Revaluating Adams

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

I never cared for Ansel Adams

He was a good teacher, a good businessman, a good environmental activist, but as far as being a “revolutionary” photographer who deserves more respect— well, I really must disagree with the latest profile and assessment in the Independent.

At the very least, Adams deserves the tribute of open-mindedness and informed criticism; and one anecdote that should always be a small part of the whole story is that which tells how the critic Beaumont Newhall, idly flicking through a magazine, unexpectedly came across an Ansel Adams picture which made him literally fall back on the couch in surprise, murmuring that Adams must surely be the greatest photographer ever.

Newhall deserves props for being one of the first people to attempt a comprehensive “history of photography,” though it is an America-centered, white male telling of the events thus far. Consequently rewritten and expanded by many others, his canonical approach to the story of photography has fallen into disrepute quite deservedly. There’s more to making images than the critical triumph of the f64 group. Reducing the world to the Platonic idealism of f-stops and technique may have been hegemonic for a short period in the fifties, but in the sixties the center could not hold. Regarding “informed criticism”— take a look at Adam’s long-description of the photograph displayed above:

I made that picture with my 35mm Zeiss Contax at the Canyon de Chelle, Arizona, in 1937. There was a storm coming up. I was down there with my Comptax 3 and it was shot on Agfa Super Pan Supreme film. I think its one of my best photographs, but unfortunately, while the 36-exposure roll was drying, it fell to the floor and I this photograph was in the section I stepped on! There were some good pictures on that roll but this was by far the best. The scratch marks have been removed with the greatest care but it remains difficult to make a fine print from that negative. Such is life! However, this image is a popular one so I consider myself lucky.

from Master Photographers, ed. Pat Booth, 1983.

The emphasis on correctness, and the eradication of error was one of the first casualties of photography in the sixties. Good riddance. Another thing that fell into disrepute was the “mysticism” that Kevin Jacobs lauds in his cry for revision of Adams’ stature. And the evidence that popularity is a desired quality for his work shines in this excerpt. In some cases, I feel the demonizing of myticism was a mistake. Some figures, like Edward Weston, didn’t deserve the critical lashing that they got. But Adams for me will always be a minor figure in that school, not unlike William Lisle Bowles.

Who is Bowles? A poet held in high esteem by Coleridge, so much so that he dedicated the first part of his Biographica to his sonnets. But history has forgotten Mr. Bowles, as it should (in my opinion) forget Ansel Adams. I read and digested Adam’s incredible books on technique, but have seldom given his photographs a second glance. I remember going to an exhibition of his photographs of the Japanese internment camps at Manzanar when I was just getting started. My primary thought was— how could a person take such an important subject and produce such trite photographs? Of course the conservative faculty of my school were quick to point out that I just didn’t “get it.” No, you’re wrong— I get it and I don’t like it.

Excessive focus on technique is the death of creativity. It’s not the “Snoopy factor” or an elitist thing with me at all. It’s just that given such a grand platform to speak from, Adam’s photographs actually say very little. Nature=Good. Okay, I get it. Can we just move on now?

I’d really like to know more about O’Keefe’s mysterious smile, than the f-stop you used, Ansel. My mind is open, but there’s not much coming in from Adams. I think this is one of his finest photographs, too, but the examples of such impetuosity are few and far between. Informed criticism of Adams usually isn’t kind. Popularity, like taste in art, is always fickle. The f-64 school taught me a lot— but Adams?— well, he does make pretty calendars.

2 thoughts on “Revaluating Adams”

  1. A few years ago in a yard sale, I picked up a couple of framed prints of Adams photos – the usual silvery mountainy stuff. For a long time they sat on the floor, waiting for the impetus to hang them. When the impetus came, there was a minor problem with the backing, requiring something from the hardware store. They are still on the floor. When I want something on a wall, I can get quite fervent about it. These cold images have no home there. If ”Nature = Good” is the party line, it seems an oddly unyielding nature. I have not studied his critics, but to me it’s always seemed a bit more of “nature offers a rudimentary platform for the display of my technique.” Or something. And very cold. These faces and dark figures seem like eerie visitors in his steely setting.

  2. i’ve never been very stimulated or inspired by A. Adam’s perfect nature calendar photography. yes. much too cold and soul-less in its perfection.
    i can’t imagine a photo of O’Keefe that would not make me sigh and smile…but you have found one. this looks like a caricature, some silly western with a fake-sky backdrop. i shudder.
    i’ve always felt like some kind of alien because i don’t bow to A. Adams. oh well. i’m not a real photographer anyway.

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