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The Problem With Ansel Adams

Updated on June 8, 2016
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American art history includes more than just studying the Abstract Expressionist and Pop art movements that flourished in New York City.

A Classic Adams View

This view of the Tetons and the Snake River is one of Ansel Adams most iconic images
This view of the Tetons and the Snake River is one of Ansel Adams most iconic images | Source

Who was Ansel Adams?

Today, if you mention the name Ansel Adams, most people will immediately recognize the photographer and the stunning black and white portraits of nature that is associated with the California native. His meticulously printed silver images can be found all across the globe, as his name often goes hand-in hand with the finest of nature photography. Furthermore, the photographic work of Adams is seen as a cornerstone in the use of wilderness photography to raise public awareness about environmental issues and ecological concerns. Currently, many photographers worldwide carry on the legacy of Ansel Adams by expanding the field of nature photography.

Portrait of Ansel

A young Ansel Adams pictured with his trusty camera and trademark beard.
A young Ansel Adams pictured with his trusty camera and trademark beard.

Ansel Adams' Biography

Ansel Adams was born in San Francisco in 1902. At six years of age he broke his nose during the great San Francisco earthquake. As a child Ansel studied piano, but the gift of a brownie camera, when he was 14 years old seems to have changed his life dramatically.

Adams quickly moved on to better cameras and so by the early 20s, he was making and selling picturesque black and white prints from Yosemite Valley and other places around California. Adams career took off in the thirties, when he published his first book of photos, Taos Pueblo and then subsequently received an invitation to exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.

After WWII Adams career exploded, as during the post-war-era, he became one of the most celebrated fine art photographer in the world. In 1985 Ansel Adams passed away at the ripe old age of 83.

Adams In Color

Pool, Kaibab Plateau, Arizona 1947 Ansel Adams is less known for stunning color landscapes.
Pool, Kaibab Plateau, Arizona 1947 Ansel Adams is less known for stunning color landscapes.

The Zone System

"[...] not an invention of mine; it is a codification of the principles of sensitometry, worked out by Fred Archer and myself at the Art Center School in Los Angeles, around 1939-40."

This quote from Ansel Adams should give the reader a good perspective as to what this method of processing film and printing is really all about. Moreover, the Zone System, which was developed alongside the use of black and white sheet film in large format cameras, was most effective, when applied to one unexposed print at a time. For with the a light meter, a skilled photographer could calculate the exposure and development times that would best render a black and white print with the full tonal range.

Eventually, the zone system would be applied to roll film shot in more modern cameras, but this photographic method was most dramatic when applied to a single exposure.

This artistic view of a simple pepper by Edward Weston, shows some of the new imagery that emerged from the f/64 group
This artistic view of a simple pepper by Edward Weston, shows some of the new imagery that emerged from the f/64 group

Group 64

Ansel Adams was part of a collective of photographers, known as Group 64. Other members included Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and William Van Dyke. The group was dedicated to the use of large format cameras in order to obtain extraordinary sharp images. The group's name was derived from the very small lens opening, which was labeled on cameras as f-stop 1/64, thus the name Group 64.

It should be noted that images shot with this tiny lens opening tended to be very sharp and had great depth of field.

Clarence John Laughlin

Clarence John Laughlin standing in front of one of his exhibitions.
Clarence John Laughlin standing in front of one of his exhibitions.

A Critic

Clarence John Laughlin was an artistic contemporary of Ansel Adams, who was also one of his most noted critics. Clarence was born three years after Adams in 1905 in Lake Charles, LA. Laughlin lived until 1985, just one year after Ansel Adams passed away. For most of his life Laughlin lived in New Orleans, fashioning his view of the world through the rich imagery of Southern Louisiana. Through out the years created pictures rich with old abandoned mansions, drooping live oaks, worn-down storefronts, phantoms of the Old South and old cemeteries.

Clarence John dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, but did not stop him from becoming an avid reader, book collector and eventually a published writer. At age 25, Mr. Laughlin picked up a 21/4 X 21/4 view camera, similar to the Brownie that Adams first used and began making images. The rest is history.

A Southern Surrealistic Style

The title of this image is The Eye That Never Sleeps.
The title of this image is The Eye That Never Sleeps.

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What Laughlin Said?

I have not been able to find any quotes about Ansel Adams from Clarence John Laughlin, so I will have to rely on my memory, as I did attend one workshop that the New Orleans photographer lead in the city of Syracuse, NY about a decade before he died.

Basically, Laughlin compared Ansel Adams to the concert-hall pianist could play all the great compositions, but fell short of the great masters, when he tried to write his own music.

Remembering Ansel Adams

Southern Gothic

This photo by Jack Leigh graced the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and has since become an iconic image of Southern Gothic
This photo by Jack Leigh graced the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and has since become an iconic image of Southern Gothic

Is Clarence John a Southern Gothic artist?

Most definitely, Clarence John Laughlin is a cornerstone of Southern Gothic imagemakers. Though the man might be more at home with the label of American surrealist, the mystery, air and suspense of his often dark-spirited photographs would almost certainly place him in the company of some of the finest practitioners of Southern Gothic.

The Magnificent Spiral

This photo typifies some of Clarence John Laughlin's architectural work, where there seems to be an unseen presence of an indescribable force.
This photo typifies some of Clarence John Laughlin's architectural work, where there seems to be an unseen presence of an indescribable force.

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