Thoughts on Ansel Adams and Black and White

Mont Williamson - Clearing Storm, 1945  by Ansel Adams


I recently went to view an exhibit of photography by Ansel Adams at the Sangre De Cristo Art Center in Pueblo, CO. It was wonderful to see many of his actual prints on display, and the experience inspired me to take a new look at some of my own work, and to think more about what it was that was so moving about seeing this landscape masters' work. I must acknowledge here that I am delving into this subject despite the plentiful, and certainly more comprehensive articles on Ansel's work that abound online and in print. I simply mean for this blog post to reflect some thoughts of my own and provide some of my personal take-away's from having seen this showing of his work.


One of the first things that struck me was the “quietness” of the images. I think this is partly a quality of black and white images themselves, and partly a characteristic of his images in particular. The monochrome prints did not scream for attention the way color images (my own included) so often do, with bold color and dramatic perspectives. The compositions were elegant but simple, and the scenes just drew me in, not slapped me in the face. They invited me to look closer and contemplate. To notice the lights and darks, the play of the light across the land. The shapes and patterns of nature. This is something I find often missing in landscape photography these days, and I am as guilty as any. In an effort to stand out from the crowd it is tempting to try to create the most dramatic scene or the most intense color. But when everyone is doing the same thing it just becomes louder noise. Thus, this “quietness” is something I truly enjoyed in this show.


Another thing in the Adams' show that struck me was the craftsmanship of the prints. You could tell that meticulous care had been taken to achieve what he wanted in the final print. He is quoted as saying, using a music analogy, that “the negative is the score, and the print is the performance”. I could see in his work where this philosophy was so evident. The camera he used and the darkroom he worked in afterward were intimately connected. In fact, as almost any photographer knows, he developed a very precise system of capturing an image and processing the resulting negative and print known as the Zone System, which was part of the training for any of us who studied in the film era. This was a process where the end result was an image wherein all of the tonalities were precisely controlled, resulting in a well-crafted final image that showed what the artist wanted to show in the way he wanted to portray it.


Above the Clouds


Above the Clouds, Black and White version


The above image of Pikes Peak is one that I used to show in color. After seeing the Adams exhibit, I experimented with reworking it in black and white. I like both versions, however, I was struck by how much more of the delicate, subtle detail that I could bring out in the clouds in the monotone image. This brings up another point in black and white photography that has long been appreciated amongst photographers, namely that it is often the best medium for really appreciating subtleties of light and shadow. Color can sometimes become an overwhelming element that, when removed, forces us to see the light and shadow, and the forms and textures of the image. It removes us one step from what the object or objects were in the photo and helps us see what else was going on that maybe was missed. For myself, I enjoy the freedom of not having to portray as much of a literal representation of the object or scene.


All this led me to wonder about the relationship that the modern darkroom, ie; Photoshop, and the camera have in our era. I see it as essentially the same as what Ansel did with his darkroom, and in fact, I'm sure he would be using Photoshop or some equivalent if he were alive today. Ansel has been held up by some as an example of “pure” photography. From my perspective, it is just the opposite. His prints were carefully crafted to show what he wanted to show, and take back into the shadows the less important elements. He held back exposure in some areas and increased it in others, aka burning and dodging. He processed the images in chemical toners to change the tonality of the overall print, and to help bring out and intensify the contrast between lights and darks. All of this was meticulously performed to create a final print that fulfilled his personal vision. Sounds a lot like what we photographers do today with the digital tools available to us in an effort to create a final piece that is an expression of our original vision for that particular shot. You could even call his process, dare I say, “manipulation”. He argued, as would I, that an image should convey how the scene “felt” to the photographer, not just be a simple representation of how it literally looked. I find this to be an important lesson at a time when I regularly get asked if I “Photoshop” my images as if any post-production work is somehow a bad thing. In fact, I've recently learned that Ansel very accurately predicted the onset of digital photography and even expressed the wish that he were younger so that he could partake in the coming changes in photography. Personally, I think he would have been thrilled at the amount of control that we photographers today can enjoy in crafting the final image.


I'm sure any number of photographers would have different insights from viewing his work, but I think all of this goes to show the value in closely examining the work of prominent artists (of any medium) and gaining insight into how it might fit into your own creative work. I hope this will inspire both artists, and those who aren't involved in any creative endeavors, to visit a gallery or museum and see and contemplate the work of an accomplished master. The experience can be illuminating. As a parting shot, here's another of my own images that I recently reworked, taking advantage of some new tools that I have at my disposal that I did not have when I created the original.


Buena Vista