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Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams

I admit I’ve long been ambivalent about Ansel Adams. That’s mostly because his work is so ubiquitous and so often held up by photographers and non-photographers as the epitome of photography.

His photographs are beautiful and timeless.

But…art does not stand still. It’s too easy to treat Adams’ work as though photography has been frozen in time. Too many people believe that the vision Adams perfected nearly 100 years ago should remain as the standard for judging a good photograph and treat his work as an end point.

I can’t think of another medium – painting, music, writing – that ignores the progress and changes that have occurred over the past 70 years or so.

Adams had very specific ideas about what constituted good photography. He tirelessly promoted his core philosophy which emphasized straight photography, through his association with the f64 group and with Beaumont Newhall, the first curator of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department. Together they worked to purge American photography of countervailing genres. The result could be rigid and stifling in contrast to the diversity and creativity that flourished in Europe.

But I think I am really uncomfortable with the way his work is often treated, rather than with the work itself. Adams’ work is too often reduced to pretty pictures that don’t present any intellectual challenge. His innumerable imitators seem convinced that simply making attractive photos is enough.

Adams can be a safe and unchallenging photographer to like. But safe and unchallenging is seldom good when it comes to art.

If you are a fan of photography, it is a great injustice to ignore the groundbreaking, but intellectually more challenging photographers that have moved the art world forward for more than a half a century.

Still, I admire Adams’ vision and skill and can’t help but to be drawn to the beauty of his images. I admit I’m as inclined as anyone to try to imitate his work.

And, Adams also deserves much credit for his contributions to teaching and to environmentalism. Adams served as director of the Sierra Club for nearly 40 years and his images continue to raise awareness of environmental issues today.

Months after the end of World War II, Adams founded the Photography Department at the California School of Fine Arts, becoming the first school in the United States where students could earn a degree in photography as a fine art. In 1967 he formed Friends of Photography, which grew to become the largest non-profit membership organization in photography.

Adams contributions extend far beyond his images and that commands respect.

Everyone should own at least one well-printed book of Adams’ photographs. Well-printed being the operative phrase here, because there are far too many cheaply made books that offer poor quality reproductions of his work. It’s all too easy to sift through the bargain books section of any bookstore and find a cheap and poorly reproduced edition of his work. And, that is really a crime, because if Adams insisted on anything, it was on the physical quality of the print.

Two well printed and affordable books from a few years back are available. (There are others of course), but you could do far worse than Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs and, for those who are interested in a different perspective there is Ansel Adams in Color.

Admire Adams’ work. But do it in depth. Appreciate his sense of light. Appreciate his composition. Appreciate his love of the land. And, most of all really, really look at the photographs. Learn from Adams. Just don’t assume that is all you need to know.

Shop Ansel Adams on Amazon.