Ansel Adams: Beyond Awe and Wonder

What landscape photographer doesn’t look in awe at the work of Ansel Adams? Hell, what landscape photographer, deep down, doesn’t want to beAnsel Adams? It’s not just the amazing landscapes of Yosemite because a quick check on Flickr will prove that half dome doesn’t always look as arresting in photos. Not doing down the Flickr shutterbugs of Yellowstone here, there’s nothing wrong with your photos; they just aren’t (unsurprisingly) as breathtaking as Adams’ ones. Awe and Wonder, that’s what Adams is about.

Or not.

There’s far more to Adams than amazing landscapes; there are the portraits, and the still lives. There’s no awe and wonder in this photo of an egg slicer.

There’s no awe and wonder in this portrait of a young Japanese girl in an internment camp, but there’s magic in both.

In this article there is an account of Adams’ making the image Moonrise, recounting the fact that he essentially made it a grab shot (in as much as one can grab-shoot with an 8×10 camera) with no planning nor use of an exposure meter; it’s one of the ultimate lucky accidents, though of course there were years of skill and experience backing up the luck. The writer also discusses the fact that the still life with the egg slicer was the result of “forethought, careful planning and execution” unlike Moonrise. The story of the latter is in itself about awe and wonder, the photographer struck by vision battling against time and fate (he almost crashed the car stopping to take it) to realise his vision; very romatic, very Caspar David Friedrich. A man in a studio, working carefully, thinking through all the options and getting it just right is less dramatic, more about artistry than romance.

But then what are we to make of the portraits? They’re not street shots, he didn’t see somebody interesting and grab the shot, he posed and lit them as carefully as he did his egg slicer. They don’t put us in the position of the human against the magnificence of nature; they put is right in the heart of what it is to be human. His photos taken inside the Manzanar ‘relocation’ (read ‘concentration’) camp for Japanese Americans in 1943 and 44 are, I think, the supreme example of this. At the time when the attack on Pearl Harbour was still fresh in American minds, and American soldiers were fighting and dying in the pacific, Adams photographed these ordinary people going about their ordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances. They’re not photos of ‘the enemy’, they’re not photos of strange exotic people, they’re photos of ordinary people who a year or two earlier had been part of American communities and who were now living their lives as best they could under extraordinary circumstances. They still show his grasp of light and shadow, but not the dramatic printing for which he is famous, the effect is more subtle; it’s about humanity, not drama.

“The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and despair by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment… All in all, I think this Manzanar Collection is an important historical document, and I trust it can be put to good use.”

There is so much more to Ansel Adams than the man who was so involved with conservation and the Sierra Club, than the man who created such powerful images of the American landscape, than the man who made photos provoking in our reaction to the landscape a sense of awe and wonder. The courage he had in making the Manzar images do more, they make you look at Adams, the man, with awe and wonder.

Finding out more:

Manzanar collection in the Library of Congress
Biography of Ansel Adams
BBC documentary about Adams on Youtube

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