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The most common response I get from people when I tell them that I photograph landscapes, in black and white is—Oh, just like Ansel Adams!  Who happens to be the most recognized photographer at least in America, probably in the world, a photographer that many have tried to imitate—so why shouldn’t I?

First, there are some things I like and admire about Ansel Adams—his (best) prints are intimidating to any person who has struggled to pull beauty out of a silver print in a darkroom.  On his best days (or his assistant’s best days), he made prints (and big prints, for the silver era) that can really sing.  In Fairbanks where I live, the University has a 40×50 inch print of Denali from Wonder Lake, one of his most famous images, and I go visit it from time to time.   At first I was intimidated by the iconography of the image—I wasn’t really looking at the print, just being in the presence of the damn thing triggered memories of the hundreds of times I’ve seen the image in print.  Finally one day (when I was trying to make some equally large prints of the same mountain), I forced myself to walk up to the print and look at it closely—look at the dust spots on the negative (and they were not well spotted), to see the film grain weaving in and out of focus across the print—it wasn’t a perfect surface—but it really didn’t matter—the image still had the ability to intimidate.   Somehow he had pulled off the magic of a photograph—the image was convincing.

Ansel Adams 1942 Valley Clearing Winter Storm

Ansel Adams 1942 Valley Clearing Winter Storm

So why do I have such a reluctance to admire his work?  John Szarkowski wrote, in the introduction to “The Portfolios of Ansel Adams” that many people preferred the experience of an Ansel Adams photograph to the experience of being in the landscape where the photograph was made—a  mind blowing concept when I first read that statement, thirty years ago.  Back then, I thought that a camera was a machine that made replicas of the real world, and that the replicas were wonderful, but always somehow less than the real.  The idea that a photograph could be better than the thing it was derived from seemed to me to be an impossibility.

But it doesn’t take long for most people to come to grips with the fact that our view of reality and the camera’s view rarely coincide, leading most novice photographers to abandon the medium, or, failing that, into camera stores to buy more expensive cameras and lenses.   But even though we don’t always hit what we aim at, the direction is not always down—and every photographer knows the joy of those first few gifts…

Ansel Adams best pictures—the clearing storms over Yosemite valley, the snow covered trees, the smooth granite faces of the high Serias—are mythical and magical—shining silver renditions of wilderness  that must have been lost a long time ago, at the fall.  Which is precisely why I find them wanting—they seem to say that the earth is beautiful everywhere except where people are, and maybe the world would be a better place if we weren’t here.

And most of Ansel’s pictures are taken with longer lenses  that draw us close to the vertical faces of the cliffs of Yosemite, some speak of his photographs as monumental, but they also feel like tombstones, a majestic tribute to something dead.  The images float in space, there is no place for the viewer to stand, no place for us in these pictures.   They also seem claustrophobic in their framing, perhaps because it is hard to find sweeping spaces in the western landscape that are without human imprints.

And while I admire Ansel Adams commitment to conservation (he was president of the Sierra Club for many years), he believed that preserving wilderness was important for us and future generations to enjoy, but there were other places where agriculture and industry belonged.  In the 21st century, issues like global climate change dominate our discussion of conservation issues—and protecting discrete beautiful areas seems at best a token effort to the work that needs to be done.

So while there are many reasons to admire Ansel  Adams as a photographer and a conservationist, I don’t find his pictures particularly appealing or his ideas very useful.

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