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As a beginning photographer, a long time ago, I struggled to understand why my photographs looked the way they did, and didn’t look quite like the photographers I admired.  And, of course, I tried buying bigger cameras and better lenses when I could afford them, but still it seemed like I was missing something.

Ansel Adams, Mt McKinley Alaska, 1948  (artblart.files.wordpress.com)

When I moved to Fairbanks, I noticed that there was a big print, close to 40×50 inches, of the Ansel Adams view of Mt. McKinley hanging in the student union building at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  For a while I assumed it was a big poster–but eventually realized it was a silver print, made by god himself, Ansel Adams.  It’s a really famous image–probably the most widely reproduced and best known photograph ever made in Alaska.  It’s the cover image of the book “The Portfolios of Ansel Adams”, with an essay by John Szarkowski.

That print commanded the room–you had to look at it.  It was intimidating.  I recall the first time I made some big prints–about the same size as the Adams–including one of my images of Denali–though from a different camera position than Adams, and in different light.  I loved my image, but of course it wasn’t the same picture as Ansel’s, and I really didn’t want to make a comparison—but I knew others would.  So was my picture “good enough”–was it up to snuff?  How would it hang next to that famous Adams image?

In the introduction to the book, “The Portfolios of Ansel Adams”, Szarkowski writes about Adams’ “legendary technique”, in which he states “In fact, Adams’ photographs are no sharper–no more optically acute–than those of any other competent technician using similar tools.  They are more clear–a matter not of better lenses, but of a better understanding of what one means.”   (That essay, in it’s entirety is, is something I’ve read many times over the years.)

With that understanding, I took a special trip to visit the McKinley photo again, this time to look at it closely, the way I looked at my own image, close up and personal–from six inches away.  And what I discovered rather shocked me–from that distance, there were some black dust spots on the negative (a few, but they were there), some of the grain pattern was slightly out of focus–and the grain pattern clearly showed this was from a 4×5 negative.  And the image was warping and yellowing slightly.  Szarkowski was right–as a physical object, this print had problems–the usual ones that every photographer struggles with.

 

Dennis Witmer, Denali from Wonder Lake, July 4, 1996

After that close look, I walked past that photograph many times, but I wasn’t intimidated by it anymore.   It was like seeing an old friend.  And then, one day it was gone.  The place where it had been for years—it wasn’t there anymore.  Eventually, I discovered that it had been moved, back into some student offices in the same building—hung out of public view.  I have no idea why the print was moved—perhaps out of concern that someone would steal the image (god knows what that print would sell for)?  Or protect it from damage?  Or maybe it just became too “uncool” for current sensibilities?  After I found it in its new place, I would sometimes go to look at it.  The students in the office always wondered what I was doing there—“just looking at the picture”—they seemed to act like I was doing something weird.

But, in the long run, what impressed me most was how effectively Ansel had intimidated me for so long.  He had created an illusion–and a very effective one–that prevented me, and I suspect almost all viewers of that image, from looking to closely at what he had actually done.  He convinced me, for a long time, that his image was perfect and impossible to equal.  It was an icon.

That experience profoundly changed the way I look at almost all photographs, especially my own.  When in a museum or gallery, I take off my glasses, and look at photographs from six inches away, the way I would look at an image on the ground glass.  And in my own work, I think of my job as trying to create an illusion, not of replicating the world.  It’s magic–like a card trick–and sometimes I think I pull it off.

 

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