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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.


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.


“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.

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.

Bains says,

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.


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?

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.



  1. […] Ansel Adams and Photography Before Photoshop (whitherthebook.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Photography like my dad use to do. Developing film in a darkened bathroom. It is becoming a lost practice. Soon to be a lost art. Not that digital requires no skill. It just the one on one with the chemicals, enlarger & paper that some magic happens. In the darkroom it is between the artist and his images.

  3. […] Ansel Adams and Photography Before Photoshop (whitherthebook.wordpress.com) […]

  4. […] Ansel Adams and Photography Before Photoshop (whitherthebook.wordpress.com) […]

  5. […] Ansel Adams and Photography Before Photoshop […]

  6. […] Ansel Adams and Photography Before Photoshop (whitherthebook.wordpress.com) […]

  7. […] Ansel Adams and Photography Before Photoshop (whitherthebook.wordpress.com) […]

  8. I did darkroom work once. I guess I’m a contrarian, because I always thought the famous Ansel Adams prints looked like overprocessed photographic bullshit. I prefer the straight from the camera photographers who only take and then use pictures of scenes that are interesting by themselves, without further embellishment. It’s just one point of view, but it’s as valid as any other.

  9. […] Cameron, Francesca Woodman, Man Ray, or Jerry Uelsmann, just to name a few. 2) Jack Dziamba, “Ansel Adams, and Photography Before Photoshop” at Whither the Book (February 27, […]

  10. […] daarom minder mooi? Neen toch? En hij is niet bekend geworden door zijn 'manipulaties', me dunkt: https://whitherthebook.wordpress.com/…ore-photoshop/ Kan een foto tegenwoordig niet meer mooi zijn als je er niets aan toevoegd of aan weglaat? […]

    • Thanks for your comment. Of course, the artist always adds him/herself to any picture – the mood, subject, lighting, the story …. An image is nice or great because of that.
      Bedankt voor je reactie. Natuurlijk, de kunstenaar voegt altijd hem / haarzelf op een foto – de sfeer, het onderwerp, de verlichting, het verhaal …. Een beeld is mooi en groot, omdat van dat.

  11. I’ll immediately take hold of your rss feed as I can not in finding your
    email subscription hyperlink or e-newsletter service. Do you have any?

    Please allow me understand so that I could subscribe. Thanks.

  12. […] Additional reading: Ansel Adams and Photography before Photoshop – I rest my […]

  13. […] Monrovia Canyon Park is one of my favorite places in Monrovia.  Capturing it in photographs is challenging because it is shady with dappled light.  I used a tripod and employed exposure blending as a solution.  Exposure blending is a digital solution to “burning and dodging” in the traditional film darkroom.  (It’s also better to shoot early or late in the day.) Ansel Adams was a master of burning and dodging.  His “straight from the camera” prints don’t much resemble the famous images that we recognize.  There’s an interesting article about his darkroom process here. […]

  14. […] (I don’t know who took this photo. It appeared in Jack Dziamba’s terrific blog post Ansel Adams, and Photography Before Photoshop.) […]

  15. […] “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 from “ANSEL ADAMS, AND PHOTOGRAPHY BEFORE PHOTOSHOP.” […]

  16. […] Additional reading: Ansel Adams and Photography before Photoshop – I rest my […]

  17. It is so frustrating to have to explain to people over and over that making the exposure is only one third of the job. You had to be where you were when you got the shot, make the exposure, and then you have to process the photo… It makes absolutely no difference (film versus digital).

    I refuse to work for idiots that think they can process my photos better than I can and insist the RAW files be delivered without my work on them.

  18. […] can read more about this here and here. So, no, post processing is not some evil invention of the digital era, it’s an […]

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