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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Ansel Adams' pictures

by Philip Martin | September 27, 2020 at 8:17 a.m.

"There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer."

-- Ansel Adams

BENTONVILLE -- "Ansel Adams in Our Time," the latest temporary exhibition at Crystal Bridges American Museum of Art, is exactly the sort of thing we might expect from the museum in that it presents us with the work of a very popular, very famous and unimpeachably "great" American artist.

While some might carp about an experiential Nick Cave happening at the Momentary (though no taxpayers were harmed by the show that nobody is forcing anyone to see), Adams is as bullet-proof as motherhood or Tom Hanks; only the most dedicated contrarian can object to this show.

I am not a dedicated contrarian, though I wonder at his apparent bafflement at and subsequent dismissal of the work of William Eggleston, whose groundbreaking color photography Adams called a "put-on."

Despite the obvious differences in the artists' approach to their subject--Adams' nearly ritualistic preparation versus Eggleston's casual, instinctive snapshotting; Adams' gleaming grayscale versus Eggleston's sometimes lurid, sometimes subtle smears--they both produce images of uncommon beauty. So what if Adams packs mules laden with large format cameras, lenses and plates into the wilderness while Eggleston goes for a drive around town?

Anyway, Adams is, because of his ubiquity, underrated as a maker of photographs, for many of the same reasons Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth are underrated as painters. Because it is relatively easy to read this work--it's easier than trying to sort out the splatters of Jackson Pollock or the terse scrawls and scribbles of Cy Twombly--we can imagine we understand what these artists are trying to do, which is to represent what we see.

We recognize the world in a painting, diminishing the mystery. Most photographs take this a step further. Unless the photographer is deliberately obscurant, we understand the image as an apprehended moment from the "real" world.

Adams was musically trained; his highly disciplined photographs present as formal compositions, arrangements in light and dark. He is looking for the sweep and swing of it all, the music of the spheres. However beautiful and mysterious the images are, we can generally tell what he wants to convey. There's no real need to explain "Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park."

Meanwhile, part of the fun of an Eggleston photograph is puzzling out what it may mean, not that you could ever arrive at an answer. If Adams is a Beethoven sonata, full of thunder and drama, then Eggleston is a Robert Carver short story. You don't have to choose one over the other.

Furthermore, while it's something you shouldn't say out loud, lest you seem as ungenerous as Ansel Adams toward William Eggleston, we might harbor a suspicion that, were we presented with the images Adams beheld in his viewfinder, we too would have the courage to click the shutter. Because anyone can take a picture, a fact that has always made photographers a bit defensive about their endeavor which, as Susan Sontag observed in her famous essay "On Photography," has usually been interpreted as either a craft (in her words, a "lucid and precise act of knowing") or as a "pre-intellectual, intuitive mode of encounter."

So maybe just being a better photographer is a matter of persistence or of luck? Or maybe a photographer can be "good" (like Adams) or a shaman (like Eggleston) but there's still a matter of whether it's actually a creative art?

I would argue that it matters less what we call art than what we appreciate as such. Feel free to be moved by whatever moves you, and leave the binning and genre-sorting to the clerks. Photographers work with reality, ideally revealing some otherwise elusive truth in what we see. Making a photograph is not the same thing as taking a picture.

And Adams' images are not accurate depictions of the natural world. In the first place, the world does not, for most of us, present in black and white. And Adams is a darkroom virtuoso, a master of burning and dodging and otherwise manipulating the way his enlarger and chemicals and eye shape the truth he decided to print. I have trouble believing that he would believe, as some of my photographer friends seem to, that the only legitimate way of obtaining a photograph is via film and developing tanks.

"It is true no one could print my negatives as I did, but they might well get more out of them by electronic means," Adams wrote in his autobiography, published shortly after his death in 1984. "Image quality is not the product of a machine but of the person who directs the machine, and there are no limits to imagination and expression."

Sounds like Adams might not object to having the practical problems of photography solved by digital technology. Maybe he would have smiled to know we can now apply an Ansel Adams filter to our Instagram images.

And if you're still worried about whether photography is or is not real art, maybe entertain the notion that fancy tools never make the genuine article obsolete. Just as photography didn't kill painting, digital tools will never completely democratize shutterbuggery. Just look at all the graceless work enabled by pixels, all the dull and droning selfies, all the videos shot in portrait mode. Some people are damned to always clap on the one and the three.

Good for them. No one should be shamed into not singing. If we let the fact that we're bad at something keep us from doing it, the golf courses would be empty. You can stand in the same places that Ansel Adams stood with tools more powerful than his Deardorff 8-by-10 field camera, but you will never capture the same moon over the same mountain. That's OK.

Sontag and Adams both thought photography was more a language than a medium, that almost everyone could develop a certain facility, that they could use it as a means of communication. Language can be used to make a grocery list or a novel. A photograph can show you a red wheelbarrow or a way to live.

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