ANSEL’S ANGST (AND OURS)
THERE IS SO MUCH HUMANITY TO LOVE IN ANSEL ADAMS: his spectacular inventiveness: his infinite patience: his unquenchable curiosity….the sum total of traits that produced one of the most amazing bodies of work in the history of any creative medium. But being fully human, or, more accurately, fully a human artist, consists not merely in one’s strengths, not even for the man who, for most people, defines the very idea of photography. It also lies in the very human emotion of doubt….something Ansel knew about, and thought about, over the wide expanse of his astonishing career.
Adams filled a good-sized library shelf with scholarly works on how he did what he did, much of it as scientifically exquisite as anything from the pen of a Newton or a DaVinci. He knew more about the physics of picture-making than nearly any man alive. But he also wrote and taught about the things he didn’t know, the things that danced teasingly just beyond the edge of his skills. In journals, letters to friends, and interviews over decades, Ansel Adams returned to the subject he saw as his own Achilles heel, a mystery that haunted him until his dying day…the challenge of color photography.
“My own reaction to color photography is a mixed one”, Adams wrote in a 1957 article for Image magazine. “I accept its importance as a medium of communication and information. (But) I have yet to see….much less produce…a color photograph that fulfills my concepts of the objectives of art. It never seems to achieve that happy blend of perception and realization which we observe in the greatest black-and-white photography…”
Of course, Ansel certainly didn’t shy away from the challenge of color work, having made over 3,500 such images in addition to his prodigious output in monochrome. But while he knew the values and tonal gradations of black and white like he knew his ABCs, it was color that seemed to him somehow less “real”, or, to look at it another way, presented more of a challenge in getting the reality right. “Black and white is accepted as a stylized medium”, he wrote in an article on the emergence of Polaroid color film in 1962. “Values are intentionally accented or subdued….there is little or no “reality” in either the informational or expressive black-and-white image, and yet we have learned to interpret these values as meaningful and “real“.
Strangely, as his own career began to run in parallel with the emergence of the great national magazines of the mid-twentieth century, it was his color work which was in increasing demand, paying the bills and funding the projects in which he was more personally invested. More and more, Adams’s commissions for Eastman Kodak, the Land Corporation and other manufacturers was to act as a strong second stream of income, helping to bolster his reputation in the mass market even as he believed that color was distracting him from his serious work. Part of his ongoing disappointment was not so much in his own execution of color but in the loss of accuracy that seemed inevitable once he handed his images off to the decidedly limited printing technology of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Angry at the final results on the printed page, Ansel kept most of his color images out of circulation during his lifetime, always referring to them with a mixture of frustration and regret, or seeing them as mere economic means to an end. But that, too, is a very human thing for an artist to do, as is the doubt that drives those feelings.
Doubt is a test of faith, a challenge to lazy or easy habit. Feeling that even your best efforts have come up short is the petrol that fuels a creative mind, at least until you plunge into depression a la Van Gogh and start hacking your ears off. I never trust a creative person who hasn’t been tempted, at least once, to take his entire life’s work and toss it in the garbage. The fact that he doesn’t is where the genius part comes in, and Ansel Adams never was derailed by the fact that his reach was always going to exceed his grasp. And that is not only instructive but inspirational, more inspiring, even, than his photographs themselves. Because this thing we do is a journey and not a destination. If we’re hungry, if we’re honest, we have to realize that we’ll never get where we’re going. Ansel Adams, the photographer that made more people want to become photographers than perhaps any other person in history, wrote, near the end of his life that, although he had hidden most of his color images away, “I feel the urge now, and only wish I were sixty years younger!” Indeed, for any of us who’ve ever clicked a shutter, the doubts persist. But the spirit does, as well.