Monday, April 14, 2008

Ansel Adams

Although most people have a camera phone or a self contained camera, very few people think of a camera as something to be used to create art. The typical function of a camera worldwide is to record special moments - standing in a place you can't believe exists or broad smiling photographs of friends or family enjoying special moments. We are all also aware of how cameras are used as a way to record news, make calendars and cards and to make illustrations for advertisements. In the early 1900s a failed concert pianist from San Francisco picked up a camera and changed the way many people now see photography. His name was Ansel Adams. His most famous photograph is Moonrise Over Hernandez which during his lifetime brought in one million dollars in sales of this single photograph. It was made in 1941. Many things make it very different than other photographs of majestic landscapes of the Southwestern United States produced by people daily with camera phones or handheld cameras.

The first was that he chose to use a 50 pounds plus camera that could only be operated with a tripod. Also he chose to use black and white film rather than color film. He had to use film. There was no digital photography before the 1990s. The camera he chose shot single sheets of 8” x10” film. This particular camera was so slow to operate. He only got to take one photograph. The sun was setting and by the time he got the photograph the light was no longer what he wanted. He chose black and white film because he found that it was much easier to control the contrast. At the time color film was difficult to use. You had to make sacrifices in either the shadows or the highlights and he didn’t want to do this. He found with black and white he had more control of the shadows while taking the picture and more control to render the highlights the way he saw the photograph in his mind than would be possible with color film. Film and digital sensors see a greatly reduced contrast range compared to how your eye sees things. Fighting with light becomes the most difficult at midday on a sunny day. This is less of a problem on cloudy days and is least problematic in the early morning or late afternoon.

Adams was much more than a clever technical photographer. He worked long and hard on choosing where to stand, aware that how close you are to the subject is the most important factor in making a photograph. Adams worked more like a painter when taking photographs. He looked at what he wanted to photograph from more than one position before choosing a final place to stand. He considered the edges of the photograph very carefully not just the center. He found that shooting a huge area of space like Moonrise needed to be shot from a high place to give it the strongest composition.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 was unavailable in the 1940s. Adams very much wanted to do digital photography. He could see it coming, but died before it reached the market. Instead of using Photoshop he used a darkroom to create this very dark sky, to make the moon stand out, to make the clouds so bright and to make the grave markers in the foreground stand out. This would be slow in Photoshop and be something clearly beyond the grasp of any new Photoshop user.

This photograph was one of the first photographs accepted as art. Museums that own copies of this value it as much as any of their paintings. It took tremendous analytic skills in both the shooting and editing to make it look like this and over this semester I will introduce you to some of those skills. You have explored the most important element in making photographs as art – choosing where to stand.

More about Ansel Adams


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