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Tag Archives: Ansel Adams

The Western Landscape is a classic subject for American Photographers ever since the invention of photography—one might even argue that photography invented our vision of the American west, with views by O’Sullivan, Muybridge,  Edward Weston, and Ansel Adams (and many others).

Lee Friedlander has turned his delightful eye on this subject.  In the 2005 epic retrospective book, “Friedlander”, the last section (68 photographs) is devoted to “Landscapes”.  This work seemed to be something of a continuation of “The Desert Seen” (1996) in that iconic views are frequently relegated to the background of photos that seem to feature sharply focused rocks and trees in the foreground.

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite National Park, 2004

Lee Friedlander, Yosemite National Park, 2004

In 2008, Friedlander published “Recent Western Landscapes”—a book I pre-ordered on Amazon, but never received a copy of.  Apparently the book sold out before any copies were shipped to Amazon.  I’ve never managed to find a copy at a reasonable price, so have never held that book in my hands.

So when “Lee Friedlander:  Western Landscapes” was available for pre-order on Amazon in mid-summer, I ordered a copy, fingers firmly crossed.  It arrived a few weeks ago, but I gave it to my wife so she could wrap it as a Christmas gift.  Weighing in at 7 pounds, and 14 X 15 inches, with 189 full sized plates, each reproduced at 12×12 inches, the book feels epic in both scope and size.  The printing can be described only as perfect, in the sense that one cannot imagine that looking at an original silver print could offer more pleasure than the reproductions presented in the book.   (Given my modest means as a collector, purchasing an original Friedlander print is well beyond me, but purchasing a second copy of this book and desecrating the binding with a razor so I can frame and hang at least some of these images may be a temptation I can’t resist.)

Lee Friedlander, Point Lobos, 2012

Lee Friedlander, Point Lobos, 2012

The book begins with a series of images from Point Lobos—the neighborhood playground of Edward Weston.  There are many other easily recognized places—Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, Zion National Park, Arches National Park—as well as numerous images of seemingly anonymous tangled trees.   There are a handful of images from the Canadian Rockies, and one from Mexico.

I must confess one disappointment with the book, albeit a personal one.  My first reading of the book was to look at the pictures, one by one, hoping to find some Alaskan Landscapes.  In “America by Car”, Friedlander included eight images from Alaska, all dated from 2007, so it seemed reasonable to hope that a few of Alaska’s majestic views caught his attention.  I did not see any recognizable views on my first reading, but examination of the captions at the back revealed one image was from Alaska—plate 145.

Lee Friedlander, Alaska, 2007

Lee Friedlander, Alaska, 2007

At first glance, this image is, in my humble opinion, one of the least interesting images in the whole book, a disappointment to someone who has spent a significant part of his life attempting to photograph the Alaskan Landscape.  The foreground appears to be a grassy bank—not typical of Alaska–it looks like a road cut—which occupies more than half the frame—and beyond that, some scruffy trees, and a sliver of a river in the distance.  Only after looking at the image for a few minutes did I recognize the view—one I’ve seen many times, though never photographed in the way Friedlander did—it is a view of the Susitna River from a tourist pull-out on the Parks Highway about 130 miles north of Anchorage.  The pull-out was built to provide a view of the south face of Denali, a splendid view when the weather is cooperative, with the braided channels of the Susitna River in the foreground and the mountain in the distance, a view that could be seen—in clear weather—by pivoting ninety degrees to the right from the Friedlander picture, and walking a few hundred feet to the tourist viewing area.

My question is, why did Friedlander include this picture, rather than one of the iconic mountain?  The simple answer, and probably the most likely, is that the mountain was hidden by clouds during the time Friedlander was there—a guess suggested by the clouds that appear in the upper right corner of the frame.  From the “America by Car” images, Friedlander includes two pictures of rain on the windshield of his car—weather typical of late summer.  While, on average, the “mountain is out” one day out of five, there are streaks of bad weather where the mountain might not be out for weeks at a time.

So why did Friedlander include this picture at all?  Is it intended as a snub at Alaska—a “this place is really overrated” statement?  Or is it an admission of defeat—between the weather and the almost exhausting array of possible subjects, he walks away without an iconic frame to include with the others?  Or is this picture an inside joke–a deliberate look away from the iconic view?   Of course, the picture is mute.

There have been multiple books on the American west that don’t include a single image of Alaska—so having one—even boring—picture included is perhaps a way of saying that Alaska is included in his view of the west.  There are at least two other states represented by a single image in this collection—Nevada and Idaho.   Maybe “the West” is too big for any single photographer, or single book.  But he includes two photographs from New York—hopefully at least west of his house.

As a young photographer decades ago, I was the beneficiary of the encouragement and generosity of several older photographers.  In 1983, when I was in my mid 20’s, I decided to purchase a 4×5 camera—several photographers I admired were working in large format—and so I started looking for a camera to buy.

I recall looking at an older, small wooden camera with red bellows in the window of a camera store in Lynchburg, Virginia—I was traveling with my parents to visit my sister who was attending Liberty Baptist College—but it was Sunday, and the store wasn’t open.  Lucky for me.  When my old photo instructor and friend, Bob Lowing, discovered I was shopping for a 4×5, he offered to sell me his—a Linholf Technika IV—his daughter was taking dancing lessons, and he needed the money.  He agreed to let me try out the camera, and to pay him the appraised value.   I took the camera to a used camera/repair shop in Philadelphia, and was told the camera was worth $500, the sum I paid for the camera. (Later, when I brought the shutter in for repair, the same person told me the camera was worth much more—I suspect he was trying to purchase the camera from me at a low-ball price when I asked for an appraisal.  When I told my friend that I may have under-paid him for the camera, he laughed, and said it was in good hands.)  My recollection is that the deal also included a few film holders and some other accessories.

Kool Jazz, Philadelphia, June 1983

Kool Jazz, Philadelphia, June 1983–First day in the field with the Linholf

The Linholf Technika is a “field camera”, a similar design to a collapsible Speed Graphic press camera—when not in use, the camera folds into a compact box.  To use, the front folds out, exposing a rail that the front standard and lens slide out on.  The Linholf is a metal camera—virtually indestructible—in the 33 years I owned the camera, the only servicing I had done to the camera was an occasional shutter clean and adjust.

I didn’t own a car while I lived in Philadelphia, so I would strap a tripod to the rear rack of my bicycle, put the Linholf in a backpack, and ride around the city looking for photographs.  Only in retrospect did it occur to me how ideal this was—I never had to find a parking space—I just got off the bike, set up the tripod, and made the picture.

Snow White, Philadelphia, June 1983

Snow White, Philadelphia, June 1983–First day in the field with the Linholf

By this point in my photographic career, I’ve owned something like a few dozen cameras—from a key chain digital camera to a 12×20 inch banquet camera—and each camera seems able to make only certain pictures.  The best pictures come when the photographer and the camera learn to work together—sometimes an easier process than others.  But right from my first day in the field with the Linholf, the camera helped me make great pictures–ones I still look at with pride.

The Linholf was my primary camera between 1983 and 1987, when I purchased my first 8×10 camera.  I was goaded into the 8×10 by George Tice (I took a class with him at the New School in 1986) and Michael A Smith (he had a show, I attended the gallery lecture, and decided to buy my own 8×10 rather than purchasing one of his prints—they cost about the same).

Fishing for Tom Cods, Kotzebue, Alaska, November 1987

Fishing for Tom Cods, Kotzebue, Alaska, November 1987

When my wife and I left New Jersey to spend the summer in Alaska, I decided to leave the 8×10 at home and take the Linholf—we were headed to a remote field camp on the tundra, and I wasn’t sure that bringing along a huge camera was a good idea.  I think it goes under the Ansel Adams rule about cameras—“use the biggest one you can carry.”  There are times when the 8×10 is just too much—the Linholf was the perfect smaller camera.  Which is why the Linholf went with me to the northern Brooks Range in 1996.

Karupa Lake, Brooks Range, Alaska, August 1996

Karupa Lake, Brooks Range, Alaska, August 1996

One issue with any sheet film camera is the problem of loading and unloading film holders–you can do it in the field, but it is a real pain in the butt. In about 2006, I decided to switch to redi-loads–individual sheets of film packaged in cardboard holders–they weren’t cheap, but it eliminated the issue of handling film while traveling.  About 5 years ago, I discovered that redi-loads were no longer available for purchase–another victim of the digital revolution.

A few years ago, my friend Ben Huff and I had a long conversation about Adak, an island that has a recently closed military base on it.   Ben took a couple trips there over the past year, and got a grant to continue his project–I volunteered to join him on his next trip–which we did together in September.  I took along the Linholf and the last 62 sheets of redi-loads.

Sea and sky, Adak, September 2016

Sea and sky, Adak, September 2016

The Linholf was a great camera for Adak–I could carry it on walks around town, the camera was stiff enough to work in the constant wind–and the camera movements were more than adequate for the architectural pictures I wanted to make.  But I have to admit, my eyes aren’t what they used to be–I did a lot of guessing about the focus on the ground glass–and did a lot of the movements based on experience.  The scans I’ve done so far look pretty good, though.

But Adak was the end of the road for my work with the Linholf.  I don’t want to go back to sheet film holders in 4×5–I much prefer the experience of looking at the 8×10 ground glass–I make different pictures with the bigger camera.  So I sent the camera home with Ben.  He has a project or two in mind for the camera, and I’d rather see it in his hands, making new pictures, rather than sitting on my shelf.

Snow Fence, Adak, September 2016--Last picture with Linhof

Snow Fence, Adak, September 2016–Last picture with Linhof

In all, I made about 2800 images with the Linholf in the 33 years I owned the camera.  Not that many, especially compared to the number of pictures I make with a hand-held digital camera.  But many of those images still hold my interest–perhaps a direct result of the care and time needed to make each picture.  And the steady, comforting quality of working with a great camera, like a friend.

A few years ago, I purchased a small (about 4×5 inch) Ansel Adams print, shown below.

https://denniswitmer.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/aa-blog-image.jpg?w=490&h=736

This image was probably printed sometime in the mid 1930’s, and was most likely sold in the Yosemite Park gift shop, where Ansel’s wife’s family had a long term concession.  The image is of Yosemite falls, probably made in the spring (judging by the strong flow of the falls).  While I do not know the exact details of the photograph, it appears to have been made with a large format camera, and shows care in both the composition and the printing.

Yesterday, I and my wife spent a few hours in Yosemite Valley, on a lovely day in spring.  I carried a hand held digital camera, and shot several hundred images over the course of a few hours.  One of the images is shown below:

 

Yosemite Falls, March 22. 2016

Yosemite Falls, March 22. 2016

 

Of course, my image is taken from a different vantage point, with a different camera, in a different century, and with a different purpose.  I expect absolutely no sales of this image from the gift shop (my wife comes from a family of plumbers, not gift shop owners.  Maybe if the toilets back up, I’ll get a call).  My image was, of course, made in color, but in honor of Ansel Adams, I converted the image to black and white and very carefully selected the “green filter” option to bring out the texture of the trees.

As a young man, I read an essay by John Szarkowski about Ansel Adams who noted that “many people prefer the experience of viewing an Ansel Adams photograph to the experience of being in the actual landscape”–a statement that shocked me when I read it–at the time I believed that a photograph was always only a small part of the reality of the place, and therefore always inferior.  But being in Yosemite valley is to be in a crowd–there were probably 10,000 people in the valley when I was, all of them with their cameras and cell phones, posing themselves, family, and friends in front of the falls and cliffs that Ansel Adams so famously photographed before.  Every view was occupied.  After about two hours (much of it spent looking for a toilet without a long line), my wife remarked that she didn’t like the place.  The cliffs and falls are unarguably beautiful, but the crowds and the speeding cars racing by meant that none of it could be enjoyed in silence or solitude.

Lower Falls view, Yosemite Falls, March 22, 2016

Lower Falls view, Yosemite Falls, March 22, 2016

The most satisfying views I found were quieter ones, along walkways, into groves of trees.  And, yes, I know, these too have been photographed to death, but at least they felt a little more private than the grander views.  And, besides, my wife was looking for a tree.

Forest near Yosemite Falls viewing area, March 22, 2016

Forest near Yosemite Falls viewing area, March 22, 2016

 

 

Snow Drift, Kotzebue, 1989

Snow Drift, Kotzebue, 1989

 

Alaska As the Measure“, live on KickStarter

Richardson Highway, 2005

Richardson Highway, 2005

 

Alaska As the Measure:  Live on KickStarter

Karupa Lake, August, 1996

Karupa Lake, August, 1996

 

Alaska As The Measure:  a book project–on KickStater now

God knows there are too many web sites out there with too many pictures: I’ve tried to use this blog as a way of discussing photographers and photographs I like, with a bit of added discussion about my own ongoing process of living and photographing. It’s part of my attempt to participate in the conversation of photography, something I can do to hopefully add to others understanding and enjoyment of the art.

 

Alaska as the Measure Ad

Of course, there are other ways to participate in the conversation. I love books of photography—looking at them, buying them—and making them. So far, I’ve managed to publish two books—“Far to the North: Photographs of the Brooks Range” and “Front Street Kotzebue”.   Both of these were relatively small projects, with photographs selected from one place, but easy to sequence into a book.   But I lived in Alaska for 26 years, and made many photographs, including about 5000 with an 8×10 view camera. The question is how to turn them into a book.

Panorama Mountain, 1994

Panorama Mountain, 1994

When I first came to Alaska in 1987, the Ansel Adams boom was still echoing across the landscape, and the smart money in the “art world” was that the black and white natural landscape had “been done”, and a young photographer had better find some other niche to fill. My photographic hero was Robert Adams, who photographed the human landscape, avoiding the National Parks and the monumental landscapes. But the landscape I found myself in, hundreds of miles past the end of the road in northwest Alaska, was wild beyond imagination, and I found myself point my lens at landscapes without any human artifacts, beautiful.

Matanuska Glacier, 2010

Matanuska Glacier, 2010

 

What does one do with photographs of beautiful natural landscapes? For years, I did not exhibit them or show them to many other people—I put them in boxes and let them age. Then, in 1996, at the suggestion of a gallery director, I sent a group of photographs to Robert Adams. He responded with an encouraging letter, and responded most strongly to the natural landscapes. Eventually he offered to sequence and edit a book of the work.

 

Tanana River at Freeze-up, 1993

Tanana River at Freeze-up, 1993

“Alaska As the Measure” is the result of his generous offer—a book of photographs that attempt to show the scale and beauty of the Alaskan landscape. I’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign, in part to fund the design and printing of the book, but also to show people what I’ve seen. I realize that not everyone is a photographic book collector, but I think this book is worth making—and I’m hoping to find a group of people that help make this book become reality.

 

Tok Cut Off, 1994

Tok Cut Off, 1994

Watkins image

Carleton Watkins was one of the first to photograph the western landscape, working with large plate glass negatives, making large albumen prints for sale to tourists.

I have seen many Watkins photographs in galleries and museums over the years, and for years was fascinated by the colors achieved in the prints—a rich maroon in the shadows, a glowing gold in the highlights—together making an image that seems to offer more information than a straight silver print.  For about a decade, I used “split toning” to try to replicate the color pallet of the old images—with some limited success.

I stumbled across a “cabinet card” sized Watkins for sale on e-bay recently—I have to admit that I never really looked for Watkins prints—the ones I’ve seen in galleries have been priced well beyond my collecting budget—but this one was priced in range, so I bid a modest increment over the minimum, and, to my surprise, won the auction.

The image apparently was made in the field with camera larger than the print I purchased—it is included as Plate 25 in “Carleton Watkins:  the art of perception”, published by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1999—a publication notable for how well the printing reproduces the difficult colors of the old albumen prints (one photographer once noted that another, a less successful attempt “looked like someone pissed on the prints”).  The information indicates a 15.5 x 20.625 inch print size—much larger than the print I purchased—which is only 4×6 inches—and cropped slightly differently.  I assume that the image was made in the field with a large plate camera, and a smaller copy negative was made for the smaller print size, which was then used to make the albumen print (a contact printing process).

Watkins was photographing in Yosemite in the 1860’s, more than half a century before Ansel Adams made his first exposure.  Although the materials available for Watkins to work with were crude by modern standards, the images he made still resonate—ethereal light, mythical mountains, and filled with stillness.

A few years ago, I read a book called “I Bought Andy Warhol”—a book written by an art dealer who had bought and sold many Andy Warhol paintings over the years, but eventually decided he wanted a Warhol to keep.  A lot of the book had to do with the “almost Warhol’s” floating around the world—bad prints, or unsigned proof prints lifted by assistants—all available on the edges of the art market.  Eventually, he decides that he wants a real Warhol, and travels to a warehouse where Warhol’s estate is kept and buys a painting, which is then stamped by the executor of the estate, and the transaction carefully recorded—making it a “real” Warhol.

Real” Ansel Adams prints are currently selling for several thousand to several tens of thousands of dollars per print, well beyond my comfort level as a collector.  So for a long time, I assumed that I would never own an Ansel Adams print—I’ve seen plenty on the walls of galleries and museums, I know the power of his printing, but I don’t find his mythical wilderness to be a vision I want to invest heavily in.

However, a few weeks ago, a group of small photographs by Ansel Adams appeared for sale on e-bay, all stamped on the back “From Virginia and Ansel Adams, Operating Best’s Studio, Inc, Yosemite National Park, California”.  Several of the images were inscribed on the back in pencil in handwriting that may have been from Ansel Adams himself, although none of the images were signed.  I managed to purchase one of the images.

Ansel Adams had many assistants who worked for him over the years—and has sold many prints made by these assistants at very low prices—they were intended to be low cost, high quality prints for the general public to purchase.  In 1938, when his wife inherited Best’s Studio, he sold small ones for $1.00 or 3 for $2.50—larger ones for $1.50  or 3 for $4.00, printed by his assistant Ronald Partridge, the son of Imogen Cunningham (information from Ansel Adams, A Biography, by Mary Street Alinder, 1996, page 140).  Based on the stamp, it seems likely that the print is of that vintage.

Ansel Adams, Yosemite Park, 1930s?

I like the image I purchased for several reasons—it is a well crafted image—the exposure of the negative and the print are extremely well controlled, the time of day and the angle of the light, the presence of the cloud above the cliff, the framing with the two trees, and the power of the flow of the waterfall all indicate the care with which the image was made.  But I especially enjoy the foreground—a road with a single line painted down the middle, a small pull-out for a car to park, a road sign, not to mention the fact that the road is designed to provide a dramatic view of the falls.  Many of Ansel’s pictures were made from the road, but few include it’s presence.

I have no idea if I paid too little or too much for the photograph—nor do I really care (although my wife might).  I’m happy to have an example of his work in my collection, even if it isn’t signed, and probably wasn’t printed by him.   I’ll frame it later today, and hang it in my home, maybe next to the Walker Evans prints from the Library of Congress.

Robert Adam’s “Prairie” is back in print, more than 30 years after its first release.  The original version was a very small, slender volume, with 33 pictures, released by the Denver Art Museum, but sequenced and designed by Robert Adams himself.  His previous three books—“White Churches of the Plains”, “The Architecture and Art of Early Hispanic Colorado” (both published by the University of Colorado Press), and “The New West” (published by Aperture) were the results of not just Robert Adams efforts, but also those of editors and book designers—the way books are usually published.  “Prairie” is a different sort of book—something more akin to an artist book—the essay is very short but beautifully written, the pictures are small but full of stillness, and the sequencing is full of unexpected transitions that jar the reader to pay attention.

Robert Adams, Ramah, 1965

The photographs used in Prairie were made beginning in 1965, before Adams turned 30,  and so are the earliest published examples that we have of his work.  Some of the pictures could have been included in “White Churches of the Plains”, but “Prairie” shows that Adam’s vision was much broader than just the churches, and that his eye was attracted to the sweeping spaces, the light, and the stillness of the high plains of eastern Colorado.  Robert Adams was aware of the work of other photographers, including Ansel Adams, who he purchased a print of “Moonrise” from in 1966, perhaps in part to possess an example of a well printed silver gelatin print to set a standard for his own work.

The translation of a silver gelatin print (the object created by the 20th century photographer in the darkroom) to the ink of the printed page is considerably less straightforward than the uninitiated might suspect, especially before the advent of digital technology for the making of printing plates.  My first memorable encounter with Robert Adams‘ work was at the Philadelphia Art Museum in 1982 when I saw an exhibit of “The New West” hanging in a small gallery—it was many years before I saw a copy of the book containing the same images—but the quality of the relatively small prints (about 5×5 inches) was striking.  Over the years, I have encountered more than a few photographers who have dismissed the work of Robert Adams as uninteresting—but when queried about how frequently they have viewed his original prints, have admitted to seeing none.

Thankfully, printing technology has improved over the past few decades, and the reprinting of “Prairie” is a wonderful example of how what appear to be very subtle differences in the amount of ink on the page, the selection of the paper and its surface, and the color of the ink and the varnish can nudge the printed image to something more closely resembling the original print created by the photographer.  The inclusion of a dozen new images in the new version add substance to the book, but it still feels modest and precious.

But even more striking about “Prairie” is what it reveals to us about Robert Adams sensibility as a photographer before he began his work in the suburbs around Denver.  He started with light and space, and a deep affection for a landscape created by people living with the land.  Some of the images in “Prairie” edge towards sentimentality (which Robert Adams defines as “giving small consolations more importance than they deserve”), but the republishing of this book argues for the significance of these views.  Forty years after most of these photographs were made, we suspect that many of the scenes he photographed are gone, but the light and the space remain—and have continued to inform and tension his photographs over the decades.