Ansel Adams (1902 – 1984) was a major figure in the development of American photography, famous for his photographs of the American West but also for his developments in photographic technique, which were arguably a more important lasting legacy to the world of photography.
There are many books of his photographs available. Most photographers are very familiar with his work, through their licensed use on posters, postcards, clothing, and the like.
It's clear that the iconic images he created of the natural world have brought pleasure to many. They're certainly very well made. Indeed his development of the craft of photography, makes the photographs he took almost universally faultless in terms of exposure & printing.
However, they were and remain idealised portraits of the American landscape,
envisioning the natural world as a pristine wilderness. Not untruthful perhaps but certainly selective about a landscape that wasn't (and isn't) unspoilt.
His photographs, seen one after the other are a succession of beautiful tableaux. But while remarkable, they often seem a lot like illustration. Very beautiful illustration. But illustration nonetheless.
With many of his photographs, particularly when you see them in succession in a book or a gallery show, you don't as a viewer often get the sense that's what being revealed is the sustained product of anything more than deliberation and applied skill.
There's a mind at work for sure, and a refined aesthetic, but what is most evident in his photographs is the method & the craft. And his application of both to the end product.
That sounds like criticism but isn't meant to be.
Photography is an applied art but it's also a science. An art form and also a craft.
Different combinations of these elements apply in some form to all photographers work.
What Adams left behind when he died, asides from his photographic lifes work, was also his development of the Zone System. A means to pre-determine accurate exposure of negatives & prints. Using this method, popularised by him (but not unknown to photographers before him) allowed him the means to express what he saw using an exacting method of pre-visualisation that could be (and was) adopted by other photographers.
In terms of his photographs, for me (and I think) for a lot of contemporary photographers, Ansel Adams most affecting work was his masterful 'Surf Sequence'. A wonderful exploration of photographic sequencing, that also successfully depicts the random beauty of natural processes.
The combination of craft and intuition seems to result in something entirely different than many of his other pictures.
Adams also worked in colour (see below.)
It's interesting to note that most of the surviving examples of this work show that Adams did not have a particularily keen sense of colour, unlike his contemporary Eliott Porter. I suspect if he'd born a decade or so later, he might have found himself working in colour at an earlier age, using the better colour materials that would have been available to him.
All text copyright Nick Lloyd 2012