ansel adams : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

having frequented this forum for quite a while, i know there are many very capable and knowledgeable professionals here. i do not wish to offend any of you, but for a long time, i have harbored a certain distaste for the famous ansel adams - perhaps some of you can alter my point of view with some additional information. while i certainly can appreciate adams technical acheivements, and recognize that he created many dramatic images, when i read his books, there is a definite thread of ego-centrism in his words that i do not enjoy. his mention of donating negatives to universities so that "others can learn from printing his negatives" was one of the first things that caught me very early on. but it was not until i started seriously studying the history of photography that i realized how many of his images were little more than deriviative interpretations of earlier photographers' work. i understand that we all do that to a certain extent, but mr adams, in his dissertations on how he created this image or that, never seems to mention that the same shot was made by timothy o'sullivan 60 years earlier, or that a certain view of yosemite was essentially a copy of an image made by carleton watkins in the 1870s. this lack of homage to the pioneers from whose examples adams created his best work is very disappointing, and smacks of a great inner insecurity. IMHO, there are many photogrpahers who earn far higher marks from me for sheer artisitic vision, compositional skill, and yes, even technical prowess. consider eduoard baldus, gustave legray, carleton watkins, pascal sebah, etc, who endured the primitive technology of wet plate photography, hand made lenses and cameras, who carried hundereds of pounds of equipment to the remotest parts of the world to create images that have never been equaled since. i would be interested in hearing some alternate points of view, or references to anything you might have read where ansel does indeed recognize the heritage of his craft.

-- jnorman (, October 18, 2000


Everything we do is derivitave of someone elses work. How many artists doing impressionist work do you know who attribute Monet? I am not a huge fan of Adam's work, although there are many I consider to be masterpieces. I had the opportunity to meet him not too long before his death and found him to be both gracious and giving of his knowledge. A little known fact was that he was listed in the phone book, and, if you were stumped on a technical problem, he would accept phone calls from anywhere and anyone and try to help the photographer solve the problem being faced. History has already judged him to be one of the giants of photography and nothing will ever diminish that!

-- fred (, October 18, 2000.

You seem to discount that Ansel is human and has all of the faults that come with that. In my readings of Ansel's work he does make mention of other artists works that inspired particular images. Also, Ansel considered himself to have only made a dozen or so masterpieces in his life, a far cry from the assuration that everything he touched turned to gold. Many of Ansel's greatest acheivements came from work outside of photography, he used photography to open the door but he was involved in many environmental organizations longer than almost anyone else in history.

Ansel is famous. Most famous people have a natural instinct for seperating themselves from the pack. This can be annoying and egotistical, but it is what makes others talk about them and helps to create their fame. Ansel has been good for photography. Most photographers are willing to tell you about "the time they met Ansel." He has inspired many and taught us all at least a little bit. You kind of have to accept Ansel warts and all.

-- Jeff White (, October 18, 2000.

For a lot of photographers of my era, I am 47, Adams was the one source of information on the zone system that was readily available when we started in L.F. photography. Add to that his penchant for detailing how he created his images and you have a one stop source of information. A photographer who was passionate about his craft and unlike many of his contemporaries WILLING to share his secrets and thoughts. He desired to have his images used by the next generation as learning tools, he compared the negative to a score, able to be interpreted in many ways. He was bigger than life to many of his students and "fans" if you will, and he was, in the field of photography, very much sure of himself. Maybe vane, maybe not all that prone to crediting his photorgaphic fore fathers, but willing to give of his time, talent and knowledge. I suppose he could have destroyed all of his negatives as some have done, but he felt that there was value to using his images in the future, I beleive he would have loved to see what could be done in Photoshop 10 somewhere in the not so near future.

I hope you see a trend in my thinking, I feel that his sharing of the knowledge, even if you had to buy the book was possibly his greatest legacy. He was, is and in all probability will be a controversial figure for years to come. The one thing he won't be is forgotten soon, his was more than 15 minutes of fame.

At one time I thought he was the only photorgapher worth looking to for inspiration. I have found many more, but they all took a LOT more looking for than Adams. But if I had not had him as a model I probably would not have sought out the other photographers that mean so much to me now; it was his persistence in producing the very best he could that I took away from my studies of his works.

Personally I don't buy into having to acknowledge your heritage at every turn. If you are interested in the history of photography, you will see the influence of other's in someone such as Adams work. I prefer that he share HIS knowledge with me not his spend time crediting someone who won't share thier thoughts, theories and technique. that doesn't help me, his sharing did and still does.

There is an old saying that some times a cigar is just a cigar; somtimes a beautiful images is just a beautiful image regardless of who did it or why.

-- Marv (, October 18, 2000.

I met Ansel Adams briefly in 1977 when I was in college. Our large format photography instructor, who had previously worked at the gallery in Yosemite teaching Ansel's workshop, arranged for us to meet him. The visit was only 1-2 hours, but aside from marveling at his work, I was pleasantly surprised that he was a very down-to-earth person ~ "like us", if you will.

His writing I found to be very detailed & I have not thought of it as having an attitude, per se. Making his negative available for others to learn a craft from is a very unselfish act. Yes, he acknowleges that he's a master photographer, but in printing a master's negatives, one would learn what it really takes to make a fine print. Please remember that Brett Weston destroyed all of his negatives on his 80th birthday. The weekend our class was in Monterey, we also met Morley Baer, Brett Weston, Mark Weston (and "The Darkroom") and Pat Weber ~ all fine photographers in their own right.

In terms of his photography being similar to Timothy O'Sullivan's and Carleton Watkins', it's not. Similar in some ways maybe, but quite different. (Who else has shot "Moonrise Over Hernandez?") Could it be that you don't enjoy fine black & white landscapes as perhaps another subject? (I.e., Micheal Kenna)

I am not an "Ansel Adams" nut, I appreciate his work for what it is & I have a different perspective that you do about his personality. (I shoot mainly medium format transparencies ~ my last B & W work was a co-worker's wedding.)

Read Ansel's books & learn photography ~ his instruction is as timeless as his work.


-- Ted Brownlee (OMFBH@AOL.COM), October 18, 2000.

I think anyone who accomplishes a lot as an ego a little larger than average. If you didn't you'd never try to accomplish.

Nevertheless, if Adams's only contribution were to legitimize phtography as an art, and it's hard to argue that he did not do this, that alone is enough. Adams did more than that, both in terms of his art and his teaching.

If you haven't seen his photographs first hand, it's difficult to judge his work. The same is true of any photographer's work.

Go to Yosemite, if you haven't, and visit the Ansel Adams Studio. You can buy an original for $150 or so. (Check out the prices on John Sexton's work while you are there. Lucky if you can find one for $600.) If you visit, I suspect you will find at least one of Ansel's images that you will want to own.

However, if you give Ansel a good chance, and you still don't like his work, there is nothing wrong in that. It's just a matter of taste, and only you can decide what you like and don't like.

-- Charlie Strack (, October 18, 2000.

As far as the failure to appreciate the great 19th-century landscape photographers, the fault lies more with critics who did not take photography seriously as an art form until relatively recently, than it does with Ansel Adams, who did much to bring about a wide appreciation for photography as an art form.

I think it is an act of considerable humility for Adams to have donated his negatives. Some are notoriously difficult to print (particularly "Moonrise over Hernandez"), and a lesser human being--particularly one who advocated a systematic approach to pre-visualization and perfecting exposure--might have prefered to have kept such "failures" under wraps.

-- David Goldfarb (, October 18, 2000.

Lets also acknowledge that many of AAs most-read writings-including the "Examples" book-were done in the final years of his life (in his late 70s and early 80s) and his memory may have been rusty. The OSullivan "White House Ruin" photo is a good example. In "Examples" Adams writes, "I had stood unaware in almost the same spot on the canyon floor, about the same month and day, and at nearly the same time of day that OSullivan must have made his exposure, almost exactly sixty-nine years earlier." . . . But in the book "Our National Parks" is reprinted a letter from AA to the Newhalls (dated October 26, 1941) in which AA had written, "I photographed the White House Ruins from almost the identical spot and time of the OSullivan picture! Cant wait to [get to the darkroom to] see what I got!" I seriously doubt this kind of discrepancy can be ascribed to an intention to deceive or to hide the source of his inspiration. (Just as baffling: both books date the photo to 1942, even though the letter recalling it was written in 1941!--but then, Adams acknowledged in "Examples" that he was terrible with dates.)

Its always tricky to try to read too much into the mind of another person without meeting them, volumes of memoirs notwithstanding. For instance, what if I admitted that I think its extremely arrogant when non-disabled people in these forums literally wont lift a finger (by using the "Shift" key) to make their letters readable, instead requiring hundreds of other people to do extra work? (I usually just ignore such posts, but the title on this one made it impossible to pass up.) We each have our own idiosyncracies, and AA is no exception. I dont think Adams was a genius-to my eye, Weston and Strand and Sudek seemed to show more of those qualities-but the breadth and depth of AAs influence (technically, environmentally/politically, financially-remember, he completely transformed the valuation of photographs-as well as in getting photography respected in artistic circles) require even his harshest critics to acknowledge his important role in the history of photogra

-- Micah (, October 18, 2000.

"It's just a matter of taste, and only you can decide what you like and don't like."

I really agree with what Charlie said. Some people see Ansel as a sort of minor deity while others wouldn't give his photos a second look. It's like that with any photographer in any genre. For example, last year in my art history class we covered some modern photographers. There were a few individuals who were absolutely in love with anything done by David LaChapelle. I, on the other hand, got nothing and continue to get nothing out of his work. Does this mean he's overrated? Does this make him a bad photographer? Absolutely not. It just means that my taste differs from that of other people. The same thing goes for Ansel or anybody else one could name.

My personal take on Ansel was that he was a very talented photographer and an incredible technician. Personally, I like his photogaphs and have found them to be a good source of inspiration. When I was first getting into photography his books really helped me get a good understanding of the technical side of things. I learned photography with his books as my guide and ended up with a very good handle on view camera technique and the zone system, among other things. However, it wasn't so much his images that helped me as it was his meticulous description of technique.

I give Ansel a lot of credit for what he did as a photographer as well as what he did for photography as an art form. That said, do I consider him to be the best there ever was? No, I do not. There have been photographers before and since him who have accomplished just as much as he did. True, most have not become the sort of urban legend that Ansel has become, but that's not to say that they weren't just as good as photographers, if not better than Ansel was.

It all comes back to a matter of taste and perception.

We as humans are tend to look at issues like this very subjectively. I look forward to hearing other people's views on this subject. I really think it's interesting how widely people's opinions can vary when it comes to something as deceptively simple as a single photographer.

I wonder what Ansel would say...

-- Dave Munson (, October 18, 2000.

Of the photographers who have passed on that I haven't met but wish I had, Ansel and Morley Baer head the list. I am sure Ansel Adams had an ego. Most very talented people do. Everything I have read by or of him point to this fact. But I have read more into his story than that. I have read (and gotten from many I know who knew him personally, not just from writings) that he was a tremendous teacher, selfless and untiring in helping others. He shared his talent freely while struggling to make a living in a tough profession. He didn't know it all and admitted that fact. He didn't tolerate substandard work and constantly pushed himself to produce images of the highest quality. He never quit working for good images or to help others to improve their images or appreciation for photography. From the biographies of him one can see he wasn't perfect, but then no one has ever been perfect. But for an imperfect guy, like or dislike his images, he sure gave back a lot more to his profession, vocation, avocation and calling, more than most would in ten lifetimes. Ansel wasn't a saint but I have no quarrel with those who would diefy his memory as long as they remember he was human. And it is that human quality of the man that only serves to enhance Ansel the Legend. I don't think one can have a greater legacy than that he/she was good at what they did and they helped others. Original? He was and even when others photographed a site before him, he still did it his way. His influence will be felt in the world of photography for a long time to come. No, Ansel wasn't God, but I bet God has an Ansel Adams print hanging in view wherever s/he may be these days.

-- Dan Smith (, October 18, 2000.

Photography is a very difficult craft--big egos are abundant, the big egos with little talent or contributions are the most pitiful. Ansel Adams shared his trade secrets not just to a few but to the masses and that alone sets him many notches above photographers who foolishly believe that they will somehow lose revenue and status if they give away their hard-won knowledge. By the time he decided to donate his negatives for future research, he had probably been encouraged by many to do so given the international recognition he had earned, I'm not so sure it was an act of self-pride.

-- C. W. Dean (, October 19, 2000.

Ansel Adams preserved his negatives so that they could be printed by others. Brett Weston famously burned his so that no one else could print them. I think it is difficult to say which was the more "egotistical" act (if either was).

-- Chris Patti (, October 19, 2000.

i want to thank you all for your thoughtful responses. i am gratified to hear the stories of adams congenial attitude in his personal dealings with students. this thread has been quite informative, and i appreciate your input.

-- jnorman (, October 19, 2000.

I invite all to read Ansel Adams: A Biography by Mary Street Alinder. Far better than AA's autobiography, it is careful to reveal Adam's the man (as MSA knew him, which was rather well) and also retain her respect for Adam's accomplishment. Adam's was a man of his time, which is not ours.

My opinion is that his lasting value to the world will be as someone who fought tirelessly for preservation of wilderness (although not the way others might have, at least he helped get the ball rolling in the populace at large by expanding our consciousness of it; as someone who also fought for the recognition of photography as a modern art form through the championing of his own work and others; and for his teaching and mentoring skills as a photographer. And then way back there on the list as a photographer in his own right.

Someone pointed out that when you go to the Adams gallery in Yosemite you can buy an original Adams for $150 vs. $600+ for a John Sexton. Beaware that these are not "original" prints made by Adams, but are printed from his negatives by someone appointed by the Adams Trust. This has been so since at least the 1970s if not the mid 1960s. And the prints are marked as such.

-- Ellis Vener (, October 19, 2000.

You can reject Adams' work on aesthetic grounds if you so desire. Many competent photographers will disagree with you and may ask you to produce work that rivals the work you disparaging.

Unless you meet a person and interact with them, it borders on foolishness to make public pronouncements regarding their personality. I have never met Ansel face to face [or face to ghost as in the case of Mr. Wimberley]. But I did correspond with him shortly before his death. I was about 17 and I actually sent him a letter, accompanied by several photographs, wherein I requested to become his apprentice. IMHO, an egotistical person would have had a good laugh and tossed the package into the bin. That is not what Ansel did.

Ansel sent me a signed reproduction of one of his most famous photographs and a letter. He did not address my request directly. I think that was done out of kindness. He said that he liked my work and that the photographs that I had sent to him would be included in his archives. He encouraged me to continue to hone my skills.

His prolific photographic work serves as a goal for many. He did not hide what he learned; but rather shared it with us so that some might even excel his technical knowledge. That can not be said of many of the other great photographers.

Am I an Adams Nut? I dont know exactly what that means. I can say that in my library his books come right after the Bible.

-- Jason Kefover (, October 19, 2000.

One of the best things about AA was that he was a good teacher to the masses of younger photographers. He was a superb writer and could explain the magic of photography in an easily understood manner. He could not only teach, he could do. He has kept countless thousands of aspiring photographers, me included, from having to re-invent the wheel. Incidentally, if you ever see an exhibit of his work, it will be quite difficult to slam dunk him. There is quite a difference between the printed page and an Adams' print.

-- Doug Paramore (, October 19, 2000.

About 25 years ago, I had the opportunity to see an exhibition of Adam's work. I was completely bowled over. I was 15 at the time and just beginning to develop and print 35mm. I remember clearly the extrordinary impact those images had; they are a guiding light 25 years later. Reproductions certainly do not do them justice - to stand inches from a huge image and to be drawn into each tiny detail - is something you only get whenyou see them in the flesh.

-- Simon Rodan (, October 19, 2000.

Many fantastic answers-what a great resource. I am not an Adams expert, but would suggest a few directions: (1) Adams and others helped establish B&W photography as a TRANSLATION of reality-no photograph of his looks as the scene appears to our eyes; at least not mine. In this respect, we are looking at art-not documentary or record photography. (2) In many of the "nature" photographs, there is an ethos at work, something about the grandeur of nature and man's perhaps less significant status in it than many of use assume. These aren't blind scenery shots (like I take!). (3) Look at more than the "greatest works" photographs-see pictures of flowers, buildings, even PEOPLE. As many have pointed about, I think one of the greatest lessons here is to keep working and taking pictures. We have to admire anyone who maintains a lifelong passion for their craft and the desire to teach. The best teachers; the only teachers, of course, are interested in bringing out what is in you, the student, and not themselves. There are few and far between, but I have been privileged to know some in my lifetime. The

-- David Stein (, October 20, 2000.

I met him also in a workshop. His books may impart an impression of elitism but nothing could be farther from the truth. I've known photographers with little skill or artistry who are none-the-less very covetous of their sites, their practices, their techniques, and even their equipment choices and exposure methodology. Yet Adams would share ANYTHING with anybody and not hold back anything. He was generous to a fault, especially later on (he had a short period during which he believed in destoying his negatives). I think reading anything but generosity into his writings is mis-reading, though I can see where it comes from. Maybe he didn't express himself as well in text as he did in photos. By the way, I had an instructor who believed that it has ALL been done already, or at least will have soon, and that we are all rehashing the photographic visions of those who came before us. Kind of lumps us all together as imitative hacks. I prefer to think that we all build on and improve on what has come before and some of us actually find a little insight along the way.

-- Rob Tucher (, October 26, 2000.

One occasionally hears disparaging remarks about Western Landscape photographers following "St. Ansel's tripod holes".

It is delightful, then, to see that Ansel Adams himself excitedly followed O'Sullivan's tripod holes, as Micah's example of his letter to the National Parks service shows :-)

That little detail really humanizes the man, and to me, makes him the greater for it.

-- Mani Sitaraman (, October 27, 2000.

When I was 14 or so my Father and I were heading into the High Sierras on a backpack trip. As we crossed over the Kings River Bridge we passed a little gnome of a fellow carrying a rather large view camera. With just a couple of BHowdiesB we continued on our way. At that time I told My Father that some day I would like a camera like that. We had no idea that we had passed Mr. Adams. Well as I became more photo astute I realized who it was we had seen that day. A little man with a big camera, who has set the bar for photographers all over the world. One can pick apart what ever they want in an effort to make them selves feel better or more important, for we all need to boost are egos at times to keep the immensity of the great void from swallowing us up, but what photographer who has looked at Mr. Adams work has not been influenced by it to some degree. He may not be the BGreatest everB but he is one of them. To this day, it is his books in my book case, not gathering dust but dog eared. For the truly great ones are those that teach. As far as copying others works, my best pictures are those that emulate Mr. Adams style, and if I can ever find that same spot out at ManzanarBB What we need are more photos and less ridicule. By the way I did not buy a view camera until I was 44 so I have a lot of photos to go on my way to my own BGreatnessB.

-- Frank Nickerson (, October 28, 2000.

Hate to be-smirch your cherished childhood memories there Frank, but Ansel stood 6'1".

Granted his shoulders were stooped as he got older, but look at the pictures of him with Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in his biography. Or for that matter, look at the shot of him with John Sexton, Alan Ross, Ted Orland and Chris Ranier. He might have been gnome-looking with his broken nose and beard, but I'll bet you saw some other older photgrapher that day.

Morley Baer has related how he was mistaken for Ansel at a distance years after Ansel passed away. Rather than confuse people, he said he'd just smile and wave. He was a big fella too.

-- Sean yates (, October 28, 2000.

Is there any gallery (outside of visiting an art museum) that has a collection of Ansel Adams' works? I must admit I only know a few of his pieces, and the way he handles himself has an... aire.. I suppose that is slightly grating. True, you can appreciate the work depite the man, but I don't have much to base any appreciation for the work on. If anyone could help, I'd be most indebted.

Thanks in advance.

Erica Hall

-- Erica Hall (, January 02, 2001.

In California, there are three AA galleries (Yosemite, Mono Lake, Monterey) operated by his family, and the AA center/Friends of photography in SF. All of them have websites easily found with

-- Q.-Tuan Luong (, January 02, 2001.

Erica, I think you are reacting more to how the cult of Adams acolytes treats St. Ansel as a near deity, rather to Adams himself, who wasn't above a little self satirization & parody. From what I understand, he had a pretty good sense of humor. You also have to remember that he lived in very different times. And like all successful (how ever you define success) people, especially artists, he was his most boisterous and enthusiastic advocate. But unlike others he saw the need to raise public consciousness not just of himself and his own work but of photography as an art form. This is rarely true of artists, especially photographers.

I admire Adams, but don't worship him. He was a very effective teacher of photography and a passionate and effective advocate of the preservation of wilderness, and these are where you will find the basis for judging him.

Please read a copy of Mary Street Alinder's biography of Ansel Adams. I think his most enduring achievements are found in his books and

-- Ellis Vener (, January 02, 2001.

I viewed a set of some 70 AA prints at the Wildlife Federation Office in Washington DC about 12 years ago. I think they have moved their Office since then to No. Va. The prints had been given to the Federation by Adams. They allowed me to spend about an hour in their offices alone during lunch to view these 20x30 prints. If you are near Washington DC, you might check this out.

-- gene crumpler (, January 05, 2001.

Gene, I was in Washington about 8 or 9 years ago and there was a formal Ansel Adams gallery just off the Mall (2 blocks from the Washinton Monument). As I recall there were at least twenty prints. It certainly was quite an experience seeing them first hand. Last year there was a traveling exhibit of American Landscape photographs that I saw at the Detroit Institute of Art. This exhibit included 7 or 8 Ansel Adams prints including a fantastic portrait of an old woman behind a screen door and picture of what appeared to be pipes in a boiler room. I am not sure how these are landscapes but the images were amazing. Although, I left me completely depressed to the point that I didn't take another pictuer for a month.

-- Edward Kimball (, March 01, 2001.

i love you babe

-- casy (, November 29, 2001.

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