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ANSEL ADAMS, AND PHOTOGRAPHY BEFORE PHOTOSHOP
A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND …
In the days of film photography a print of an image as it came out of the camera was known as a “straight print.” The image above is a straight print made by Ansel Adams of his iconic Moonrise. To paraphrase David Byrne, “This is not my beautiful photograph!” If this is a print of the image straight from the camera, how did Ansel Adams achieve the dramatic effect of the finished print of Moonrise? You might even say, “But I thought he was a great photographer.” He was. The ability to look at a scene and know that it will make a great photograph is the essence of the talent of a great photographer, whether it be Ansel Adams, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Richard Avedon, Julia Margaret Cameron, Francesca Woodman, Man Ray, or Jerry Uelsmann, just to name a few.
BEFORE THERE WAS PHOTOSHOP, THERE WAS THE DARKROOM
Pictured below, is Ansel Adams with the straight print side-by-side with the finished print of “Moonrise.”
Ansel Adams, not only was a great photographer, he was a master of the darkroom. In the time of film, the darkroom was Photoshop. Adams, in his book, The Print describes the work that he did in the darkroom on another of his famous images, Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake, Alaska (1948),
“The sky was of such low saturation blue that no filter would have had much effect… Considerable burning [darkening] and dodging [lightening]
are required. I hold back the shadowed lake and foreground for about three-fourths of the exposure time, using a constantly moving card held relatively close to the lens…The lake surface is burned in later to balance the amount of dodging of the surrounding hills and foreground.”
-Ansel Adams, The Print, Little Brown (1983), p. 166.
In 2005, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston curated a remarkable and forward-looking exhibition of Ansel Adam’s work. The images for the exhibition were graciously donated by Mrs. Lane from The Lane Collection, which included the largest private holding of his work in the world. The web site for the exhibit states,
“You’re likely to see an Ansel Adams you’ve never seen before…early and late prints from the same negative…and prints created by a master of the darkroom — such inspiring vistas as Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, and Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.”
In 2012, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) held beautiful exhibits of Ansel Adams and a Retrospective of the work of Jerry Uelsmann as part of its Year of Photography exhibits. Both exhibits included great videos of Adams and Uelsmann at work in their darkrooms explaining the techniques they used to achieve the effect they wanted. These demonstrations are priceless.
AND NOW, FAKING IT
“Faking It” is the first exhibition devoted to manipulated photography through the 1980s. It first opened in October 2012 at the Met, and now has opened at the National Gallery of Art. The exhibit is organized by Mia Fineman, assistant curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Gallery’s presentation of Faking It is curated by Diane Waggoner, associate curator of photographs, National Gallery of Art.
The exhibit press materials state,
This is the first major exhibition devoted to the history of manipulated photography before the digital age. While the widespread use of Adobe® Photoshop® software has brought about an increased awareness of the degree to which photographs can be doctored, photographers—including such major artists as Gustave Le Gray, Edward Steichen, Weegee, and Richard Avedon have been fabricating, modifying, and otherwise manipulating camera images since the medium was first invented.
The exhibition begins with some of the earliest instances of photographic manipulation—those attempting to compensate for the new medium’s technical limitations. In the 19th century, many photographers hand tinted portraits to make them appear more vivid and lifelike. Others composed large group portraits by photographing individuals separately in the studio and creating a collage by pasting them onto painted backgrounds depicting outdoor scenes. As the art and craft of photography grew increasingly sophisticated, photographers devised a staggering array of techniques with which to manipulate their images, including combination printing, photomontage, overpainting, ink and airbrush retouching, sandwiched negatives, multiple exposures, and other darkroom magic.
The show includes,
…the work of contemporary artists—including Duane Michals, Jerry Uelsmann, and Yves Klein—who have reclaimed earlier techniques of image manipulation to creatively question photography’s presumed objectivity. By tracing the history of photographic manipulation from the 1840s to the present, Faking It vividly demonstrates that photography is—and always has been—a medium of fabricated truths and artful lies.
A BRIEF HISTORY
Evan Baines, in his article “An Abbreviated History of Photo-Manipulation,” states that,
“Pictoralism began fading in the first part of the 1900′s… As a movement, Pictoralism gave way to straight photography, which fully embraced the unique qualities of the photographic medium: sharp, detailed, and frequently instantaneous images that accurately reflect the scene before the camera.”
From the influential Group f/64 manifesto (Ansel Adams was a member of this Group):
Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the “Pictorialist,” on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.
Its tempting to think of the f/64 crew as in-camera purists who eshewed darkroom trickery, but this is in fact far from the truth. Ansel Adams, for one, was a master of dodging and burning in the darkroom. His influential book, The Print, details his highly developed techniques for manipulating images in the darkroom to conform to his artistic vision. In truth, many members of f/64 were skilled manipulators in the darkroom, even if they did not attempt to disguise the fundamental nature of their medium.
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT ANYWAY?
A New York Times article about the Met exhibition by Ken Johnson on October 11, 2012, titled, “Their Cheating Art: Reality and Illusion,Faking It’ at the Met, a Photography Exhibition,” notes that,
The show challenges a view of photography that prevailed among the intelligentsia for most of the 20th century, [and into the 21st]. That was the idea that a great photograph must be transparently truthful… The truthfulness mission of straight photography was challenged in the 1970s, [typified] by Susan Sontag’s book, On Photography.
Johnson concludes that since the 1970s,
Doubting the capability of any representational system to convey naked truth has become obligatory in academic circles. The advent of digitization and Photoshop-type software has only affirmed the now orthodox conviction that not only does reality elude representation but also that truth itself may be just a misleading chimera….We are left, then, to wonder. If photography cannot capture truth, what is it good for?… What is its special purpose as far as art is concerned?
A MODEST RESPONSE
In our view, the answer to Ken Johnson’s question of “What is [photography's] special purpose as far as art is concerned?” is that photography captures the artist’s vision of the world. “The aim of the photographer as artist is “To have you see the world the way I see it,” that is the artist’s “artistic vision.” Any “theories” on photography must take this into account. Furthermore, isn’t the”special purpose as far as art is concerned” the same also for painting, sculpture, literature, and music?
You may also be interested in a Met podcast on the exhibition, and a documentary of Ansel Adams’ creative process, which begins with Ansel Adams playing the piano.
Also, images by famous sports photographer Ozzie Sweet.