There are so many phenomenal photographers that lists of ‘Great Photographers’ only become meaningful when they sail past the 100 mark. Without a vast number of inclusions, important photographers will invariably be left out and that always leaves me uncomfortable. Such lists are also entirely subjective, so it is perhaps more meaningful to talk about favourite photographers from a personal perspective. After all, I can’t imagine that many of us have come to photography looking for objective facts. We’ve most likely come to photography seeking a personal relationships of one kind or another. We can only be inspired when we find connection. That can be to concepts, ideas, things, or fellow photographers. However, at the end of the day, if we’re making photographs, there is always a context, both within the medium as a whole and our own immediate experiences.
A a few days ago I gazed at my book case and thought how wonderful it is. The feeling was one of genuine excitement at having such a wealth of stunning work, words and history in my own home. I was grabbed by a sense of time and personal journey, as these books have come to me throughout my own creative development. The next thought – and a fairly obvious one – was to acknowledge that my collection includes the work of those photographers who’ve inspired, influenced, motivated and educated me the most. I wondered what the collection would mean to a person looking at my own work. More fundamentally, it made me think further about who I think the strongest influences have been. A quick scan over my shelves told me that it would require thought and so I gave it just that.
To really focus my mind, I thought I would challenge myself to produce a list of only ten. This sounds a lot, until you have to choose who to leave out! The ‘nearly’ list includes many photographers who have (to use a very British phrase) blown my socks off and still do. It has to be 10, however, so I will write a short article for each over the coming weeks, with a bit of background, some examples of their work and an explanation as to why they’ve made such a mark.
Let’s start with a man whose name would have given him a head start as a taxi firm, if he’d not become a concert pianist instead.
#10: Ansel Adams
I came to photography with a pre-existing condition: a genuine love for nature and a connection to the land. I studied Biological Sciences at university and it would be fair to say that natural systems don’t just interest me, it goes far beyond that. As a child, I would often be found half way up a tree, or knee deep in a pond looking for newts. There is also a fair chance I would have earthworms in my pockets, as my mother discovered a number of times when doing the laundry. I’m not sure much has changed.
Although I feel my own photography has moved quite far away from my initial relationship with Adams’ work, I cannot deny the enormous impact his prints had on me several years into my journey. I fell in love with his grand, pristine landscapes without any concern for the larger debate. Was Adams upholding an unrealistic ‘Eden-esque’ perception of a landscape that was, to a large extent, no longer with us? Perhaps…. but he was also a keen preservationist and his work (and words) drew attention to the fragility of dwindling wildernesses. The debate about conservation, preservation and ‘doing nothing’ isn’t dead now, so how could it have been then? From my own point of view, I simply saw photographs that delivered to me the same sense of awe that I feel when I encounter nature in its most impressive forms. If Adams is speaking a language, it’s one I understand without needing to do a course first.
Ansel Adams’ detractors often describe his photography as ‘formal’, which is true (but I don’t have a problem with that). It is often described by critics as ‘rigid’ or ‘soulless’, which I do not agree with at all. My take on this is that Ansel Adams aimed to assume a position of perceptual neutrality, if I can describe it as that. I believe he aimed to interpret the scene and re-present it only so far as he needed to in order to have the viewers experience come near to his own. We could think of it as being rather like adjusting an image to make a strong print. Compared to a screen rendering, we often need a little more contrast, perhaps a touch less density etc to have the print ‘look’ the same as the screen image. Real life experiences are no different, only our brains filter out some of what our eyes see. They also latch onto and emphasise other aspects or elements. I believe Ansel Adams understood this and knew what he needed to do with a negative and print to get you to where he was. At the same time, he did not want to add his own personal fingerprint. He did not want the photograph to be more about him that ‘it’ and this is a philosophy that results in photography we either can or cannot connect with. His entire philosophy was quite transparent and its perhaps unfair to criticise it for not being what he didn’t want it to be. In the same way, there isn’t much point in criticising a tractor for being not very ‘Formula One’. It is what it is.
I went to the Ansel Adams at 100 exhibition in the UK and found many of the prints far exceeded my expectations. In fact, my feelings were so strong that I considered giving up photography altogether. This brings me to two key areas where I feel his work was important to me:
Firstly, Ansel Adams placed great emphasis on rich, dimensional prints made with precision. The standards he set helped to show me how luminous and engaging a two-dimensional piece of paper could be.
Secondly, he helped explain how he did it in the form of his trilogy of books, The Camera, The Negative and The Print. I can’t remember what I paid for them, but I remember them being quite affordable. Ansel Adams put a lot of time into explaining, for everyone, how to navigate your way around the complex business of making tremendously good prints, from start to finish.
That so many people became totally consumed with Zone System is not Ansel Adams’ fault. It’s their own. Adams provided a tool that can be used and applied, or not applied at all. In fact, his zone system was rather basic compared to some of the more ‘expanded’ versions I have seen, which at times make you wonder how the authors find time for eating and bathing, never mind photography. My own perspective is to be appreciative of the wealth of personal experience he shared for the price of a modest paperback photography book. How many other photographers can we name who have done the same?
Another aspect I have always admired is his happy devotion. He did not chase life in the fast lane. He worked hard, loved what he did and he shared it. I appreciated his quiet, intense devotion to his art. I think one of his ‘mistakes’, from an artistic legacy point of view, is to have shared as much as he did. This peels back the layers of mystery, which some demand as essential artistic trappings. Oh, and he also put a platform on top of his panel wagon for use as a tripod platform and he went up mountains with a mule buddy. That’s old school adventuring. That’s cold fingers, a sore back and waist deep in snow. Brilliant. He certainly led from the front when it comes to devotion and determination.
Then there are the images that have remained with me. Not all of Ansel Adams’ photographs were picture postcard. He also shot a number of compelling semi-abstracts and a great deal of transformative work, all of which are breathtaking in the original. This is very hard to convey and, for those who have not seen top quality B&W silver gelatin prints in the flesh, make doing so your mission! It changes everything!
I am also reminded of just how difficult some of these photographs must have been to find and to make. Even in the digital era, where there are a great many shortcuts, such images remain elusive to many.
I learnt a lot from Ansel Adams. Perhaps one of the most important is that remarkable scenes don’t always translate into instantly wonderful photographs. He showed just how much work could be required to turn what seemed to be ‘a gift on a plate’ into a photograph that really commands enduring attention. He taught me to care about subtleties. At the same time, I also found myself wanting to experience more subjective photography that carries some of the essence of our own human experiences. This led me to other photographers!