of landscape painting, a connection that was further supported by the observation of photography critic John Szarkowski who stated:

Adams' photographs are perhaps anachronisms. They are perhaps the last confident and deeply felt pictures of their tradition. . . . It does not seem likely that a photographer of the future will…[continue]

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