Tag Archives: Ansel Adams

Still Seeing Straight

I recently read Group f.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography by Mary Street Alinder. It’s an excellent book, detailing the development, personalities, and some of the lesser-known aspects of the well-known photography “movement” known as Group f.64.

More a loose association of like-minded friends than a formal organization, Group f.64 came together in the Bay Area in 1932. It was named (primarily symbolically) for a very small lens aperture that provides great depth of field in a photograph (the areas in sharp focus). The members of Group f.64 shared a conviction that photography should capitalize on and celebrate the medium’s inherent strengths of sharp focus and detail, as manifested through finely crafted prints. This was in opposition to pictorialism, in vogue at the time, which emphasized soft-focus and unabashedly manipulated images, usually presented on heavily textured papers. Pictorialism attempted to use photography to mimic or reference other art forms, while the straight photography of Group f.64 celebrated the medium’s own unique strengths.

While the members shared these basic tenets, they were far from a homogenous group. Differing opinions about photography’s social relevance and responsibility developed as time (and the Depression) wore on. Some (such as Willard Van Dyke and Dorothea Lange) felt photographers had a duty to expose society’s ills to the world, while others (such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston) believed their primary duty was to creativity and self-expression.

Although the group itself was fluid and fairly short-lived – its last exhibition was in 1939 – its influence lives on. Referred to as straight photography, pure photography, or West Coast photography, the style still has many admirers, advocates, and practitioners. It also continues to have its detractors and those who question its relevance.

I’m a great admirer of this aesthetic, and it has undoubtedly influenced the way I photograph. Although I now embrace modern digital technology in image capture and printing, my ultimate goal remains the same: to capture and print expressive images based on reality and the innate characteristics of photography.

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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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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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