Something to think about : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

There's an interesting issue pointed out in the book, "Art & Fear" and I'd like to bring it out to people here so as to help me find a deeper understanding to what I'm doing. Here it goes:-

"In the first third of this century, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and a few fellow travellers turned the then-prevailing work of soft-focus photographic art upside down. They did so by developing a visual philosphy that justified sharply-focs images, and introduced the natural landscape as a subject for photographic art. It took dacades for their point to filter into public consciousness, but it sure has now: pictures appearing in anything from cigarette ads to Sierra Club books owe their current acceptance to those once-controversial images. Indeed, that vision has so prevasively become ours that people photographing vacation scenery today often do so with the hope that if everything turns out just right, the result will not simply look like a landscape, it will look like an Ansel Adams photograph of the landscape.

This too will pass, of course. In fact, artistically speaking, it has passed. The unfolding over time of a great idea is like a growth of a fractal crystal, allowing details and refinements to multiply endlessly - but only in ever-decreasing scale. Eventually (perhaps by the early 1960's) those who stepped forward to carry the West Coast Landscape Photography banner were not producing art, so much as reproducing the history of art. Separated two or three generations from the forces that spawned the vision they championed, they were left making images of experiences they never quite had. If you find yourself caught in similiar circumstances, we modestly offer this bit of cowboy wisdom: When the horse dies, get off."

It would not be too far away to suggest that many of us (myself included) is still riding on a dead horse (or is the horse dead?). For those courageous enough to side-step this "sharply focus" path, have you found understanding, satisfaction and acceptance to your art? How far have you wandered off? Have you found your own vision? Or do you believe that f64 is still the better (the only truthful) way to go? Your contribution is appreciated.



PS: Hope this thread does not offend anyone.

-- Aaron (, February 08, 2002


First, the development of art and photography as an art. In my opinion, you have a greater freedom to artistically express yourself these days than you had in e.g. the 30's. Looking at the art scene in general, there are today many different ways of expression, where a multitude of styles are accepted. This, still in my opinion, also holds true to some extent in the photography area.

Second, and this could be offensive to some people, a trend that I feel has become accepted in the last 20 or so years is that art has nothing to do with being professional, it is just a matter of being different. In artschools (at least here in Europe), most students seems to abandon the classes on studying and drawing the human figure. "That is out of fashion... I'll never do that anyhow..." Many "artists" of today havn't got the patience to work the whole way through a project, so many things seen in art galleries nowadays are just the seeds of a final product.

Let's narrow down the subject again to photography. Aaron is correct in saying that the f64 type of shots have been followed by other trends. This still doesn't mean that a really good print a la A. Adams et. al. isn't appreciated. But I'm sorry to say that I've walked out of photography exhibitions and the only words that came to mind was "Ehhh... blurry and gray?". Giving it a little longer thought, the work reminded me of my very first attempts in the darkroom some 30 years ago, except that I didn't put a $400 price tag on the prints that I fed the dustbin with. Seriously though, I see the same trend in photography as in general art. It is often more important to be shocking and strange than being a professional artist who knows his/her materials.

Photography as such have always been a moving platform. The technical advancement in our field since the invention of photography some 165 years have been amazing. Most other classical art forms havn't had much development for centuries. This technical advancement have to some extent made many photographers focused on technique.

Trying to conclude this, I think that any professional artist, knowing his tools, can produce high-grade art. What style he/she is opting for doesn't really matter. Any good photographer who knows his camera/film/darkroom tools have the potential to produce final photographs which looks the way he/she intends. If the intention is a blurry shot, the final product will probably be a good visualization of that intention. I guess that most of the people in this forum are able and are producing "sharp" photographs, but the skill you've gained from learning that is also applicable to whatever idea you get.

-- Björn Nilsson (, February 08, 2002.

The problem with this premise is the "either/or" factor. One can take sharp, depth-to-infinity images AND gauzy, romantic images. And anything in between. Neither one is new, neither will likely go away anytime soon. It is possible to find your own style among many variations.

-- Todd Caudle (, February 08, 2002.

I LIKE sharp focus - my preferences are all that count for me! Luckily, there are enough people around here who also like it and keep me in film money!

Those people (like me) think soft focus / soft subject matter indicate a lack of skill and/or discipline and do not qualify as art. How can I admire a photograph that could be replicated accidently by a drunkard or a two year old pushing the shutter release as the camera is pulled from the camera bag? I'll stop now before my rant becomes a tyrade ;-)


-- Graeme Hird (, February 08, 2002.

Hi Aaron, might be interesting for you to send a week in the special archives of the George Eastman House surveying the field. Ask to see some early Imogen Cunningham soft focus. If that aint art, then I don't know what is. Even with Ed Weston, compare some of his early soft focus stuff with his later f/64 work before you decide which is "art" and which isn't. Maybe he switched because he mastered the one and decided he wanted to try something new. Look at some of Cameron's portraits. Before you buy into all this sharp focus nonsense, go to where you can view a variety of great soft focus art, and then ask youself what's art and not art. Best, David

-- david clark (, February 08, 2002.

Aaron: Weston, Adams, et al were more or less rebelling against the soft focus photography that became popular in the early days as photographers were trying to imitate painting. The art of photography went from one extreme to the other with no middle ground left. There is room in the art world for both types. I love a properly printed sharp image as well as the next person, but I have seen some soft and slightly soft images that were fantastic. It really depends upon the subject. We tend to develop an "I'm right and you are wrong" approach to our art form as we become more proficient in the craft side of photography. When we finally learn to focus sharply and print sharply with just the right contrast to bring out the best in an image, we tend to look down our noses at the soft focus stuff for awhile. Eventually, many photographers realize there is more to photography than just sharpness, such as mood, feeling, and various other intangiables that work together to make a good print. I love Adams' statement about a "sharp image of a fuzzy concept". I fully expect to see, in the not too distant future, a breaking away from the blazingly sharp images obtainable from modern lenses. Art is trendy at best.


-- Doug Paramore (, February 08, 2002.

If you want to make art, real art, true art: You have to do the following: Bring your entire self into the work itself and test it against what you know and feel and think and discard all that you do not feel to be honest and all that you have to make excuses or apologies for. Nothing else will survive the scrunity of others.

Arnold Newman says it more eloquently:"We make art with our heads and with our hearts. Cameras are only tools."

-- Ellis Vener (, February 08, 2002.

I've strived for technical perfection for many years, but one of my most satisfying images was a grab shot made with a handheld pinhole camera on 35mm film. I don't think "art" either demands or rejects technical perfection. Still, I don't think the "f/64 horse is dead". Some subjects are best represented with sharp LF technology.

However, I do think that the technical standards are being lowered with digital technology. I see many serious amateur photographers, seduced by new gadgets and easy production, accepting digital work that is "almost as good as film".

-- Chris Ellinger (, February 08, 2002.


Yea I stray from the path. I enjoy all formats, including using hand held 35mm wide open at night and even a Holga on occaison. It all depends on the subject matter and what camera is the best tool for putting your vision on paper. One thing I have always had a problem with is this idea that Adams, Weston and the rest of the West Coast photographers took it upon themselves to change the photographic landscape. They may have popularized the F64 aestetic, but they were simply a product of the times, not artistic geniuses. In the 20s and 30s the world was in the middle of the 2nd industrial revolution. Science and technology provided great advances in mass production, tool and die manufacturing, precision optics, medicine, aviation, chemistry, physics, mathamatics, philosophy, publishing, etc. Americans were interested in the new astetic of precision and efficiency and only sharply focused precison like photography would become acceptable. The culmination came with two events: the celebration of the possibilities of technology at the 1939 World's Fair, and the application of that technology in WW2.

If Adams had been born 20yrs earlier he would have been an obscure pictorialist. if the Technological revolution had occured 20yrs earlier we would have had the same f64 type movement with different names.

I am not denying that these photographer's were great talents and that they created wonderful art. All I am arguing is that they owe most of their popularity to "being in the right place at the right time"

Ok, let me have it for my heresy against the gospel according to ST.Adams.

-- James Chinn (, February 08, 2002.


How much of the dead horse can I get into the frame? What about this horse is interesting to my eyes? Can I bring the detail of his ears into Zone 4? Is there some quality about his being dead that I can editorialize with a picture?

(my point is, sometimes the question leads you to your project, and sometimes the project is the question mark)


-- Douglas Gould (, February 08, 2002.

Art is like foliage sprouting from the cultural landscape. There are many varieties, some live longer than others, some are popular, some are not, and whatever form they take you can't really say that they are going any place in particular.

Art just is.

-- Bruce Wehman (, February 08, 2002.

FWIW, isn't the process of making "art" as much of an art as the "art" that is produced?

-- John Kasaian (, February 08, 2002.

john, In my opinion , no, it is just work, not "art". But one should take pride in one's work, in a job well done. The finished print or image or poem or book or painting or drawing or sculpture is "the thing."

-- Ellis Vener (, February 08, 2002.

Again, poping up to defend pictorialists, someone, anyone, look at a print from one. One by John Vanderpant caused an asthma atack. Don't take thoes kinds of pictures if you don't like them, but don't compare to a 2 year old please -- a 2 year old with a auto-everything camera can also take a clear photo. Also, folks, if you don't understand conceptual art and think Yoko Ono's only contribution to the 20th century was breaking up the Beatles, then learn more befor speaking, or just go out and take they photo's you take. I'm sure I'd like them if I saw them.

As for the back and forth, there isn't any anymore -- the Academy is dead -- Derrida killed it. Mead said we are in a constant fight with our artistic fathers, but as fatherhood seems dead, we all got to learn from our siblings here (too much Bly?). So let's all just learn from each other, and stop using thoes evil dead fuzzies as a bugbear. Or the gummies or the grainies.

Even St.A admits the pictorialits knew how to use light. He learned that from them. If you realy hate them, just search out a good print and look at it. Dean

-- Dean Lastoria (, February 08, 2002.

While flattening prints I read this post. One part stands out to me.

"Eventually (perhaps by the early 1960's) those who stepped forward to carry the West Coast Landscape Photography banner were not producing art, so much as reproducing the history of art. Separated two or three generations from the forces that spawned the vision they championed, they were left making images of experiences they never quite had."

-- Dan Smith (, February 08, 2002.

While flattening prints I read this post. One part stands out to me.

"Eventually (perhaps by the early 1960's) those who stepped forward to carry the West Coast Landscape Photography banner were not producing art, so much as reproducing the history of art. Separated two or three generations from the forces that spawned the vision they championed, they were left making images of experiences they never quite had."

What are these experiences we have never had? Experiencing solitude with the cameras? Exploring new areas seldom visited? Honing and refining technique so we don't have to consciously think about 'the process' at the time of shooting and are free to concentrate on the vision we hope to put on film?

While there are too many who don't get past the copying stage there are also many who have no problem taking the lessons of fine technique and applying it to their particular vision in producing images that will stand the test of time. Whether contact printing in silver, platinum or other alt processes or enlarging from 4x5, the photographers vision is paramount for these workers. Technique is refined, building on the lessons of the past. Vision is honed image by image and presented to the world as a finished work.

These photographers present their world framed for the rest to see. They are not the ones posting "I am going to XXX, what is the best view?" questions. They go to places both new and heavily visited & come away with their vision embodied in the negatives they shoot. Yes, some will look familiar and be like older images whether they knew of the older work or not. Others will be fresh, new and entirely their own with future generations then 'copying' these now publicized & revealed locations. Some are long time photographers continually finding new & moving images in what are, to others, 'tired old locations'. Others find new locations & images both.

Maybe if the writer finds the style old & dated & passe', he needs to look within. Yes, many produce the 'same old stuff' year after year. Same photo, different day & different location: we have all seen them & it will never stop. Others produce new & excellent images that are worthy of the efforts made in getting them on film. These are the photographers who build on the past masters & produce their own work. When they get an excellent image it is their own image, not an attempt to mimic an Adams image.

As for the amateurs who go places hoping to produce something worthy of what Ansel did, more power to them. At least they are out trying & hoping rather than sitting at home making excuses. Once they get to the point of getting 'Anselimages' on a regular basis maybe they can build on it and use the experience to move on to their own vision. One can always hope.

-- Dan Smith (, February 08, 2002.

Art is defined as a leap of the imagination. In photography it may be a razor sharp or soft image. As Ellis said, the camera is only a tool, it is what is in your heart and mind that one will put on film. Some of my images fall into each category and I don't feel I have to create it a certain way someone says it should be unless I have been commissioned by them. At that point, it may be called art by them but it is just work by me.

-- Pat Kearns (, February 08, 2002.

I can tell when I've gotten firmly astride that horse again by the usually-delayed acceptance that the photos I'm making "in the Adams tradition" are intensely, stultifyingly (is that a word?) _boring_.

What works for me is, as you cited, to get off that horse and make myself shoot a roll of Delta 3200 in handheld 35mm, shoot a roll in the little cheap Horizon panoramic whizzer, do something different. It's sort of like taking a break from religion and _sinning with abandon_.

Then when I do get back to the big camera and f64 there's usually a little zip in the photos that wasn't there earlier.

-- John Hicks (, February 08, 2002.

Photography, as much as people would like it to be, is not rocket science. We see a subject that speaks to us and we use the tools and techniques we have learned and put the image to paper. We hope we have created something that will resonate in others and convey a little something of ourselves. If ultra sharp total control gets you there great. I think people who get hung up on one format (especially LF) cheat themselves out of a lot of creative opportunities with the medium.

Their was a wonderful interview with Gordon Hutchings in the Nov/Dec 99 View Camera magazine where he talked about how he felt his work was getting to formulaic and static. He put the view camera away and shot 645 and 35mm for awhile. He talked of an "explosion of vision in all directions...I was able to do things visually that you can't do with a view camera. I loved it". Hutchings returned to the view camera with a "fresh eye", using a wider variety of lenses and subjcet matter.

He also said in the interview, "The interesting thing about the view camera it that because it is physically demanding, we slowly and subconsciously begin to play it safe. I think the images over time if you don't watch it, become classic and conservative. The photographer has to watch out for this entropic slide toward a static, repetitive formula. You've got to be on constant gaurd against it"

-- James Chinn (, February 08, 2002.

Would it not be refreshing, to worry less if a landscape photograph in the style of Adams, was more or less "artistic" than a soft focus version of the same. Surely we should strive for originality, even if we fail. I loved the Gordon Hutchings quotes above!


-- Keith Laban (, February 08, 2002.

I've found I can do anything I want, except something completely new and different.

-- Conrad Hoffman (, February 08, 2002.

Yes Conrad, but its fun trying!

-- Keith Laban (, February 08, 2002.

Man -O- Man!

It's no wonder everyone considers LF folks elitist and snobby!

-- Matt O. (, February 08, 2002.

to imply that weston and adams created some new vision or "visual philosophy" is surely to be completely ignorant of the history of photography. look at the work of edouard baldus and others who excelled at achieving wonderfully sharp mammoth plate images of landscape and topography dating from the earliest years of photography - look at the direct antecedents of adams work, such as timothy o'sullivan, muybridge, and carleton watkins. of the two photographers mentioned, weston was surely the more groundbreaking in terms of moving the artistic target, if simply through his unique choice of visually reinterpreting common objects. adams work, while technically excellent and often quite dramatic, is, philosophically, merely an extension of the work of earlier topographic photographers. just as the zone system is a refinement of basic developing principals that had been known and used for 50 years or more before adams came along.

-- jnorman (, February 09, 2002.

There is a continuing desire for picture of landscape. the difference of course is that the techology to do them is evolving and the public is saturated with the same images. The "dead horse" is the lack of new environments and ways of seeing. Ansel if I recall never added a nude to the landscape as Weston did or Bullock did. Eugene Smith dis landscape with people and of course Galen does 35 mm landscape . So is it dead? No. ou have to add and keep going. The old 8x10 can be used in many places and not just from the roof of a 1937 suburban. But you have to get outthere and sweat and experiment.

-- Ed (, February 09, 2002.

THIS is a terrific post.It really touchs the thread of what motivates any of our photographs. You shoot to sell to someone and the picture should be for the customer. You shoot for art and the picture is for the critic. If you are lucky you shoot some stuff for yourself and the result should be something you personally go back to over time and care about. I am selfish about the stuff for myself and I confess I hope some of it could be art, but it is not the prime mover determining the time I take printing and caring for these photos. So what about the Mono lake shots? Weston is everyones favorite to cite. There are famous pictures by Weston (Edward), Adams, Weston (Brett) and a host of others and while it took me a long time to really appreciate the differences, I am struck by the beauty of Brett Weston's versions of these overdone(?) scenes of a really beautiful place (I am only trying to contrast three different photographers here.) Brett clearly has value added over both Edward and Ansel..really beautiful images that really are different. Same place, straight photography, same some cases THE exact same tools and yet profoundly different. A different view of a place and not a copy and not fuzzy or distorted. Ansel was motivated to MARKET his stuff. He WANTED to make a living from what he shot and did a great job. A very great teacher, photographer and marketer. He admired Weston for his purity and in fact he recognized Weston gave up a LOT to be who he was..which is one of the reasons we love him. I asked Kipton Kumler (back in the 70's) why he didn't dedicate himself to being a photographer and his response was that he was used to living a middle class life and did not want to live in a garret. He was (is?) an excellent photographer and an upcoming star in the fine art photo world .

Dead horse...that was the question. If you want to be on the leading edge, you should be working digital. Combine it with your LF negative s and subtly elevate the THING. Seriously study some art, learn to draw, visit the art museums and learn from the early masters...Weston did that..and use the new medium in combination with the old. A whole open field. Make digital negatives cause the ink printers still don't have it yet.

You are going after the thing itself, the essence.

But in the end, your own photography should be to please yourself. Don't worry if you don't make it to a dedicated issue of View Camera or Black and White. Life is short

-- Will Ewing (, February 09, 2002.


Thank you for this complex thread. It is a good switch from the nuts and bolts questions.

There are several different to angles to approach this. One is a histroical, educational point of view. Those who actually took photography in college know that the history, and development of the different processes are all part of the cirriculum. Just as the study of painting, or any fine art, includes the where we have been, to try to pave the way to where we are going.

I do not think there is any serious, pro, amateur who hasn't read, poured over, romanticised the likes of, Steiglitz, Adams, Strand, all the usual suspects and at one point, tried to emulate there styles in the progression of their own style, vision. Many will not reach that height and be satisfied to stay at that level, or just do not have the raw talent to progress further.

For me, the evolution of artistic vision starts with the basics, the mastery of the craft, techniques, so to gain total control. It is during this stage that most will go out shooting, looking for that Adams landscape, Weston still life, Strand barn, Bullock driftwood etc, etc. It is this stage that most will stay in, and not progress any further. Which in itself is not such a bad thing.

However, to progress, there has to come a time when you start thinking for yourself and asking yourself, when you approach a subject, "How do I NOT that a photograph that looks like a Steiglitz, Adams, etc, etc. This is where self expression starts to take hold and develope. How far one goes depends on determination and just how much free time, and money you have. Let's face it, selling fine art photography is not the most profitable line of work.

-- Rob Pietri (, February 09, 2002.

After thought,

One thing about a dead horse, they don't buck when you beat it.

-- Rob Pietri (, February 09, 2002.

The earliest photographers were trying to legitimize themselves to painters who were viewed as the "real" artists. They created softer, romanticized images because paintings of the times were generally softer and romantic.

The camera can be forced to make soft images (probably more easily with the lenses of 150 years ago) but the medium is inherently sharp, providing detail few painters can paint. One could then argue that what Weston, Adams, et al did was simply break the pictorial bonds and let the camera do what it was designed to do: make highly detailed representations of what was in front of it. How the photographer sees what's in front of the camera is a different matter.

What I find ironic is that today, there are many painters who paint (and sell) paintings that look like photographs. In fact, they probably made a photograph first and then painted from it. I always find myself asking why didn't they just frame the photo. Answer: because in the art buying public's mind painting is art and photographs are not.

I don't know if I know what art is but in my opinion, not everyone who picks up a paintbrush is an artist just as not everyone who works behind a camera is an artist. I don't think we should be embarassed as photographers because the camera instinctively makes sharp images.

-- Bruce Pollock (, February 09, 2002.

two little thoughts on the above, firstly there seems to be a consensus that photographic technology has really advanced in the last 150 years, sureley apart from digital it is more or less the same, a similar case in point would be the internal combustion engine, sure the car people will sell you a ¨thinking¨ car that will give you a massage when you are stressed and the camera people will sell you a camera that takes pictures on its own, but the basic technology seems to me the same.

and the other thing seems to me that everything we have seen is our inheritence, like it or not, so assimilate it, be grateful to all the past photographers who have left us such a legacy, learn from the mistakes, strengthen from the successes, none of them were ¨right¨ or ¨wrong¨. Surley the deal is to be satisfied with your own work, if that means emulating the past masters, fine. Have you noticed in the great Art institutions, how many painting look like a Picasso, look like a Van Gough, look at the dates, seems like everyone is at the old emulation game.

Anyway I think that old Aaron is a phsycologist, doing a clinical study of LF photographers, what better vehicle than his ¨what is it all about threads¨, what about it Aaron...

-- adrian tyler (, February 10, 2002.


-- Aaron (, February 10, 2002.

Turning what we see with our eyes in three dimensions and with instantaneous focus of every object in our field of view into a two dimensional more than likely half toned 8X10 piece of photo paper. The camera does not see things the way I do. I use a small diameter stop to bring foreground objects into the same sharp focus as the distance because this is the way the eye sees them. Although the rock in the foreground is truly out of focus as I look at the distant mountain. To look at the rock it becomes in focus at once and the brain says there is no depth of field only near and far. So to make something selectively out of focus is in the realm of seeing through the lens. To make everything in the photograph sharp as a tack is the way we would look at a scene. To use selective focus is to make the viewer regard part of the photograph differently than they would have. Sometimes to add art to what would be a straight photo. Movements correct the photo usually to more of what we would perceive it to look like not the way we might actually see it. The beauty of LF. What I now concentrate more now than anything is trying to turn the magic of light that I see onto photo paper. The aperture I use is more a tool to achieve the ends I seek determined by the light. I if I can get better results at f8 than f32 so be it. Not all of my lenses go down to f64 anyway and it is always windy when you want a long exposure. With my computer I can make all of my photos of Yosemite "look" like AA's. Something I really can't do in the darkroom. People say that looks like an Ansel Adams photo. Ahhh theres the rub it looks like his and not like mine or what I saw.

Side note: On a backpack trip in the mid sixties out of Cedar Grove we past Mr. Adams on the bridge over the Kings River (I didn't know him from Adam). He was lugging a big camera on a tripod. We said "Hi" and continued over the bridge. As we went my dad and I had a conversation about big cameras and such. I wondered whether it was wise to carry such a large camera around when a small 120 TLR like I carried would be as good. My dad made the comment that some people hunted some fished and like us some backpacked. All in all it is an excuse to be out there. When I am in the darkroom I am longing to out there working the light.

-- Frank Nickerson (, February 10, 2002.

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