The Print As An “Object”

When I moved to the Bay Area in the late 1980s, I was fortunate to work about three blocks away from the Ansel Adams Center.  This housed the gallery, bookstore, and offices of the Friends of Photography (an organization founded in 1967 by Ansel Adams and others in Carmel, which relocated to the Bay Area in 1989 and ultimately ceased operations in 2001).  The Ansel Adams Center was a beautiful facility on 4th Street in San Francisco near Moscone Center, in a building that formerly housed San Francisco’s venereal disease clinic, a bit of trivia I always found amusing.  There were three galleries of photography with rotating shows, one of which was always devoted to the work of Ansel Adams.

I spent countless lunch hours there.  I would always visit all three galleries, but would usually linger in the one devoted to Ansel Adams, appreciating his prints and craftsmanship.  This time spent with his prints, the final concrete expression of his vision, was inspiring and contributed to the way I look at my own work as well as that of others today.

This relates to the concept of the “print as an object” (a well-known term for which I have not been able to find a source to credit).  In addition to the image (the subject), the final presentation of the image (the object) is of supreme importance, at least in certain circles.  To relate this to Ansel Adams’ well known quote (the negative is the score and the print is the performance), many people like to experience the performance in person.

This experience is often lacking today. The digital presentation of photographs allows vastly more photographs to be viewed, but in my opinion it is not a substitute for viewing the object itself.  In many cases, the “object” may not even exist beyond its digital form. This is undoubtedly the case for the vast majority of casual photographs made today.  Although you can get an idea of the tune, the subtleties and nuance of the performance are not readily revealed.  In some cases prints may not live up to the expectations set by their digital counterparts, while in others the reverse is true.

Reports are that Bill Gates’ mansion on Lake Washington features video displays on the walls to show revolving works of art.  While interesting, the experience must be quite different than looking at the originals.  In this case, the digital presentation becomes another “object”, clouding the issue.

While I look at a lot of images online, I still try to look at the “real thing” whenever possible.  It’s well worth the effort.

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Center for Photographic Art Juried Exhibition

I’m pleased to announce that one of my images, Oceano #6, has been selected for the Center for Photogaphic Art’s 2013 Juried Exhibition.  Jurors were Dean Brierly, editor of B&W Magazine, and Chris Johnson, Professor of Photography for the California College of the Arts.

 The exhibition opens January 12, 2013 and runs through March 1, 2013.  The Center for Photographic Art is located in the Sunset Center, San Carlos Street at 9th Avenue, in Carmel California.  There is an opening reception January 12 from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m.

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Oceano’s Photographic History

As described in a previous post, I visited the dunes at Oceano for the first time earlier this year.  I have returned several times since then, and intend to continue.  The dunes have a storied photographic history, which makes the area even more interesting.

The photographer credited with first “discovering” the Oceano dunes was a Weston, though perhaps not one you would expect. Chandler Weston, son of Edward and brother of Brett, found the dunes in the early 1930s.  He and Brett owned a photo studio in nearby Santa Maria at the time.  Brett soon followed his brother to the dunes.

Edward Weston found his way to Oceano in 1934.  In the April 20, 1934 entry to his Daybooks, he describes traveling to Oceano from his home in Carmel with fellow photographer Willard Van Dyke:

“One weekend Willard came down after just quitting his job with the Shell Oil Co.: we took his car, I paying the expenses, and drove to Oceano.  There I made several dune negatives that mark a new epoch in my work.  I must go back there, — the material made for me!”

Dune Forum was a short-lived literary magazine published by Gavin Arthur (grandson of Chester A. Arthur, the 21st President of the United States).  The magazine was headquartered in Arthur’s cabin in the middle of the dunes, which was part of a small cluster of cabins known as Moy Mell.  Of the seven issues published, three had cover photographs of the Oceano Dunes: one each by Chandler Weston, Edward Weston, and Willard Van Dyke.  Brett Weston and Ansel Adams each had cover photos as well, though they were not of the dunes.  The remaining two covers were sketches.

The Oceano Dunes became iconic subject matter for both Edward and Brett Weston.  Edward, who made well-known images of the dunes themselves, and of Charis Wilson in the dunes, did most of his significant work there prior to 1940.  Brett Weston continued to visit the area for the rest of his life.

Ansel Adams made a well-known photo of the Oceano dunes around 1950 (Sand Dune, Oceano, California, c. 1950).  Interestingly, in Examples, the Making of 40 Photographs, he noted, “I have visited the dunes many times, but only on a few occasions have wanted to photograph.”

In the early 1960s, Adams, who was on the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club at the time, played a major role in the battle against the proposed construction of a nuclear power plant in the dunes.  As a result of pressure from Adams, the Sierra Club and others, the proposed power plant was moved further up the coast to Diablo Canyon, north of San Luis Obispo.

There is no shortage of photos of the Oceano Dunes, both by the early Masters and the many others who have followed.  However, the area continues to call to photographers and is well worth exploring further.

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What Would Ansel Do?

It’s a topic that comes up regularly in the ongoing film vs. digital debates – what would Ansel Adams do with digital photography?

Of course no one knows, but it is kind of fun to speculate.  My own opinion is that he would be well aware of, and most likely very experienced in, digital imaging.  Whether or not he used digital technology to capture and/or print his fine art images would most likely depend on his assessment of the final prints and any preference he might have toward one process or the other.

Would he work in color, stick with black and white for which he is so well known, or perhaps do both?  After all, the major constraint in color photography in his time was the lack of available control over the output, which digital processing has pretty much eliminated.

Although Ansel passed away long before the advent of modern digital imaging, he saw the potential on the horizon.  In the 1983 BBC TV Production, Master Photographers, he talked about the possibilities:

“The thing that excites me is that within not too many years we’re going to have an entirely new medium of expression in the electronic image.  I’ve seen what can happen to a print reproduced by the laser scanner and how that is enhanced and that’s just the beginning.  I’ve also seen some magnificent electronic images, direct electrical not pictures of pictures, and I know the potential is there and I know it’s going to be wonderful.”

So what would he use – film, digital, or both?  Who knows?  However, I’m almost certain that he would know the options, make his decisions based on his aesthetic and personal preferences, and get to work.  Not a bad approach.

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Wandering Around

Copyright © Jim Banks

Quite a few years ago, I was showing a portfolio of commercially-oriented work around in an effort to drum up more business. I met with an art director who looked through my portfolio carefully, and then remarked, “you just wander around and take photos of interesting things.”

I don’t think he meant it as a compliment, but I later concluded that he was right.  That’s what I liked to do, and that’s what I thought was one of photography’s major strengths: finding interesting subjects, compositions, patterns or drama, and capturing them through the magic of photography.

“Wandering around” has always been my approach to landscape photography as well.  I’ll have a general idea of where I want to look, but that’s about as far as my planning takes me.  I much prefer to wander around and let the photographs find me.

Posted in Landscape Photography Tagged , , |

Twelve Significant Photographs

Ansel Adams wrote, “twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop.”  In today’s age of cell phone cameras, Facebook and Instagram, is this a hopelessly outdated notion?

It’s estimated that there are currently about 90 billion photos on Facebook, with 6 billion more added each month.  Granted, most are posted as a means of personal communication rather than as any kind of artistic expression, but that’s a lot of photos!  Flickr, a photo-sharing site where the photos presumably have more creative intent, already hosts about 5 billion images.

The technological sea change that photography has seen in the last decade has exponentially increased the quantity of photographs, but not necessarily the quality.  While it’s generally easier, faster and cheaper to make photographs than ever before, that doesn’t necessarily translate into better photographs.

Oceano #1, Oceano, California © Jim Banks

The key word in Ansel’s quote is “significant”.  Of course that means different things to different people, but in this case I think he meant portfolio- and exhibition-worthy prints that would stand the test of time.

I feel that this seemingly modest goal is still valid in fine art landscape photography.  Although it’s very easy now to make hundreds (or thousands) of images in a day, the best still come from deliberate observation, selectivity, timing, and circumstance, with a little bit of luck thrown in.  They then have to survive a ruthless edit and pass the most important test of all, the test of time.

All in all, twelve significant photographs in a year is quite an accomplishment.

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Oceano is a special place. The tiny town of Oceano lies near Pismo Beach in Central California.  However to most people, Oceano means sand dunes.

Oceano #2, Oceano, California © Jim Banks

In the early1900s there were grand plans to develop the area as the “Atlantic City of the Pacific.”  The dunes were subdivided and sold.  A boardwalk, Grand Pavilion, and pier were constructed, all of which have been reclaimed by the shifting sands.  In the 1920s and 30s, the dunes were inhabited by the “Dunites”, a loosely formed group of artists, mystics, and misfits who claimed the dunes as their home.  In the 1960s, the area was discovered by dune buggy enthusiasts, who used it without restriction.  That development, along with the passage of time, moved the remaining Dunites out of the dunes, with the last one leaving in 1974.

The State of California has since stepped in, creating an official State Vehicular Recreation Area along the beach and in part of the dunes.  However, a good portion of the dunes, known by the Dunites as the “High Dunes,” has been preserved.

The dunes were photographed extensively by Edward and Brett Weston. A well-known Ansel Adams photograph was made there, and many other photographers have followed.

In February of this year, I decided I’d like to see Oceano for myself.  The area is still a bit quirky, with beautiful dunes surrounded by farms, RVs, a small airport, housing tracts, and the Off-Road Vehicle Recreation Area.  Wilderness it’s not

However, when you get into the high dunes themselves, it is still a beautiful area.  You can see what attracted so many to Oceano.

Even though so many have already photographed the Oceano dunes, it’s a place I’d like to explore more myself.

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Appreciating Black and White

My early experiences in photography were purely in color.  I don’t think I understood the point of black and white photography for quite some time (presumably due to a lack of exposure to it).

I was a Freshman at the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1975.  This was the year that the Center for Creative Photography, founded by Ansel Adams and the University, was established.  I was vaguely aware that the new Center was being constructed in a former bank building on Fourth Street near campus.  Although I knew very little about it, I thought it sounded interesting, and I did go there once it opened its doors.

Regretfully (and embarrassingly) I went in, took a fairly quick look around, and then walked out.  I didn’t have the background to appreciate what must have been on those walls.   I remember that the prints were fairly large, and that many were black and white, but they really didn’t catch my attention.  I’m now saddened to think about the opportunities I may have missed.

I first began to become really aware of black and white photography about nine years later, as a result of the all the news coverage following Ansel Adams’ death in the spring of 1984.  Although I knew who he was through his TV commercial for Datsun and his environmental activism, I didn’t know much about his photography.  After his death, I remember being moved by his black and white images, shown in newspapers and magazines and on television.

The following year for Christmas my parents gave me his Autobiography, and I was hooked on black and white photography.  The first chance I had to see his prints in person was when my wife and I took the train from Los Angeles to San Diego to see an exhibit at the Museum of Photographic Art in Balboa Park.  I have since seen countless exhibits of black and white photographs (of Ansel’s and many others).

Although I enjoy looking at color photography, for my own creative photography I exclusively work in black and white.  From my own experience, I have come to the conclusion that black and white photography may be an acquired taste.

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Roots in the Landscape

People sometimes ask how I got interested in landscape photography.  I think the answer lies first in my interest in the landscape.

When I was growing up, family outings and vacations usually involved lots of time in out-of-the-way places. My parents were “rock hounds”, and my grandfather, H.H. Nininger, was a pioneer in the study of meteorites.  We would spend days (or weeks) in remote areas, camping and exploring. As a kid, I didn’t have a lot of patience for actually looking for rocks, but I really loved the requisite traveling, camping and being outdoors.  I always enjoyed looking at and being in the landscape. I clearly remember struggling to stay awake on long car rides so as not to miss anything interesting along the way (which I still do today).

Like many photographers, I developed an interest in photography at an early age, although it was initially fairly casual and secondary to the experience of actually being in the landscape.  I have vague memories of having an old Kodak Brownie camera when I was very young, and clear memories of receiving a Kodak Instamatic camera for my 12th birthday.  These piqued my interest in photography, and I eventually got a hand-me-down Argus “Brick” camera from my mother, and finally my own 35mm SLR.

Initially, as with most photographers, my photos were primarily records of places and things.  Photography was a way to enjoy and remember the experience of being someplace.  While the technical aspects of photography came to me easily, and I think strong compositions were fairly natural for me, photography really didn’t get much deeper than that for me until I was in my 20s.

Throughout my formative years, I think I was most interested in the landscape itself, with photography being a strong, but secondary, interest.

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Scattering Leaves

I picked up a photography magazine the other day while I was waiting for an appointment.  As I was flipping through the pages, I saw an article that struck a chord.  In it, the author talked about how Autumn was a favorite time of year for landscape photography.  While I don’t have any quarrel with the conclusion, the reasoning seemed a bit odd to me.  The author stated that unlike in other seasons, where a photographer had to work with the hand they were dealt, in the Fall, a photographer could scatter leaves throughout the scene to improve his photographs.

While there are no general ethical principles in landscape photography, as there are in journalism for instance, in my mind there is an implication that landscape photographs are rooted in fact. Yes, photographs are abstractions of reality, and yes, they can be selective in what they show and manipulated in printing, but one usually assumes they are based on what was actually present in the scene as it was found.  At least I make that assumption.  To think otherwise removes a bit of their allure, in my opinion.

While there are many valid approaches to photography, the images I make are true to the scene as I found it.  I much prefer to discover and explore the subjects of my photographs as they exist in reality. Besides, who am I to try to improve upon what is naturally present?

(Tip from the article: if you do scatter leaves in your photographs, make sure they don’t all end up right side up, as that’s a sure giveaway that you did.)

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