Ansel Adams and the joy of craftsmanship
Feb 5, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Lately I’ve been thinking about the role of technology in art. With the advent of apps and filters we’re all empowered to tell stories through pictures. All of these tools are inspiring and fun, but despite their efforts to unite, do they also create a veil of separation? Ideas can now be expressed & published with the click of a button, without anyone getting their hands dirty. Cultivating know-how is no longer a prerequisite to creating imagery. These days, the artist doesn’t necessarily have to be involved in the process. In this era of “grab and go” hobbies, does expertise still have a place in the world?
In a recent visit to my local museum, I viewed an exhibit on Ansel Adams and the joy of craftsmanship. As I twisted and turned through the gallery, I was blown away by the austere beauty of his famous photographs. The way Adams celebrated shadow and scale is moving. But the curators went a step further and stayed true to his passion for mentorship. Each print was viewed alongside other versions, highlighting Adams’ aesthetic process. The captions outlined every consideration in detail and paired that with the corresponding technical actions required to reflect those decisions. When we view artwork in a museum or even as we scroll through our Instagram feed, we’re entering into a controlled space. How a picture is hung, where a sculpture is positioned, or how a filter is applied – it’s all about guiding the viewer. Granted, the same painting will speak to different people in different ways, but the reality is that the piece we’re viewing is the final version. We’re given all the data points in one, clean state and get to interpret it however we wish. What I found extraordinary about the Adams exhibit was this celebration of the “in progress.” The viewer transitions to the decision maker and it as if those choose-your-own-adventure books sprang to life.
It’s not surprising to me to learn that Adams had a deep appreciation for music. In fact, he taught himself how to play the piano and pursued this area of study throughout his youth. Looking at an Ansel photograph you can see the moments of harmony, whereas sometimes you are arrested by the discord. Perhaps because his focus was the natural world, the connection to melody doesn’t feel as forced as it would in other subject matter. Adams was inspired by the texture of life and the natural world that first captivated him was found in his own backyard: the San Francisco bay. Hiking the vast wilderness became a vital part of his everyday childhood routine. Because of this experience, by the time he was seventeen he already possessed a keen eye for framing a view. With his Kodak Brownie camera in tow, Adams took up a commission with the Sierra Club and dedicated four summers to documenting the Yosemite Valley. It wasn’t until a chance encounter with a prominent Bay area businessman that Adams resolved to pursue his dreams. Channeling his energy & enthusiasm into everything he did, Adams became a steward of sorts to the growing photography scene. His intensity was contagious. Adams remained entranced by details and believed in the sharing of knowledge. His books on techniques became must-reads for anyone pursuing photography as a profession or hobby and his approach to controlling exposure and development of film, known as the zone-system, inspired a generation of artists. Many still cite his volume of technical manuals as the definitive texts on the subject.
Every once in a while an artist will speak to their process and let us mere mortals peek behind the curtain, but Adams shared his process with glee. Capturing the essence of a place through photography was not only a means of expressing his feelings, but it became the medium through which the viewer can better understand him or herself. It’s not surprising that his pictures helped lobby support for the National Parks, these views of America the beautiful still inspire a sense of awe and patriotism. Staring at a mountaintop in such crisp detail that you can discern the small trees dotting its facade humbles a person. Suddenly the human scale seems so tiny and reminds you of our place on this great planet. Yet, because of Ansel’s storytelling and craft, it also calls you to recognize all the good that one human can do! Tell me, dear reader, what are the images and artifacts that inspire you?