By MICHAEL PERKINS
WITH THIS GENERATION’S NEARLY UNIVERSAL EMBRACE OF CONSUMER-FRIENDLY EDITING SUITES LIKE PHOTOSHOP has come a new vocabulary to describe the new freedoms made possible by their use. Terms like painterly, dreamy, and atmospheric signal the reemergence of a far more interpretive kind of photography that has finally broken the long reign of the Cult Of Sharpness that valued crispness and “realism” above all other considerations in picture-making for nearly a century.
The idea, espoused by Ansel Adams and other from the photo group f/64 (a name that refers to what was then supposedly the sharpest f-stop possible), was that only a keen, precise measurement of light and tone could be regarded as “straight” photography and that all other more impressionistic renderings were somehow less authentic. This idea was itself a severe reaction to an even earlier school of photography called Pictorialism, which favored the tweaking of processing and printing tech to manipulate mood in much the same way that painters had always done. Some shooters like Adams regarded P-word pictures as the dead opposite of photography, as a non-scientific surrender to the painting tradition. Ansel, never the mealy-mouthed observer, once even went so far as to refer to Pictorialist William Mortensen as “the anti-Christ.” And so, as a consequence of the f/64 coven’s influence, the historical door on the dreamier side of photography was officially slammed shut and the word went out for decades afterward, to both pro and amateur alike that Sharpness is King.
City Of Ambition, a Pictorialist photogravure by Alfred Stieglitz (1910)
Pictorialists’ images, like the NYC scene from Alfred Stieglitz seen here, were created by odd mixes of cross-mixed chemicals, the etching of pictures on printing plates, deliberate degradation of negatives, and dozens of other interventions done after the shutter click to deepen contrast, soften hard edges, and widen the range of tones for dramatic effect. Think of it as analog beta-testing for the tricks we now do with a few mere mouse clicks. Several generations of tech later, the sheer number of editing choices in the present day has led to a strong reassertion of soft or selective focus, of textures and tones that go beyond the real world in amazing and exciting ways. It’s led even those who still shoot film, like the toy camera devotees of Lomography, to re-evaluate what focus and sharpness are in a picture are actually for, and when to attenuate or even turn them off completely. It’s also led to the success of companies like Lensbaby, who sell all-manual lenses to digital shooters who want an interpretive tool, rather than a scientific instrument, to help them make images.
And so everything old is new again. Indeed, photography may have finally entered a phase in which “eras” and “trends” are just words, a time in which all times (and schools of thought) are equal. Here’s to the opportunity that that implies, and to an art that is just beginning, in its third century, to spread its new butterfly wings.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JUST AS THE TAKING OF A PHOTOGRAPH IS ACCOMPLISHED IN AN INSTANT, so too is the messaging that the resulting image conveys to the viewer. The impact of a picture is immediate, established within nanoseconds of the eye’s initial contact with it. Additional viewing and pondering may, certainly, reveal deeper truths about a photograph, but I firmly believe that the main love it /don’t get it choice about a photo is made by the brain at first glance.
That said, information must be arranged in such a way as to expedite this choice. That’s the art of composition. What stays in, what is excluded, where the frame hits, and what its limits imply. The nature of the information is determined by the impact of light, which shapes and defines. That is in turn aided by texture, which adds dimension and context in how new or old, rough, smooth, substantial or ethereal things appear in the image. And finally, mood and aesthetic are established in the range of color or tonal data.
All of these elements are created by a series of decisions on whether “to do” or “not do”. Which is to say that all photographs have an assembly process. Steps. Priorities. More of this, less of that. The fact that the best photographers learn how to navigate all these decisions instantaneously is really a kind of miracle. Take the truly fundamental choice of color, for example. Not only do a picture’s hues have to be conceived in the mind before they’re attempted in the camera: they must be refined enough for the shooter to choose how all the shaping elements described above work in conjunction with each other. Think of the graphic equalizers on our old stereos, each ‘band” or part of the hearable spectrum trimmed or maximized to get a “mix” most pleasing to the ear. In visual terms, color is a key choice because it is an element that can shape so many other elements in turn. In the above image, color can resonate with memory and emotion. It can render what we term “warmth”. It also aids in the perception of depth. Consider as well that color has only become the default option for our photography in about the last sixty years. Before that, due to technical challenges for film emulsions and printing processes, it was a luxury item, even a novelty for many.
“Going back” to monochrome, the original default option for all photography, means actively recognizing what kind of information is lost and what kind of impact is gained by eschewing color. Is the image strengthened or weakened with its removal? Is converting a color shot to b/w as an afterthought (as I’ve done here) less effective than intentionally shooting the original in mono? Are the remaining tones strong enough to convey your message? Is one tonal palette more reportorial or “authentic” than the other? And, above all, what if the choice you’ve made (color or no color) isn’t the choice your viewer makes (in the case of this pair, for example, my wife prefers the color version, although “they’re both nice”)? Photography is about making decisions and learning to live with them. Or just canning the entire thing and trying again.
“We must remember that a photograph can hold just as much as we put into it” Ansel Adams once wrote, “and no one has ever approached the full possibilities of the medium”. Which is a lot like God saying, “hey, don’t get hung up on making just one kind of tree”. The possibilities in making pictures are indeed endless, but each are rooted in our very purposeful choices.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANSEL ADAMS BEGAN as an awestruck kid with a Brownie No.1 box camera. He finished up as an uber-brand, the global icon for photography itself. Regardless of how individuals may regard his work, labeling it by turns honest, interpretive, natural, or sentimental, his image as a creative ideal is beyond debate. To be an “Ansel” is to be hungry, tireless in pursuit of excellence.
The ultimate maestro of the darkroom, Adams believed that only the first half of a photograph’s making, the equivalent in his mind of a musical “score”, could occur in the camera. The other half, what he termed “the performance”, was unabashedly a product of talent and judgement in the lab. The stunning achievement of his final frames was not only in not calling attention to his interventions but to create the wondrous illusion that there had been none.
That may be why Ansel is, today, often held up as the patron saint of film-based technique, as if, had he lived to fully experience the digital revolution, he would have taken a pass on it. A look at his history indicates otherwise. His published work shows an artist in constant anticipation of the next stage, the latest tool, the freshest way of seeing. Even his celebrated slow embrace of color was about the contemporary limits of printing technology rather an assertion that monochrome was in any way superior.
“I eagerly await new concepts and processes” he wrote in 1981, just three years before his death and nearly a decade ahead of the digital revolution. “I believe that the electronic image (viewed on an electronic screen) will be the next major advance. Such systems will have their own inherent characteristics, and the artist will again strive to comprehend and control them.” Not exactly the sentiments of a Luddite.
Those who choose to force their own photography through a kind of W.W.A.D.? (What Would Ansel Do?) filter miss the true and obvious answer: he would do whatever it takes. Perhaps his art belongs in a museum, but the best of what he was is still very much out in the field. Out where the wonder is.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHETHER THERE IS CONSENSUS ABOUT THE PRESENT OR FUTURE STATE OF THE NATURAL WORLD, we are certainly in the midst of the most muscular conversation about its fate than many of us have ever known. That means that we are changing and challenging our relationship to the globe almost daily…and, along with that relationship, the way that we see, and visually report upon it. That generates a new emphasis on bearing witness to what the planet is/can be/ might be.
I call it the new era of testimony.
The birth of photography coincided with the first great surge of cross-continental expansion in America, as well as an explosion in invention and mechanization. The new system for making a physical record of the world was immediately placed into service to help quantify the scope of the nation…to measure its mountains, track its rivers, count its standing armies. Photographers like Timothy Sullivan and William Henry Jackson lugged their cameras east-to-west alongside geological surveys, railroad agents, and the emerging naturalist movement. While some shooters chose to capture the creation of new trestle bridges, others helped poets illustrate their Walden-esque reveries. In all cases, photography was tasked with the job of showing the natural world and our interaction with it. Most importantly, the images that survive those times are a visual seismograph on both the grand and grotesque choices we made. They are testimony.
And now is a time of radical re-evaluation of what that interaction should look like. That means that there is a visual story to tell, one of the most compelling and vital that photography has ever told. Regardless of your personal stances or stats, man’s place on the planet will be in a state of fundamental shift over the coming decades. And the images that this change generates will define both photography as an art and ourselves as stewards of an increasingly fragile ecology.
Ansel Adams, for all his gorgeously orchestrated vistas, was, I believe, mistaken in almost deliberately subtracting people from his grand scenes, as if they were irrelevant smudges on nature’s work. It doesn’t have to be that way. We need not make war on our native world. But whatever we do, we need to use the camera to mark the roads down which we have chosen to walk. Whether chronicling wise or foolish decisions, the photograph must be used to testify, to either glorify or condemn our choices going forward.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN REVIEWING YOUR PAST PHOTOGRAPHIC WORK, you are bound to find shots that you have, for lack of a better term, outgrown. Unpack that word, and what you’re really seeing is the passage of time since you originally visualized a picture, along with the immense distance your eye and mind have traveled en route to the present day. Thus you are both benefitting and suffering from the luxury you enjoyed in being allowed to freeze time. You have not only immobilized a moment, but you have also preserved a record of what your “best practices” were at the time.
This painful but necessary re-assessment applies not only to the techniques used to create the initial image, but, in the incredibly speedy evolution of post-processing, all editing systems as well. Quite simply, if a picture is worth taking, it is worth fighting for…first by being as mindful and deliberate as possible in the taking, and then in a constant re-evaluation of how best to enhance its impact through editing. Therefore, if the first commandment of photography is Always Be Shooting, the second should probably be Never Stop Processing.
The above image is an example of this continuing dialogue. it was originally taken in 2012 and I have revisited it at least annually since then. At the time I first shot it, it was part of a three-shot bracket of exposures that were originally blended in an HDR program to try to get about the same degree of detail in both highlights and shadows….a look which can look great if done with a maximum of understatement, but which often winds up looking like an old Yes album cover under black light. From HDR, I moved on to a series of detail-enhancing programs which were more natural-looking, but still failed to deliver the punch I got from viewing the scene on-site. In one iteration, I added enhancement to a single shot alone, rather than a combination of all three bracketed images. And in 2016, I went back to the trio, mixed this time in an Exposure Fusion blender. And there’s no end in sight.
Ansel Adams, of course, famously re-visited his master negatives with up to a dozen re-mixed versions of the same scenes over decades, re-thinking his own revolutionary “zone system” for measuring exposure for every single particle of a subject, then mastering its application in the lab via burning, dodging and other means of print manipulation. I don’t work with those particular (and essentially film-based) techniques for several reasons, most of them economic. However, that still leaves me plenty of editing choices, with more gimcracks coming online every day.
Point is, pictures that are truly worth working for are also worth re-thinking, and a growing array of tools can give photographers endless ways to re-mix the hits. Of course, you will eventually come to a point where enough is enough. Historically, it’s a good thing that the Pope gave Michelangelo a deadline, or else he’d still be up on that ceiling.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MERELY INVOKING THE NAME OF ANSEL ADAMS is enough to summon forth various hosannas and hallelujahs from anyone from amateur shutterbug to world-renowned photog. He is the saint of saints, the yardstick of yardsticks. He is the photographer was all want to be when (and if) we grow up. His technical prowess is held as the standard for diligence, patience, vision. And yet, even at the moment we revere Adams for his painstaking development of the zone system and his mind-blowing detail, we are still short-changing his greatest achievement.
And it is an achievement that many of us can actually aspire to.
What Ansel Adams did, over a lifetime, was work his equipment way beyond its limits, milking about 2000% out of every lens, camera and film roll, showing us that, to make photographs, we have to constantly reach beyond what we think is possible. Given the slow speed of much of the film stocks and lenses of his era, he, out of the wellspring of his own ingenuity, had to make up the deficit. He had to be smarter, better than his gear. No one piece of equipment could give him everything, so he learned over a lifetime how to anticipate every need. Look at one of many lists he made of things that he might need on a major shoot:
Cameras: One 8 x 10 view camera with 20 film holders and four lenses; 1 Cooke Convertible, 1 ten-inch Wide Field Ektar, 1 nine-inch Dagor, one six and three-quarters-inch Wollensak wide angle. One 7 x 17 special panorama camera with a Protar 13-1/2-inch lens and five holders. One 4 x 5 view camera with six lenses; a twelve-inch Collinear, including an eight-and-a-half Apo Lentar, a nine-and-a-quarter Apo Tessar, 4-inch Wide Field Ektar, Dallmeyer telephoto. One Hasselblad camera outfit with 38, 60, 80, 135, & 200 millimeter lenses. A Koniflex 35 millimeter camera. Two Polaroid cameras. 3 exposure meters (one SEI, two Westons).
Extras: filters for each camera: K1, K2, minus blue, G, X1, A, C5 &B, F, 85B, 85C, light balancing, series 81 and 82. Two tripods: one light, one heavy. Lens brush, stopwatch, level, thermometer, focusing magnifier, focusing cloth, hyperlight strobe portrait outfit, 200 feet of cable, special storage box for film.
Transport: One ancient, eight-passenger Cadillac station wagon with 5 x 9-foot camera platform on top.
However, the magic of Ansel Adams’ work is not in how much equipment he packed. It’s that he knew precisely what tool he needed for every single eventuality. He likewise knew how to tweak gear to its limits and beyond. Most importantly, his exacting command of the elemental science behind photography, which most of us now use with little or no thought, meant that he took complete responsibility for everything he created, from pre-visualization to final print.
And that is what we can actually emulate from the great man, that total approach, that complete immersion. If we use all of ourselves in every picture that we make, we can always be better than our cameras. And, for the sake of our art, we need to be.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COLOR PHOTOGRAPHY WAS NOT UNIVERSALLY WELCOMED at its initial introduction, and was even actively avoided for the most part by the likes of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, who mistrusted the technology of early color reproduction as garish, unnatural. While the amateur world largely lauded color as more “real”, Ansel & co. countered, between clenched teeth, “that ain’t the point”. Their argument: black and white was an artistic interpretation of reality, not a reproduction of it, whereas color was erroneously assumed by the public to be a more accurate record, even though it also suffered from its own biases and excesses. Some of the early masters never really came to be at peace with color, although they shot in it, and did foresee a time when photographers would choose it over b&w not for novelty’s sake, but because of what a particular project demanded.
I sometimes begin planning a shot in color, only to find that it provides too many choices for the eye. That is to say, all tones will register as distinctly different from each other, and this may make for too much information, blocking the clarity of the photo’s design. The result may be beautiful, but it may also diminish the impact of the final picture. In these cases, it’s worthwhile to at least work up a monochrome vision of my shot to see if it communicates more directly.
In a situation like the above pattern of shades and light shafts, color gives you brilliant blues and off-whites for the darks and lights, and a real hodge-podge of hues in all the crannies of the metal grids. However, rather than de-saturate the color to make b&w, I found it better to shoot the master image in black and white, using a red filter and a polarizer to maximize contrast, forcing all the dark and light shades into two hard-line general values. This forces the design to be the primary attention-getter, eliminating the distraction inherent in a full raft of colors. That is, if the deepening composition of gridwork is the main message of the photo, then it makes sense to get the color out of the way of that story and see if it helps.
In the end, Uncle Ansel had it all psyched out:
When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my mind’s eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word. I’m interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.
Yeah, what he said.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’M BIG ON CELEBRATING THE FACT THAT DIGITAL TECHNOLOGY HAS REMOVED THE LAST FEW BARRIERS to photography being truly democratic. Just as the introduction of the Kodak Brownie in 1900 moved picture-making out of the salons of the privileged few and into the hands of John Q. Everyman, digital has been another quantum leap toward a level playing field, putting cameras almost literally into everyone’s hand. This, as with all mass movements, has both its pluses and minuses.
Digital photography has actually improved one democracy (everyone can afford to shoot) and created a second one (everyone can afford to fix what they shoot). For nearly the entire film era, processing after the shutter click was, for many of us, a luxury item. For initial developing, we defaulted to the guy at the regional Kodak plant or the corner Rexall. True hobbyists and professionals wielded most of the tools available for drastic makeovers of images, with most of us merely accepting what we got. Our near misses simply went into the loss column, while others‘ near misses could sometimes be revamped into acceptable, even exceptional photos. The titans of the photographic world (Ansel Adams and others) were renowned for their ability to creatively manipulate negatives into prints of rare art. Most of the rest of us clutched our Instamatics tightly and hoped for the best.
Unfortunately, digital has over-corrected a bit in giving Everyman the chance to salvage more shots. Instead of developing habits that are, say, 75% good shooting and 25% good processing, we have instead veered toward the opposite, with more time than ever spent “fixing” shots that were ill-conceived in the first place. Moreover, many of these fixes, mounted on apps, are general, one-click options that deny us the finely tuned control that a good film era darkroom rat would have acquired. We have gained access to the information highway, but we still drive like teenagers. We are all over the road.
I see more professionals advocating a return,not to the format of film, but the shooting discipline of film. How differently would we shoot, for example, if it were still true that we wouldn’t have a lot of options for fixing our shots later? What strategies would develop if we had to make or break our shots in the camera, without any opportunity for tweaking them thereafter? Most importantly, which of our images could stand alone as straight out of the camera executions, as products of real, hard-earned skill rather than the comfort in knowing we could probably crop, resize, re-color or repair almost anything?
Now, I am not suggesting we all go back to making our furniture out of pine logs. I am not the last guy in town to trade in my horse for a Model A. I merely think that we need to re-introduce self-reliance into the picture-making process, to shoot as if it’s all on us, as if no Tech Avenger will ride to the rescue if we blow the shot in-camera. In fact, I am arguing for what I always argue for….personal responsibility for getting the shot right in the moment. Frame it, conceive it, expose it right the first time. It teaches us better habits, it increases our actual knowledge of what we’re doing, and it speeds our advancement as nothing else can.
Digital is a fabulous box of paints. Now we need to re-learn how to hold the brush.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT’S GUARANTEED. OVER OUR LIFETIMES, YOU AND I WILL TAKE REMARKABLE PHOTOGRAPHS.
There just won’t be a lot of them.
And that’s very good news.
Ansel Adams once remarked that “twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop”.
That’s right. Twelve.
Now, given the percentage of the massive Adams output that actually turned out to be flat-out amazing, the reverse math for how many “close, but no cigar” frames he shot would be staggering. And humbling. This after all, is a man who “experimented” with color for over thirty years, only to lament, near the end of his life that “I have yet to see–much less produce–a color photograph that fulfills my concepts of the objectives of art.” Bear in mind, also, that this lament is not coming from a hipster Instram-ing artsy close-ups of what he had for lunch.
What does this mean for us? It means that there is a number out there, the figure that enumerates how many flops we will have to be content with in order to get our own, small yield of golden eggs.
Learning to live with that number is the best hope have of getting closer to what we can be.
I can’t measure my work against anyone else’s, since “that way lies madness”. I can only mark how far I am along my journey by the distance between what made me smile today and the stuff I used to be able to look at without suppressing a strong gag reflex. Guess what: the same work that makes me want to gouge out my eyes with soup spoons, in the present, is often the exact same work that made my chest swell with pride, just the day before yesterday.
And that’s the way it should be. If your style is so wonderfully complete that it can’t be further improved on, then smash your camera on the street below and move on to something else that has the potential to either spank your ego or kick your creative butt. We’re not in this to get comfortable.
Ansel Adams one more time:
There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.
Yes, huzzah, what he said. Here’s to staying sharp.
And hard to please.
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Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography. ——-George Eastman
By MICHAEL PERKINS
WHEN I WAS ASSEMBLING THE FIRST COMPILATION OF MY OWN IMAGES, Juxtapositions, I felt a little awkward about captioning the photos in any way, since they were clearly the work of an unaccomplished amateur. In my native Catholic thinking, my default question was, who the hell did I think I was to pontificate on anything, hmm? Notice that, since you are presently reading the musings of the selfsame unaccomplished amateur, I obviously got over past that obstacle, but anyway…
Needing the book to have some kind of general structure or theme, I decided that, although my own wisdom may not be in demand, there were plenty of thoughts from the greats in the photographic field that were worth re-quoting, and which, correctly placed, might even illustrate or amplify what I was trying to say in my own photos. It was a way of channeling great minds and acknowledging that, pro or amateur, we all started off on the same journey with much the same aims.
Looking at the finished book, I noticed that the two most consistent subjects among the finest minds in photography were (1) light; how to harness it, how to serve it, shape it, seek its ability to frame or exalt a subject and (2) the importance of staying flexible, open, and able to embrace the moment.
Both objectives came into clear focus for me last week. A combination of early sunlight, dense foliage and thick morning fog came together in breathtaking patterns in the high canyon rim streets of Santa Barbara, California. Light was busting out wherever it could, coming through branches and boughs in soft shafts that lent an almost supernatural quality to objects even a few feet away, which, when suffused with this satiny mist, were themselves softened, even abstracted. If there was ever a delicate, temporary gift of light, this was it, and I was suddenly in a hurry, lest it run away from me. Any picture I failed to take in the moment was lost within minutes. Overthinking meant going home empty.
There was no time to carefully read the tyrannical histogram, since I knew it would disapprove of the flood of white that would throw some of my shots off the graph. Likewise I couldn’t “cover” myself by bracketing exposures, since there was so much territory to cover, so many images to attempt before the light could mutate into something else. I needed to be shooting, not fiddling.
Better to burn out than to rust out, as Neil Young famously said. One particular arch of overhanging branches called me. It looked like this:
I was, after all these years, back to complete instinct. Snap shot? Certainly. Snap judgement? Hope not.
I didn’t go home empty. And when I got home, a re-check of one of Ansel Adams’ quotes encouraged me:
Sometimes, I do get to places where God’s ready for somebody to click the shutter.
Look for the moment. Listen for God (sometimes he whispers).
And don’t forget to click.
- The 15 Most Popular Photography Tutorials from the 2nd Half of 2012 (digital-photography-school.com)
- What is photography? (bangladesh2u.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR ANNIE LIEBOVITZ, ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST INNOVATIVE PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHERS, people are always more than they seem on the surface, or at least the surface that’s offered up for public consumption. Her images manage to reveal new elements in the world’s most familiar faces. But how do you capture the essence of a subject that can’t sit for you because they are no longer around…literally? Her recent project and book, Pilgrimage, eloquently creates photographic remembrances of essential American figures from Lincoln to Emerson, Thoreau to Darwin, by making images of the houses and estates in which they lived, the personal objects they owned or touched, the physical echo of their having been alive. It is a daring and somewhat spiritual project, and one which has got me to thinking about compositions that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Believing as I do that houses really do retain the imprint of the people who lived in them, I was mesmerized by the images in Pilgrimage, and have never been able to see a house the same way since. We don’t all have access to the room where Virginia Woolf wrote, the box of art chalks used by Georgia O’ Keefe, or Ansel Adams’ final workshop, but we can examine the homes of those we know with fresh eyes, finding that they reveal something about their owners beyond the snaps we have of the people who inhabit them. The accumulations, the treasures, the keepings of decades of living are quiet but eloquent testimony to the way we build up our lives in houses day by day, scrap by personal scrap. In some way they may say more about us than a picture of us sitting on the couch might. At least it’s another way of seeing, and photography is about finding as many of those ways as possible.
I spent some time recently in a marvelous old brownstone that has already housed generations of owners, a structure which has a life rhythm all its own. Gazing out its windows, I imagined how many sunrises and sunsets had been framed before the eyes of its tenants. Peering out at the gardens, I was in some way one with all of them. I knew nothing about most of them, and yet I knew the house had created the same delight for all of us. Using available light only, I tried to let the building reveal itself without any extra “noise” or “help” from me. It made the house’s voice louder, clearer.
We all live in, or near, places that have the power to speak, locations where energy and people show us the sum of all the parts of a life.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK IS A SUPREME PARADOX FOR A SHOOTER. On one hand, it has never been technically easier to simulate the texture and range of tones that were hard-won miracles for its guardian angel, Ansel Adams. On the other, the very act of visiting the park has never presented a more severe barrier to the kind of mental and emotional commitment to picture making that was, to him, a constant.
The original mission of this blog is to share creative successes from amateur to amateur, but also to name the problems which restrict us to taking, instead of making, pictures. Yosemite, historically the proving ground for photographers the world over, also presents one of these problems.
Adams had to suffer, slog, hike, and persevere to set up his visions, all the while wrestling with a technology that punished the slightest miscalculation. The park itself presented a rugged challenge to him as well in the early 20th century, as its greatest vistas were not just a minivan jog away and its best treasures resisted his inquiring eye. So how come his pictures are so much better, still, than anything most of us can deliver in an age of ultimate simplicity, ease, and access?
There is a disturbing statistic quoted by the park service, that the average visitor to Yosemite is actually in the park for a grand total of two and a half hours. Not exactly the time investment that a photographic subject of this scope warrants. We also tend to enter the park in much the same way, stop by a predictable list of features, and take most of the same “money shots”. We all know where the good stuff is, and it seems to be irresistible to offer up our “take” on the craggy face of El Capitan, the serene power of the Mariposa Grove (with its astonishing giant sequoias), or the obligatory capture of a waterfall….hell, any waterfall. And yet….I can’t be the only one who has come home from vacation to find that my pictures are just….okay. Overwhelmingly…..non-sucky. Stunningly….passable.
Adams’ life’s work, a mutual exchange of energy in which he and Yosemite were creative partners in the deliberate making of images, is, for us, a re-creation, a simulation, the photo equivalent of karaoke. Just like many lounge lizards “kinda” sing like Sinatra, too many of us “kinda” shoot pictures like Ansel. For Adams, photography was like asking the wilderness to dance. For us, it’s like asking the mountains to say “cheese”.
Part of his mission was showing us what a treasure we had, but he might have sold the product too well. Part of the Yosemite that spoke to him is gone, compromised into tameness by sidewalks,snack bars, and gift shops. Worse, much of what we do choose to record of it is done in quick stops off the tour bus, stolen moments before the kids get too tired , and the rabid urgency of God-let’s-hurry-up-we-have-three-more-places-to-hit-today. Indeed, park officials laughingly refer to people who drive in and out of the park’s main areas without even emerging from their cars, bragging that they “did” Yosemite, like a ten minute rock wall climb at REI, squeezed in before a trip to the food court.
The Ansel Adams Gallery, which has operated in the park for more than a century now, certainly features fresh visions by new artists who are still re-interpreting the wonder, still managing to say something unique. But many of our cameras will betray how little of our selves are invested behind the viewing screen. Adams’ work resonates through time because we recognize when someone has poured part of their soul into the creative cauldron. And certainly, if we are honest, we also know when that ingredient is missing.
“I want to see your face in every kind of light” goes the old love song lyric. Being in love with a woman, an idea, anything, demands time, deliberation. To see the object of one’s affection in all light, all seasons, all moods and tempers, is more of a pact than many of us are willing to make. The pictures we bring back from many places may not be lessened in their impact by this fact. But Yosemite is not “many places”, and she will not give up her secrets to just anyone. Fortunately, if we care, we can return and try again to do more than merely tattoo pixels onto a sensor. That has always been the promise of photography, that you can redeem your myopia from one day by re-thinking, re-feeling on another. But it means changing the rules of engagement with our subject. For those of us who cannot or will not do that, the world will not stop spinning, and, in fact, we will chalk up many acceptable images along the way, but Ansel will always be the one among us who really understood the magic, and discovered how to conjure it at will.
- What’s black & white, famous, and coming to Peabody? (hangwithbigpictureframing.com)
- A Weekend in Yosemite (theepochtimes.com)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE VERY APPEAL THAT ATTRACTS HORDES OF VISITORS to travel destinations around the world, sites that are photographed endlessly by visitors and pilgrims alike, may be the same thing that ensures that most of the resulting images will be startlingly similar, if not numbingly average. After all, if we are all going for the same Kodak moment, few of us will find much new truth to either the left or right of a somewhat mediocre median.
In a general sense, yes, we all have “access” to the Statue of Liberty, the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, etc., but it is an access to which we are carefully channeled, herded, and roped by the keepers of these treasures. And if art is a constant search for a new view on a familiar subject, travel attractions provide a tightly guarded keyhole through which only a narrowly proscribed vantage point is visible. The very things we have preserved are in turn protected from us in a way that keeps us from telling our subject’s “big story”, to apprehend a total sense of the tower, temple, cathedral or forest we yearn to re-interpret.
More and more, a visit to a cultural keepsake means settling….for the rooms you’re allowed to see, the areas where the tours go, the parts of the building that have been restored. Beyond that, either be a photographer for National Geographic, or help yourself to a souvenir album in our gift shop, thank you for your interest. Artistically speaking, shooters have more latitude in capturing the stuff nobody cares about; if a locale is neglected or undiscovered, you have a shot at getting the shot. Imagine being Ansel Adams in the Yosemite of the 1920’s, tramping around at will, decades before the installation of comfort stations and guard rails, where his imagination was only limited by where his legs could carry him (and his enormous and unwieldy view camera, I know). Sadly, once a site has been “saved”, or more precisely, monetized, the views, the access, the original feel of its “big story” is buried in theme cafes, commemorative shrines, info counters, and, not insignificantly, competition with every other ambitious shooter, who, like you, wants a crack at whatever essences can still be seen between the trinkets and kiosks.
On a recent visit to the 1930’s luxury liner RMS Queen Mary, in Long Beach, California, I tried with mixed results to get a true sense of scale for this Art Deco leviathan, but its current use as a hotel, tour trek and retail mall has so altered the overall visual flow that in some cases only “small stories” can effectively be told. Steamlined details and period motifs can render a kind of feel for what the QM might have been before its life as a kind of ossified merchandise museum, but, whereas time has not been able to rob the ship’s beauty, commerce certainly nibbles around its edges.
Sometimes you win the game. I recently discovered the above snapshot of the Eiffel Tower, taken in 1900 by the French novelist Emile Zola, where real magic is at work. Instead of clicking off the standard post card view of the site, Zola climbed to the tower’s first floor staircase, then shot straight down to capture an elegant period restaurant situated below the tower’s enormous foundation arches. And although only a small part of the Eiffel is in his final frame, it is contextualized in size and space against the delicate details of tables, chairs, and diners gathered below, glorifying both the tower and the bygone flavor of Paris at the turn of the 20th century.
Perhaps, for a well-recorded destination, the devil (and the delight) is in the details. Maybe we should all be framing tighter, zooming in, looking for the visual punctuation instead of the whole paragraph. Maybe all the “little stories” add up to a sum greater than that of the almighty master shot we originally went after. Despite the obstacles, we must still try to dictate the terms of engagement.
One image at a time.