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Tag Archives: Yosemite

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

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



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.