Sharp Images: Fuzzy Concepts

There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
Ansel Adams

The great Ansel Adams was famous for pre-visualising his images before he photographed them: prior to pushing the button he already knew in his head how it was going to look when he’d finished the entire process from setting up the photo to hanging up the print in the darkroom. Though this isn’t true of all his images, the famous Moonrise was a grab shoot in the finest sense of the word, involving the car skidding to a halt so he could leap out and get the shot. But generally he was a considered image maker who thought and planned his images

“The simple lesson of previsualization – that is as applicable today as when Ansel Adams was capturing his spectacular images of Yosemite National Park – is that while one might get lucky, and capture a fine image, the far more likely result of approaching a subject without an idea already in mind is disappointment”

Andy Ilachinsky

Great artists of all kinds produced in the past, produce today, a great number of sketches and working drawings before committing paint to paper or chisel to marble, refining the idea and exploring alternatives as they worked towards the finished piece. Sure, Paul Klee said that drawing was taking a line for a walk, but that doesn’t imply that he was unaware of the path it was going to take.  I, and I’m sure most other creative people, know what it’s like to work on something, trying different things and ultimately realising that what is wrong is the idea itself rather than the execution; to use the expression from the joke about the tourist who asks somebody in rural Ireland for directions and gets the response, “if I was you I’d not be starting from here”. When I was at university I often realised that if my essay was boring and pedestrian then the problem was the structure I’d picked for it. Before you create something, be it image, sculpture, dress, hairstyle or building, you need to know clearly what you want the result to be like, not necessarily exactly how it is going to look, but how it makes you feel.

Last year I found myself disatisfied with my photography. I knew I was better than I had been but felt I wasn’t improving or getting to where I wanted to be. So I asked a professional friend of mine if she’d mind looking at the photos I’d made on holiday that summer and give me one or two pointers; a critique which would just give me a couple of things I could concentrate on getting right. One of them was this image of Eastbourne pier, with which I was rather pleased actually, I wanted some beach and a low viewpoint and the line of posts in the foreground and the clouds were interesting, all of which I’d thought of when I made the image.

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Then I read her critique in which she said “the thing with that is I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking at, the pier, or the posts, or that clump of weeds”. She’s right of course, totally right. The flaw isn’t in the execution, I’d got into it everything I wanted…what was wrong was that I’d missed the key fact that it wasn’t really a photograph of anything. I should have thought about what the main point was and then asked myself if the other things were detracting from it. Looking at good professional work it’s clear, once I’d internalised it, that there is no doubt what we’re supposed to be looking at in the image; they’re not photographs of this …they’re photographs of this. Go and check out the amazing portraits of of Bella West, her subjects are not always in the middle of the frame filling the space, sometimes they’re off centre, or quite small, or not looking at the camera…but they are always full of intention – Ms West knows exactly what photo she’s taking before she takes it. There’s a nice interview with her here if people are interested in finding more about her and her work – Mike Browne calls her compositions “off the wall”; it’s fine to go off the wall if you know why you’re doing it!

So is this entire blog post a fuzzy concept? Let me know in the comments!

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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