Ansel Adams is my favorite photographer, and probably the most well known fine-art photographer ever. If you’ve never seen his pictures, I suggest you find some hastily.
Besides being a prolific photographer, Adams was also a fairly prolific author, and I’ve been working my way through his books recently. He wrote a three book series (The Camera, The Negative, the Print) detailing and explaining his technique and serving as a look into his vast technical knowledge. He has several volumes of books on photography alone, an autobiography, and a book called The Making of 40 Prints.
In this book, he includes (one could guess) 40 prints. However alongside these prints he also writes a few pages or so detailing basically every step of the creative process pertaining to that print. From his visualization of the print, to the technical details of shooting and developing the negative to creating the final print, it’s an interesting look into his mind.
From this text, I’ve been pulling out some passages which I think reveal his outlook on creative photography. I’d like to share them with you along with some of my thoughts.
From its inception, photography has been treated as a stepchild by the other arts: decried as being capable of mere documentation rather than creative expression.
Written in a section describing the conflict between painters and photographers of Adams’ time, he goes on to mention a group of early photographers called the Pictorialists. These were photographers of the early 20th century interested in creative expression through photography by creating unclear, semi abstract images which were created through excessive manipulation of the camera and the exposure. Adams was of the “Straight Photography” mindset in which narrow apertures creating sharp images which were very direct representations of what was seen were used. The straight photographer was interested in creating a very literal representation of the world that photography allowed, and then using creative arrangement in order to form a composition.
This forms the basis for photography as I now like to practice: the arrangement of objects and scenes and people in a way which creates an artistic composition. It’s something Adams was stellar at, and his landscape photographs almost seem to elicit an emotional response in their stunning beauty, simplicity, and impact.
We observe few objects really closely. As we walk on the Earth, we observe the external events at two or three arms’ lengths.
This quote spoke to me on a level of familiarity. When I get into a setting, a particularly interesting place, the longer I stay and the more familiar I become with it, the more quirks and details I begin to pick up. When I truly force myself to stay in one area and look into the scene rather than look over and around the scene, I notice new details, and finding the details of a scene or a place and figuring out how to best emphasize it is one of the easiest ways to take a good picture. To photograph something well, you must be intimately familiar with it.
I am still of this persuasion; the usual “candid” photograph is but one moment of the subject’s lifetime, a fragment usually related only to the artifact of the shutter’s action … occasionally an image of a passing expression can represent a broad aspect of the personality, but it rarely is a complete portrait.
This one took me by surprised a bit. As someone who unflagging hunts that candid expression when shooting senior pictures, I was a bit confused by this. To me, candid photographs are what show the true personality of someone; I’ve always attempted to elicit real emotion out of my models and then click the shutter open at that precise moment when the light, the background, the composition, and then finally the subject’s expression is perfect. Freezing that moment that lasted only fractions of a second is the key to showcasing a subject’s “real personality”. But then again, I’m only shooting high school seniors.
Although this quote didn’t destroy my love for candid expressions in portraiture, it did give me more respect for and interest in intensely posed work. I was first put off to posed shots by the senior picture studios who pose all emotion and personality out of a subject, every inch of their body and faced poured into a mold and then any traces of individuality obliterated in liberally applied photoshop. It never really occurred to me, at least in any substantive form, that a very posed portrait could still be as clear and as raw a display as a subject’s emotion as that fleeting, “decisive moment” of a candid expression.
There is a moment of “intuitive rightness” that clears the way for release of the shutter, but I often examine my photographs later to explore the possibilities of improvement in visualization and craft.
Believe it or not, but I think this is the quote that launched this blog. Photography is no exception to any other art form or anything really: it requires patient practice and a fair degree of self-critique. The ability to look at your own work and think critically about what you did wrong is vitally important to improvement. That’s why I started this blog, in order to examine my own work and have an outlet for thinking critically about the work I do, my creative process, and why I am that way.
Although the most crucial moment of photography is the <1 second in which the shutter is open, the moment in which the majority of the work is done (only so much can be done in post production), the things you think about in the moments leading up to and the many moments afterwards have a profound impact on where the camera will be pointed during that <1 second. Thought before and thought after about what you want to photograph will lead to profound improvement in your photography.
That’s all I have for you now! I may post some more quotes as I come across them. In the meantime, have a lovely day.
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