ANSEL ADAMS | INFLUENCE IN BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPHY

Seattle, Washington

WHO IS ANSEL ADAMS?

Born on February 20, 1902, in San Francisco, Ansel Adams was a landscape photographer and environmentalist. Some consider Ansel the most important landscape photographer of the 20th century. The only child of Charles Adams and Olive Bray, Ansel grew up near the sand dunes of Golden Gate. The equivalent of an 8th grade education, Ansel taught himself to play the piano. Ansel’s first job was as a concert pianist and not a photographer. Ansel was a shy kid, which led him to take long walks in the wilderness near his home, growing his love of the outdoors. This led to Ansel joining the Sierra Club in 1919 and was the keeper of the clubs LeConte Lodge for the first four summers.

Ansel Adams was one of the most important figures in nature conservancy and landscape photography. He is considered by many to be a hero for Yosemite National Park and the western United States. Mostly known for his work around the High Sierras and Yosemite, Ansel made many photographs from New Mexico, architecture, portraits of people, Japanese Americans in Internment Camps, and the landscapes which he is most famous for. Ansel Adams is the most famous black and white photographer in the world.

THE START OF ANSEL ADAMS' PHOTOGRAPHY CAREER

Ansel Adams received his first camera in 1916. While he was a very gifted pianist, photography was a close second. During his time as the custodian of the Sierra Club’s Leconte Memorial Lodge, Ansel created photographs of Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra mountains. The Sierra Club allowed 17 year old Ansel to go with them on trips into Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada mountains to produce photographs on their behalf. With the photographs Ansel took on his trips, the Sierra Club published his work and provided a solo exhibit in their headquarters in 1928. In 1931, Ansel had a solo exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. with 60 of his photographs which caused his popularity to soar.

In the 1930s, photography was more pictorialism and soft focused. Meeting photographer Paul Strand and seeing his images were in contrast to what was popular, impressed Ansel. Paul’s images were sharp, in focus, and full of tonality. In 1932, Ansel helped establish the Group f.64 which favored sharp focus and the entire tonal range from black to white. Most photographers used grey and very little tonality for their images. Unfortunately, the Group f.64 was short-lived.

Ansel Adams later established the first Museum of Modern Art curating department for photography. In 1946, Ansel started the first department to teach photography as a profession in the California School of Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute.

Wenatchee river in the Tumwater canyon in black and white.

The Tumwater Canyon in the fall is some of the best fall color in Washington State but sometimes it has to be shown in black and white. Show the area in the simplicity and timelessness that is black and white photography. It makes me wonder what Ansel Adams would do with the digital camera of today.

CONSERVATION EFFORTS

While honing his craft of photography working for the Sierra Club, the U. S. Dept of Interior hired Ansel to photograph the national parks. With his black and white images of the parks and consistent advocacy, they awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. This is the highest honor a citizen can achieve from the government. The reason the Sierra Club wanted Ansel to be the official outing photographer was so they could use his images when lobbying congress to establish new national parks like Kings Canyon. The photographs and his book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail caused President Franklin Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to embrace the idea and Kings Canyon National Park was established in 1940.

INFLUENCE ON MODERN PHOTOGRAPHY

Most painters and art collectors considered photography too realistic for fine art. This caused most photographers to use soft focus lenses and brush strokes on their negatives. Any technique to make the images not look like photographs. Few independent souls like Ansel were taking the complete opposite approach. They wanted their images, sharp, in focus, and printed on glossy papers. Ansel came to realize that black and white photography was very 2 dimensional and did not need more embellishment. He began looking over many old negatives and realized starting over was the only option. The reason his group was named Group f.64 was an aperture of f/64 creates an image with maximum definition. Ansel wanted all his images sharp and in focus. This has become the standard for any fine art landscape photographer. The images are sharp from front to back using a technique call focus stacking. Some images will have a soft foreground since that is more representational of reality, but the rest is sharp.

black and white long exposure image of Monument Valley

Perfect clouds at Monument Valley for a long exposure black and white image. Most people remember Monument Valley from Forest Gump when he was on his long run. Monument Valley was carved by the wind and rain over the last 50 million years to reveal the different buttes throughout the Navaho National Tribal parks. The park offers a 17 mile loop road so you can see more of the park but you need a high clearance vehicle.

IS ANSEL ADAMS' STILL INFLUENTIAL?

With the invention of modern digital cameras and the digital darkroom, it’s a different time in photography. We live in a time where many assume they can fix the image in post. Whether it’s cropping, removing distractions, or anything else to “fix” the image. We take 20 images from the same location but with a minor change in focal length, angle of the camera, or “insert change here”. Ansel had to take the time to make his images perfect in the camera. Using a large format film camera and an actual dark room, creating and editing images was difficult. And yes, Ansel Adams edited his images by dodging and burning techniques to get the most out of his images. While I find his images amazing considering the time he was around, I prefer modern black and white photographs. I have never liked the grainy old images. But that is the great thing about art, it’s all subjective. Maybe you like the grainy old look. Many people don’t like black and white photographs, that’s fine. But, if you’re into black and white photography, his images are still influential, since many modern photographers got their influence from Ansel. Those influenced by Ansel influence the new generation.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Ansel Adams is the reason modern photography is considered a fine art and hangs in galleries. He was one of the first photographers to have this opportunity. He brought the national parks like Yosemite to the public so everyone can see the beauty. Unfortunately, social media does that now and is the cause of many problems at parks but that is for another blog. While many photographers may not be influenced by Ansel, they can appreciate what he did for the art. Going against the norms of soft focus to match the painters of the day. Creating the Group f.64 to promote sharp, in focus images like most photographers create today. I can appreciate his work but I prefer a different style of photography as seen in my Black and White Gallery. I want the viewer to see the subject and not shades of grey. That's not to say mine are better, they're just different.

black and white image of the capitol building in Washington State.

The halls of justice can invoke a myriad of emotions. Whether in color or black and white, everyone sees the justice system of America in a different light. Some good, some bad, some indifferent. Either way, be proud of who you are and always try to do good in this world. Limited Edition of 100 prints available.

21st Street bridge in tacoma bridge in black and white.

Where does this bridge go for you? So many choices and each one is up to you. You get to decide where the road is taking you. Wherever you want to go figure out how to get there and take it one day at a time. No excuses, no blaming others. Follow your path and make it what you want. I have been driving past the 21st Street bridge in Tacoma, Washington for years and as I learn more about black and white editing, I finally have a vision of what I want it to look like. Limited Edition of 100 prints available.