Ansel Adams

It would be very easy to get wrapped up in the man and write about nothing else. But what could I write that has not already been written about Ansel Adams. His involvement in the Sierra Club, Group f/64 and drafting its manifesto (which his later work contradicts), his books and teaching, but instead I will (try to) focus just a few of his images and talk to those.

As per a previous post on my blog, I had three books arrive on the same day one on Ansel, the others on William Klien and William Eggleston. The book Ansel Adams 400 Photographs is the one that captured my attention from the off and this interest has not stopped. Now that I have had the book few weeks, I have to be honest and now say that I am officially a fan of Ansel Adams, from being aware of his work as a casual passing observer to now seeking out his images even to the point of looking to see where I can go and see an original print. So on to the images:


Monolith, The Face of the Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California. 1927

Taken in 1927, this is the first image where Adams when interviewed called this his first serious photograph, when he knew what he was doing “I could visualise the image I want, I know my technique, my craft, I can operate the camera use the right filters, exposure and development. And with that whole approach came the zone system.” It is clear that Ansel could recognise the expressive qualities he wished to portray in his images and had the skill to do so. This image was originally taken using a yellow filter, however, not happy with the result Ansel went back and this time used a red filter to enhance the stark rock face and darken the sky even more. This is a very majestic looking photograph, yet the size and placement of the monolith gives an uncomfortable, even menacing aspect to the image.


Tetons and Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. 1942

Considered by many to be one of Ansel Adams most famous/popular images. From the dark black through to the bright whites, you can see the zone system at work in the exposure. There are 7 easily identifiable zones here at work and more if you take time to look. Despite his famous quote “The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant and immaterial”, you can clearly see many a play here. The curve of the river and the thirds proportion of the composition for starters.


Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. 1941 ‘chance favours the prepared mind’

After an unsuccessful day (by his standards) Ansel was driving home when he came across this scene. Quickly setting-up in the changing light, he was able to make only one exposure before the light changed.  As in all of Ansel’s work the depth of field is considerable in all the images with foreground to background in sharp relief. From his images you can also see that this was not just due to small f stops but also masterful use of the camera movements, such as shift & tilt.

Many of the images where taken at early dawn or dusk, with the shadows bringing the landscape alive, this quality and Ansel’s eye for the correct light is impressive to say the least.

Over the years Ansel (and his assistant) produced many versions of the same prints, either as his darkroom skill improved or as a result of his own personal tastes changing. Often the later images had far harder contrast and often the once light sky’s had turned black. He even had an assistant ‘ink out’ unwanted elements, most notably on ‘Winter Sunrise’ where the initials of the Lone Pine High School are removed from later prints. All clearly at odds with the Group f/64, rather purist manifesto…


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