What did Ansel Adams actually do?
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ben egbert
Registered: Jan 31, 2005
Total Posts: 6835
Country: United States

We always use Adams as a sort of test. If he did it, we are allowed to do it too. IE, enhance or manipulate the raw image to taste. So I always ask myself what he actually did?

We know for sure he dodged and burned. Today we still have this option as well as blended images, HDR and a multitude of Photoshop tools and plug-ins to enhance dynamic range.

The term unsharp mask comes from a darkroom technique that I am sure Adams was familiar with and used.

We know he had access to films and papers and chemistry that could adjust contrast to taste.

So after the shoot, Adams could enhance DR, contrast and sharpness for sure. He could also crop.

I suppose he could have made composite images using more than one original. But I am not aware that he ever did this or even needed to.

Adams did not do much color and as far as I know he used chromes when he did. One thing he disliked about color films was the lack of control during processing. But of course we have this ability in spades, and we could assume Adams would embrace it.

But I always go back to his images and his very careful capture methods. He was meticulous. His images always look razor sharp, perfectly exposed and that cropping was seldom required. After all, he had a multitude of lenses, cameras and bellows he could adjust to get the perfect framing and focus on the scene. One doubts he gave up much of the original for crop.

His images never look as if they were manipulated to be anything other than a perfect black and white representation of what he saw on scene when viewing the ground glass with a loupe. I suspect most of his effort was aimed at teasing out the maximum dynamic range between pure black and pure white with contrast being next in importance. I suspect USM was only required to compensate for the minor looses to his equipment and not to correct focus errors.

I take this as my personal guide. Do it right when you take it. Fix the shortcoming inherent to the technology IE.
AA filter blur, dynamic range and color accuracy. Add as much color and saturation and contrast as you feel is required to get the emotional contact. Crop if you must, but strive to learn how to compose on scene.

If I need to do something in post process to correct an error I could have avoided on the scene, I feel like I have a 2nd class image.

Thatís my 2 cents.



RustyBug
Registered: Feb 02, 2009
Total Posts: 13253
Country: United States

ben egbert wrote:
But of course we have this ability in spades, and we could assume Adams would embrace it.


No need to assume ... his son told me that he did embrace it. Even though it was only in the embryonic stages at the time, Adams could appreciate where it was going to wind up ... according to his son Michael.

Here's a thought to consider though ...

Adams clearly used filters (in the field @ capture) to enhance his skies, etc. as many B&W photographers do. Given the degree that he continued control his image making into post-capture processing for creative/expressive purposes ... I'm rather certain he would have utilized PP to achieve his look if he had the option there as well.

I'm not saying that best in camera effort, should be replaced by PP ... but AA utilized the relationship between the two @ the time of capture, knowing what he would also be doing in post. Sometimes that may mean intentionally underexposing or overexposing, or push/pull developing/printing ... but they all work together to generate the final output.

We use AA for dialogue, for his is so well known ... but he is far from alone in producing such wonderful imagery. My perspective is that AA was very Deming-like in that he understood the influence of one stage of the process relative to the other stages and their final product ... i.e. only as strong as the weakest link, yet also knowing how to use a "weak link" to generate strength.



Guari
Registered: May 16, 2012
Total Posts: 1249
Country: United Kingdom

My kind of photography... thanks for the post...

I have always thought that everyone can grip a camera and shoot a pic. On the other hand, making sublime images like Adams did requires both a hugely trained eye and the mastering of the medium. He had/was both. He was also a musician. I have found his analogies between photography and music most interesting.

There's a great book of his called the making of 40 photographs (or something very similar) that is a lovely piece with a strong focus on the technical aspects of his image making, real life examples...



ben egbert
Registered: Jan 31, 2005
Total Posts: 6835
Country: United States

RustyBug wrote:
ben egbert wrote:
But of course we have this ability in spades, and we could assume Adams would embrace it.


No need to assume ... his son told me that he did embrace it. Even though it was only in the embryonic stages at the time, Adams could appreciate where it was going to wind up ... according to his son Michael.

Here's a thought to consider though ...

Adams clearly used filters (in the field @ capture) to enhance his skies, etc. as many B&W photographers do. Given the degree that he continued control his image making into post-capture processing for creative/expressive purposes ... I'm rather certain he would have utilized PP to achieve his look if he had the option there as well.

I'm not saying that best in camera effort, should be replaced by PP ... but AA utilized the relationship between the two @ the time of capture, knowing what he would also be doing in post. Sometimes that may mean intentionally underexposing or overexposing, or push/pull developing/printing ... but they all work together to generate the final output.

We use AA for dialogue, for his is so well known ... but he is far from alone in producing such wonderful imagery. My perspective is that AA was very Deming-like in that he understood the influence of one stage of the process relative to the other stages and their final product ... i.e. only as strong as the weakest link, yet also knowing how to use a "weak link" to generate strength.


Use of filters, a good addition to my list, I will add it. Along with his making the shot with the process in mind.



ben egbert
Registered: Jan 31, 2005
Total Posts: 6835
Country: United States

Guari wrote:
My kind of photography... thanks for the post...

I have always thought that everyone can grip a camera and shoot a pic. On the other hand, making sublime images like Adams did requires both a hugely trained eye and the mastering of the medium. He had/was both. He was also a musician. I have found his analogies between photography and music most interesting.

There's a great book of his called the making of 40 photographs (or something very similar) that is a lovely piece with a strong focus on the technical aspects of his image making, real life examples...


Yep, I read that book. And also one that showed some of his color work.



RustyBug
Registered: Feb 02, 2009
Total Posts: 13253
Country: United States

Here's a couple of links you might find interesting.

The first one is pic of AA's notes he made relative to Moonrise Over Hernandez ... illustrating the amount of control he imparted in postcapture.

The second one is from the National Archives ... many of these look to me to be much closer to a "straight print" than what we associate to AA. Many of these wouldn't pass for anything close to what we associate to AA.

Compare and contrast a thorough review of these 200 or so images he was commissioned to take for the National Park Service, with those images that are iconic ... and it kinda reveals the "imperfectness" of much of his work.

Not to take away from AA ... just to put his work in perspective regarding the volume of "not masterpiece" that came en route to his better known pieces. You'll also note that some of his famous pieces came from this commissioned body of work, while others ... well, not so much. You may also recognize that in some cases the NPS may have the original "straight print", while the "iconic" print is processed rather differently.

Granted ... the NA website may not optimally show off his work ... but the compositions are essentially in tact and I think it illustrates the powerful difference @ relying on "in camera" and thinking that somehow AA's camera work was of such superiority that we should all emulate the same. I once thought that of AA, till I found out how much "he cheated", as well as how often he "missed" ... i.e. kinda like the rest of us.

Since seeing his work as closely as I have ... I can appreciate both the amount of work that occurred out of the camera ... and the fact that we typically only see the best of his best. My respect and admiration for his prolific body of work, his technical/scientific approach, his artistic interpretation and his role in fostering the development of our craft is abundant. Yet, I now refrain from the once held aspirations to emulate him or his work. Rather, any homage to him would come in the form of embracing all that is available to you in conveying the message of your image to your viewer as best you can ... regardless of the technique(s) or tool(s) involved.

AA couldn't take the masses to his beloved mountains, but he did his best to bring his beloved mountains to the masses ... as best he could. So it is for me when I aspire to "take you there" ... wherever "there" may be. AA's work was an exercise in perpetual refinement, so too should be ours.

http://notesonphotographs.org/index.php?title=Sexton,_John._Moonrise,_Hernandez._Ansel_Adams_Printing_Notes_%E2%80%94%E2%80%9CTranslation%E2%80%9D

http://www.archives.gov/research/ansel-adams/



ben egbert
Registered: Jan 31, 2005
Total Posts: 6835
Country: United States

Thanks Rusty. I had another write up in mind also concerning the found image thing. As I understand it, Moonlight Hernandez and the image of Georgia O'Keeffe and Orville Cox were both spur of the moment. I could be wrong about the latter, but it sure appears spontaneous.

We all have those types of shots where we just happened to see something and grabbed it as best we could. Sometimes the magic works and we have a masterpiece, or our best approximation of one.

I took a look at the Snake River Overlook. A place I have done often. Don H. over at the landscape forum even showed me where to stand to get the same view in 2004. Tough scramble for this old codger and of course the trees are all grown up so that the river is obscured.

But that image is one that in theory could have been repeated with patience and prior to the trees. Maybe Hernandez as well, but perhaps not. And the O'keffe could be reposed, but do you suppose the expressions could have been duplicated?


By the way, Adams is allowed to screw up, we only judge the finished product. Like all photographers, he probably took a lot of images that were sub par. Only his sub par might be my best effort.

In one of his books he mentioned dropping a whole box of plates into a lake, I think while boarding a seaplane in Alaska. He saved one of them. This reminds me of shooting a whole sunset at ISO800 when 100 was sufficient and I just forgot to check. .

Those images really look soft, and he sure has lots of dust and grain.



RustyBug
Registered: Feb 02, 2009
Total Posts: 13253
Country: United States

The story on Hernandez is that it was a "quick, stop the car" kinda thing. Listening to the museum curator relate the story gave cause to part of the marvel @ his work on the piece being the "haste" and how he still managed to masterfully get it right without the benefit of a light meter.

I didn't have the heart to tell him that many persons with a good knowledge of EV values for a given time of day / ambient setting would have managed to capture a similar negative with enough latitude to achieve what he did and finish processing it dramatically in the darkroom.

IMO, it was his interpretation, coupled with the folklore of the romanticized story that renders it in such regard. Thousands or millions of us have chased the moment of a fleeting light and had to "wing it" based on our experience and have come away with the shot we wanted. Granted ... in his day, such a thing was "big news" as few understood how he could have done that.



RustyBug
Registered: Feb 02, 2009
Total Posts: 13253
Country: United States

ben egbert wrote:

Only his sub par might be my best effort.


Not even close to being true. I've seen his sub par, and I've seen your "Christmas in August". You might have had a little help from your FM friends with it along the way with some technical points ... but it was still your vision that was able to convey that light skipping across the grains ... taking me to someplace other than where I am.

I'm not trying to puff you up to suggest you are better than AA, per se ... but don't discount yourself in the shadows of his learning curve. Rather persist in the tenacity of growth and refinement ... recognizing that he ... and anyone, anywhere, with anything ... had a learning curve the same as you or I. What an individual does with it and how long and how far they are willing to continue developing it ... highly variable.

A couple thoughts to carry along the way.

Perfection
Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence. -Vince Lombardi

Practice
Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. -Vince Lombardi

Which works itself into:
Chasing perfect (unattainable) practice will yield excellent practice that allows us to achieve excellence.


AA was no more perfect than you or I ... just that he might have been a bit more like Vince Lombardi than many others ... or maybe Vince was like Ansel.



ben egbert
Registered: Jan 31, 2005
Total Posts: 6835
Country: United States

Good thoughts Rusty. I am really flattered by your comments on my image. That was for sure a found image.

And we use AA in an idealized way today more as a concept than a reality.

Ideals are goals, I always say if you can meet your goals, they are not very good goals.

I took some more looks at the originals at that web site. Man, hard to believe that is what AA started with. Where are all the clouds in "Snake River Overlook" Just a big white area at the upper left.

These look to me like old faded plates.



Camperjim
Registered: Oct 17, 2011
Total Posts: 1977
Country: United States

I think a lot of the AA images are pretty mediocre by today's standards. He was a master of photography at a time when photographic technique was a lot more complicated. Also when you view his original prints in person you quickly see that he was even more a master of darkroom processing. Again this was at a time when these techniques were very difficult. Now we can greatly surpass his accomplishments by the use of digital processing.

I have never understood the popularity of Moonlight.. This seems to be very ordinary and not very interesting. I suspect my opinion would change instantly if I saw an original print.



RustyBug
Registered: Feb 02, 2009
Total Posts: 13253
Country: United States

+1 @ possibly old faded plates, etc.

But ... the compositions remain the same. Many of which are ... well ... uninspiring to be kind.

Jim ...

I've seen an original of Moonrise ... nope, same visceral response for me. The era was very different, and what he did was very groundbreaking to many ... not unlike Houdini ... where people were enamored in part by what they did not understand @ how it could be achieved, as well as the image itself. I think if a painter had painted Moonrise ... it would have received much less accolade than it received in the venue of photography ... because there would been much less marvel at how it could have been achieved.



ben egbert
Registered: Jan 31, 2005
Total Posts: 6835
Country: United States

RustyBug wrote:
+1 @ possibly old faded plates, etc.

But ... the compositions remain the same. Many of which are ... well ... uninspiring to be kind.

Jim ...

I've seen an original of Moonrise ... nope, same visceral response for me. The era was very different, and what he did was very groundbreaking to many ... not unlike Houdini ... where people were enamored in part by what they did not understand @ how it could be achieved, as well as the image itself. I think if a painter had painted Moonrise ... it would have received much less accolade than it received in the venue of photography ... because there would been much less marvel at how it could have been achieved.



Well my compositional judgment is probably my least developed photo skill, so I would not have noticed. I always thought the Snake River overlook was a landscape (horozontal) scene, and I never have cared for 4x5 aspects for landscapes, but it is my preferred for verticals.

This was in the days before wide angle movies and TV. How has that changed our opinions? I would hate to go back to a non wide angle screen.



dmacmillan
Registered: Nov 03, 2007
Total Posts: 4801
Country: United States

Interesting. Has anyone here mixed their own developer for dynamic range compression? Has anyone shot 4x5, much less 8x10? I have .

It is easier to understand him if you have used his techniques in context. I was taught Zone System at the school where he was teaching when he and Fred Archer codified it.



ben egbert
Registered: Jan 31, 2005
Total Posts: 6835
Country: United States

Thanks Doug, so how far off is my original analysis?

I am so far removed from wet processing that I am just guessing. I was strictly a chrome guy when I started. Drop it at the drug store and get it back finished.

Of course that put a lot of emphasis on getting it right in camera which still influences me.



RustyBug
Registered: Feb 02, 2009
Total Posts: 13253
Country: United States

Doug, nobody is disputing the intense technical departure from the "norms" and the prolific amount of exacting and painstaking effort and detail that AA utilized to grace us with the beauty of his beloved nature and passionate craftsmanship. To the contrary ... it is the fact that he went to these extremes in ALL facets of the process that is a tribute to the point that it doesn't stop "in camera". When it comes to AA ... "in camera" ... is a myth. From that, I think Ben is experiencing some imposition combined from his chrome experience (much like mine) and overly associating the significance of "in camera" efforts to a medium that has more process variability than chrome allowed for.

Yes, we have it much, much easier and 99.9% of the folks with a camera today wouldn't even take a picture of their own children if they had to go through what AA had to do. BUT, just because we have it infinitely "easier" than AA did ... that doesn't make it more AA like to avoid the full range of tools, techniques and processes that are available, just because they are easier for us than he had it. Rather, if we truly respect and admire AA, we should strive to master (ha, ha) our craft with the tools of our choosing through a lifetime of growth and refinement ... as his legacy tells us of him ... beyond his iconic images ... and recognizing that not all were iconic. AA himself readily attested to such as well: "Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop."

Self-imposing limits on ourselves because of what AA was challenged to adapt and overcome doesn't make for a better image aesthetically. It might garner additional respect for the purity of the effort and be seen as a display of respect for AA ... but the purpose of the image is to communicate the message. Sacrificing available methods at the expense of the message is not something AA would have espoused. Rather, he sought to expand methods in order to further facilitate the delivery of his desired message beyond previously considered conventional and restrictive means.

Even though AA did it the "hard way" ... and respect abounds for him and what he did for both nature and photography ... his legacy should not be something that we use as restrictive to our efforts, but rather a launching pad from which to go further. He pushed, practiced and perfected, only to realize that he had not perfected, so he pushed and practiced more, and more, and more. He literally printed some images in excess of 100's of times (over periods of years) to strive to get it where he wanted. This is hardly an effort that would come from a man who felt that "in camera" was somehow "more pure".

Doug, did you ever get a chance to speak with him ... or attend his classes? The closest I ever got to him was the opportunity to speak with his son.





dmacmillan
Registered: Nov 03, 2007
Total Posts: 4801
Country: United States

ben egbert wrote:
Thanks Doug, so how far off is my original analysis?


I think your analysis is correct. AA thought ideally all negs should print on #2 paper, all at the same exposure settings. Didn't happen completely.

I guess the point I was trying to make is that capture and post are inexerably linked in ZS. How you expose the negative determines how you process that negative.

IMO AA had a vision he wanted to express to you and me through his photos. The nature of this vision led him to his exacting technique. He was also looking for a way to achieve good results with some regularity.

Kent, I never met AA. He was at Art Center more than 30 years before I attended. I feel reluctant to discuss his intent. Too many put words in his mouth and I don't want to be one. Read his words, not what I or anybody else thinks he said or meant.

One of my big regrets concerns "Moonrise". I had a chance to buy a framed print he printed for $300.00! It was money I didin't have, so I couldn't.



RustyBug
Registered: Feb 02, 2009
Total Posts: 13253
Country: United States

Doug,

No worries ... I just wanted to make sure that my point at AA being "human" wasn't misinterpreted as a lack of respect. As to putting words in his mouth ... I"m not purporting to do so, but rather simply convey what his son conveyed to me about his father.

BTW ... you are "spot on" @ expressing his vision to us through his photos ... as well as the effort toward repeatability. AA understood that the image was more than a recording, it was a message that he chose how to express it ... no less than how a poet skillfully chooses the words of his message, ... AA chose the tones of his images equally as meticulous to ensure that we were able to both understand his message and enjoy it as well ... irrespective of "in camera" or "reality" or "accurate" ... but always seemingly believable (even when false) and desirable to express and share with us.



AuntiPode
Registered: Aug 05, 2008
Total Posts: 6948
Country: New Zealand

Oh, this thread is probably making Doug squirm.

Once upon a time I had the AA's three book series, _The_Camera_, _The_Negative_, and _The_Print_. Checking my shelves this morning I discovered the depredations of too many moves and book culls have inexplicably left me with just two copies of _The_Print_. AA mastered the tools and the available films and processing chemistries available to him. He adjusted individual negative development and did the same for his prints. His work was crafted with a deep understanding what manipulation were available and how to use them to express his vision. I suggest we use the tools available to express our vision. If other folks find our vision to their liking, that's gravy. ... Of course if we depend upon others liking with what we produce to earn a living, we have large incentive to "compromise".



sadja
Registered: Nov 05, 2002
Total Posts: 285
Country: United States

AA said something like: the negative is the score, the print is the performance.

Decades ago I saw Moonrise in person in some museum. It was breath taking. Prints and the web don't come close.

I don't know how many AA negatives exist. Hundreds if I am not mistaken, representing his life's oeuvre. Of these 2-3 dozen are masterpieces. The rest are competent, but not inspired.

Take that for what it's worth.



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