Results tagged “Ansel Adams” from this Public Address 2.0

Images and Print


From Image to Print

I managed to get Photography and the Book, a lecture by Beaumont Newhall printed in a limited edition of 2000 on interlibrary loan. My hat is off to Gary Saretzky for alerting me to it in his articles on Edwin Rosskam for Photo Review.I’ve got issues with Newhall, due to his close association with Ansel Adams and the myopic nature of his History of Photography but that doesn’t keep this particular lecture from being incredibly informative. From the first page, it has me rewriting some of my efforts. The connection between photography and printing is even stronger than I first thought. While Humphry Davy’s failed experiments were a clue— Davy and Wedgwood were looking for a way to avoid employing engravers— I had not thought about Niépce before.

A quick search turned up an incredible site on Nicéphore Niépce. The material there helps me in putting together a revised timeline with fewer gaps. But before I do that, I feel the need to return to the hopes and desires of the people involved. The aspirations of Thomas Wedgwood and Sir Humphry Davy are clear from the title of their 1802 Journal of the Royal Institution of Great Britain article, “An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings Upon Glass, and of Making Profiles, by the Agency of Light Upon Nitrate of Silver.” Thinking about that title, usually abbreviated simply “An Account of a Method,” makes me realize how much the disparity between nineteenth century photography and the twentieth is exaggerated— the contexts are not really that different. Looking at it closely, method (agent) is privileged over the desired result (action).

First, photography is a method of copying— in Davy and Wedgwood’s case, of copying paintings. This legacy, brought to fruition by Henry Fox-Talbot, is subtly shifted into copying nature. Casting this into another light, Davy and Wedgwood were interested in reproducing texts (logos) whereas Talbot was interested in evidence of a different sort— nature— mirroring the search for authority common to most eighteenth century praxis.

The problematic nature of authority involved in any practice of copying is deeply explored in the writings and art of William Blake— a crisis exacerbated by the low artistic station of engravers. The conventions of captioning for engravings reflect this. Long into the nineteenth century, it was the painter (or inventor) of an image whose name appeared first in the visual field, on the left, whereas the engraver (sculptor) was placed in the lower right-hand corner. Mechanical reproduction of original works would remove the need for the second caption, and the interference of an intermediary on the “truth” of the image. The search was for a more direct route for authority in copying, whether of nature or art.

The second consideration, “of Making Profiles,” is a more commercial one. Given the limitations in detail and slow speed of light-sensitive materials, they might be a possible technological improvement on a rising commercial art practice of the day— making silhouettes. I had already been thinking about the rise of the daguerreotype and the death of commercial miniature painting in the early nineteenth century— but I had not thought of the poor man’s miniature— the silhouette. These had long been produced through the mechanical help of the pantograph. Davy and Wedgwood’s declaration foretells an interesting confluence: the satisfaction of the popular appetite for images through technological means. The appetite for representations of people as both a commercial endeavor and as scientific evidence for theories wishing to join internal states with external appearance was rising during the late eighteenth century.

Thanks to Newhall’s assertion (echoed in a more recent essay by Michel Frizot in A New History of Photography) that Niépce was alone among the early pioneers of photography in connecting photography with engraving, I just had to think about Davy again. I think they are wrong— reproducibility may have taken a back-seat with the rise of Daguerre, but the concern was prominent in many early experimenters. The goal, at least initially, was a direct route between the eye and paper— a mechanical means of reproduction.

Retro Porn

Heres looking at you, kid

I feel sorry for all those poor surfers who end up here looking for nude photos. While I can’t compete with the audacious Shauny on a bicycle or Nerve’s Retro porn, I thought I would offer up some stylish daguerreotypes from the 1850s. But as for the person poking around my old blog looking for Marky Mark nude, or the unending stream of surfers who reach here looking for Rachel Griffiths nude, I can’t help you.

*caution— may be unsuitable for those with no sense of humor!

Open a Book


Open a Book

I was stumbling around the Blake concordance yesterday and found a prose fragment I didn’t remember. Catherine Blake was instructed by a spirit to open a book to tell her fortune. Catherine’s fortune was a rather sexy poem by Aphra Behn. I thought about writing about that, but instead I opened another book. Oddly enough, I saw a photograph of the San Joaquin Valley. I grew up there. I certainly hope that isn’t my fortune. I'm tired of tumbleweeds.

I ended the night there. I had abandoned another post yesterday that ended up being a rant against Ansel Adams. That wasn’t what I intended. I deleted it. I didn't like the direction it was going. I wanted to write about landscape photography and some of the ways it’s changed. Right after I woke up I had a conversation about the same subjects with someone on the phone, and later, I opened up Ansel Adams: An Autobiography to find some commonality with Adams in a letter:

Dear Dorothea

Photography, when it tells the truth, is magnificent. but it can be twisted, deformed, restricted, and compromised more than any other art. Because what is always before the lens always has the illusion of reality; but what is selected and put before the lens can be as false as any totalitarian lie. While it is true that we get from pictures pretty much what we bring to them in our minds and hearts, we are still restricted by the content and the connotations of an image before us. If the picture is of a clam I don’t think about flamingos! The connotations of much documentary photography are —to me— quite rigid . . . .

I resent being told that certain things have significance; that is for me, as spectator, to discover. I resent being manipulated into a socio-political formula of thought and existence. I resent the implications that unless photography has a socio-political function it is not of value to people at large. I resent the very obvious dislike of elements of beauty; our friend Steichen has always shocked me time and time again by a self-conscious fear of the beautiful. Does he feel that way about painting, about sculpture, architecture, literature, or just plain nature? He does not. I am not afraid of beauty, of poetry, of sentiment. I think it is just as important to bring to people the evidence of beauty of the world of nature and of man as it is to give them a document of ugliness, squalor, and despair. . . .

Is there no way photography can be used to suggest a better life — not just to stress the unfortunate aspects of existence or the tragic / satirical viewpoint of the photographer? There must be . . . .

You happen to be one of the very few who has brought enough deeply human emotion into your work to make it bearable for me. I wish you would try and think of yourself as a fine artist — which you are; that is a damn sight more important to the world than being merely an extension of a sociological movement.


The nature I grew up in was much closer to the Dorothea Lange photograph below, than any Ansel Adams landscape. The photographs displayed in an exhibition called “New Topographics” in 1975 are even closer to nature as I knew it growing up. As William Blake said, “Where Man is Not Nature is Barren.”

Ultimately, that’s where my affinities lie. I wanted to write about that, not pick on poor Ansel. I’m not afraid of beauty; it’s just that my conception of beauty is the polar opposite of Adams. Unlike Walker Evans, I’m not afraid of sentiment. Like Adams, that’s a quality I can celebrate. But unlike Adams, I never found documentary photography rigid— connotation depends on the photographer, not the genre. “Is there no way photography can be used to suggest a better life . . .” the didactic tone of Adams is quite close to Wordsworth, and that of social documentary photographers. Funny how these things fit together.

Perhaps I’ll return later to the Behn poem, and the photographers Henry Wessel jr., Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, and maybe even Ed Ruscha. So many things to write about, so little time.

Revaluating Adams

Ansel Adams— Georgia O'Keefe and Orville Cox, 1937