Ansel Adams might have been the best photographer that ever was or ever will be. But he wasn’t an artist. A bold statement, and one that’s gotten me into trouble in the past. As argument, I offer this; what Ansel Adams did with a camera and what he later did in the darkroom is nothing short of remarkable. His technical ability is beyond reproach. He was a brilliant photographer. But photographer’s aren’t automatically artists.
Film negatives kind of suck, and using film to capture details in the shadows of backlit mountains, while not blowing out the highlights of sun-drenched cumulonimbus clouds is, to say it mildly, challenging. I think it’s the fact that it’s so hard for film to take this kind of photograph that’s part of the reason we’re attracted to it as a medium today. Getting the image we want with the limitations of the tools we have is a worthy challenge, an idea especially reinforced whenever we see the brilliance of an Ansel Adams landscape photograph.
Much like the audiophile will praise the soulfulness of vinyl over digital music, film has a quality to it that is music for our eyes. But even so, we’ve tried to make film easier and more accessible.
In the time of Ansel Adams there were any number of objects that made taking a photograph “easy.” You could buy a Leica I in 1925 that used the relatively new, small, and convenient 35mm film format, available a full two years before Adams shot Monolith, the Face of Half Dome in 1927.
But Ansel Adams wasn’t interested in easy. What Adams preferred was a variety of large and larger cameras, mostly heavy, mostly slow, all of them needing a device known as a tripod to hold them perfectly still while they made photographs. Even Adams’ negatives were heavy, often made of glass. They were slow and limiting as well. How many plates of glass would you want to haul out to Nevada Falls in the heart of Yosemite National Park for the sake of a landscape photograph?
Ansel did take on this challenge, and he managed to capture rainbows in black-and-white and honored, respectfully, the majesty of all six hundred feet of that waterfall. I couldn’t do what he did with a 50 Megapixel camera, 100 Gigabytes of memory cards, a tripod, every single lens Zeiss has ever made, and a helicopter to get me to the perfect vantage point. Nearly none of us could. In fact, I’d suggest that there’s no other person on the planet that could do what Adams did, then or today. There are pilgrimages to the Yosemite Valley scheduled by astronomers who have figured out when the Autumn Moon will be positioned just so, so that Ansel’s iconic photograph can be recreated, with the added advantage of compositional queues from a master, and digital bracketing and RAW files allowing for a whole lot of exposure leeway. And yet the copies are underwhelming by comparison.
That’s why Ansel Adams was a brilliant photographer. He took that majestic mountain range vista, or the powerful roar of a waterfall, or the heavily contorted spine of a Jeffrey tree, and he turned these into a photograph that you can hold in your hand or conjure up on your computer monitor, and reflect upon, and feel an intimate connection to, and he did it in a way that no one, and I mean no one else, could do. It’s brilliant photography.
But what he did wasn’t art. I think we lose sight of the subtle difference when we talk about photography.
Gregory Crewdson is an artist, and photography happens to be his medium. He’s also an excellent photographer, which is a bonus when you’ve chosen photography as the method for expressing your artistic vision. Crewdson will shut down small town main streets and cart in truck loads full of snow, or set buildings on fire, all for a photograph. He will bring in crane mounted lighting rigs, or build intricate sets to look like decrepit houses and hire a recognizable movie star to portray a man managing a mental breakdown by laying sod in his garage, all for a photograph. There is a team of assistants and set designers, builders, costumers, lighting techs, food services, security details, and days, weeks, sometimes months of planning and meetings and energy all in preparation for capturing 1/60th of a second.
While Crewdson is a brilliant photographer, there’s nothing natural or real in his compositions. They are art, contrived and considered down to the smallest detail. This elongation of composition exists in contrast to what a camera gave to us as a tool; a camera is something that can perfectly capture a singular moment, conveniently and with little effort, and what Crewdson does in the name of art undermines this. And he does it very well.
Photographer William Eggleston is an artist who exists on yet another plane. He takes photographs of stuff he just finds lying around with the odd exception of a portrait or similar, but even the portraits are in natural settings and you can be pretty sure that his crew of technicians consists entirely of a friend that sometimes drives him around and patiently stands by while Mr. Eggleston takes photos of sunbeams landing on worn linoleum, or an array of cars in a parking lot during the golden hour, or an unused fruit stand in the middle of a gravel parking lot.
What Eggleston does is find narratives in seemingly banal contexts. He so perfectly captures the elegance and poetry in the pressed “good” shirt of an old man sitting on his tidily made bed while holding his cleaned and readied revolver handgun, his poverty betrayed by the chamber pot poking out from under his bed despite wearing his Sunday Best. No one, not even Ansel Adams, takes a photograph like this.
What Eggleston and Crewdson do is produce photographs that have underlying narratives, stories about time, or space, or socioeconomic well-being, or pride, or prejudice, or… You fall into these photographs and they create scenes, contrived or found, that stop you and make you think. The dialogues are rich, though sometimes quite subtle, but they affect you in a way that goes beyond the visual. This is art.
What does all this mean?
There are those amongst us who strive for the singular perfection of an Ansel Adams landscape where negatives are precious and difficult to produce and prints are generated in environments where dust doesn’t exist. Photographs with a dynamic range perfectly bridging midnight black and just shy of blown-out white, and every shade of grey in between. Some may approach the perfect photograph slightly differently, buying more and better glass every year, more pixels, better computers, faster memory cards, lighter tripods, and swankier bags to carry it all in.
And there are those amongst us who pretend or profess to be artists. I sometimes profess to be an artist. We find that perfect little vignette and compose (in camera of course) and push the trigger and use art speak to describe subtle narratives and subversive themes and distortions of social conventions.
This is all a distraction. None of this matters, probably.
I have some pretty decent digital camera stuff, and some pretty good film stuff as well. I take a lot of photographs and I have monographs from Crewdson, Eggleston, Frank, Herzog, Stettner, Maier, and more, and have spent a fair bit of time at the library looking at the monographs I don’t have or can’t afford. I’ve watched the films and sat in on some lectures, and spent many hours in art galleries around the world looking at photographs and art. I will tell you how you should never meet your heroes because it’s always disappointing, and then go on to tell about how seeing Eggleston’s work in the Portland Art Museum was a religious experience for me. He’s that fucking good.
I’m blessed with a photograph that exists like a memory, a bit grainy, slightly idealized, accidentally shot like I was a monkey with a camera making photograph after photograph until I happened to make this one. I wasn’t smart enough to perfectly expose it, or lucky enough to have the right film in the right camera at the right moment. But I had a camera in my hand and I just took a picture. We can argue the semantics of “photograph” vs “picture” and “photographer” vs “artist” and so much more. I took a picture. This picture –
It’s a picture of a kid mid-skip. My kid. And I could pretend that I intended for the red of the flowers to be reflected in the red of her shorts, or how the composition was just so that it showed an implied connectivity in suburbia and a network of community manifest through paved driveways linking to common roadways contrasted with the intimacy of the proverbial suburban home driveway. I could argue the branches teasing the top right of the composition allude to grander scales outside of the somewhat intimate composition, an intimacy and fragility furthered by a shallow depth-of-field and a shutter speed that barely captures a moving child alluding to the ephemerality of it all.
All of that is a lie. I was taking a photograph of something else, creating my art, when I happened to face my kid with a jump rope in the driveway and without time to carefully compose, or adjust exposure, I raised the camera and took a picture. It’s not art. It’s not even a very good photograph. But it’s why photography exists. It’s a moment in time captured. It’s like real memories, fragmented and out of context, but genuine and thoughtful.
It’s pictures like this that should inspire us all to take more photographs. It’s not why I take photographs, but it probably should be.
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[Featured illustration by Lori Bailey]