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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

T.O.P. Ten: Number 5

Ansel Adams, Tenaya Lake

The Land

When I was young and new to photography, I worshipped Ansel Adams and revered his work. Now that I'm older and jaded, I seldom return to it for pleasure. Thus, Adams has taught me one of the most important lessons to learn about art: tastes change.

Art is volatile. Its meaning changes with context, in time, and depending on the cultural "lens" through which it's viewed. For instance, you could say that Ansel Adams was in the vanguard of 1930s modernism, what with his participation in Willard Van Dyke's "Group ƒ/64" and his heroic, forward-looking outlook. Or, you could see him, as I do, as the apotheosis of the 19th-century photographic explorers of the American west, of Watkins and Jackson et al. He has more in common with Albert Bierstadt than he does with the irony of the "New Topographers."

Still, he was undeniably at the height of his powers when he made this astonishing landscape at Tenaya Lake, 8,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada, in the late 1940s. All too often, photographs suggest that "anyone could have taken them" if they had only been there, confronted with what the photographer found himself face-to-face with; and in a backwards way, this is a good proof of just what an original photograph this is: it looks virtually nothing like any other picture of Tenaya Lake ever made, or at least that I've ever seen. (Compare it to this more usual snapshot of the place—photographer unknown—at left). Adams's picture is just full to the scuppers, of lake, granite, and of clouds, which Adams treated as a pictorial element as massive and as worthy as mountains. He manages to convey scale—not an easy trick in a photograph, in which a strawberry can be made to be bigger than Uluru. He even manages to convey the cold, vivid clarity of the mountain air. It's a picture of great balance: notice the way the strip of lake at the bottom is mirrored by the strip of sky at the top, the way the slash of deep shadow at center left is balanced by the patch of sunlit cloud at center right. And the sheer texture of the great granite slabs bring to mind the native American name for the lake, Pie-we-ack, "lake of the shining rocks."

Still, it's a vision that for me contains a fair bit of imagination. Adams's Yosemite was a nearly empty preserve for him and his intrepid fellow hikers in his day compared to the crowded playground it has since become. But it was already a National Park twelve years before Ansel was born. The imagination comes in when we consider it, as Adams no doubt wanted us to, as pristine, unsullied wilderness—the way the Earth might have been if humankind had never been. It is not so much as a record of a real place that the power of this picture resides, but in our happy thrall to this wonderful—and undeniably magnificent—idea of nature.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

16 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that I'll ever grow tired of revisiting Ansel's work. It may be passe' to still fancy it, but it will always inspire me. It's not so much that I want to repeat his particular photos, but that he taught us what is truly possible in describing nature; and in monochrome. His photos can hit you between the eyes and pack an impact that is very difficult to achieve in color.

Whenever I think that I've succeeded in capturing a scene well, I just look at his work and realize that life is just a learning process.

Al Benas

6:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"He has more in common with Albert Bierstadt than he does with the irony of the "New Topographers."

Well said.

darr

7:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike, this is a good choice. Adams should be represented and this is a magnificent photograph. Seeing one of Adams' prints of it is even more impressive, even thrilling.
Bob Meier

8:28 PM  
Anonymous John said...

I always enjoyed seeing Adams' work in books, but it wasn't until I finally saw a print of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico that I began to fully appreciate his work. The texture and light in the clouds...just awe-inspiring.

Intellectually, I knew that a book couldn't reproduce a print, but I never before understood just how dramatically different the two media area.

10:13 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Having grown up on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, I'm intimately familiar with a lot of the subjects that Ansel Adams photographed. I have a personal connection to this one from having spent time in Tuolumne meadows rockclimbing when I was younger and skinnier. This is my favorite Adams image and I think that it is underrated compared to his Yosemite Valley work. Thanks for sharing it.

10:31 PM  
Anonymous Igor I. said...

The 2nd photo is definitely not of the same place. Maybe the lake is the same, but not the particular place on it.

However, a quick google search brings up a lot of nice photos of the same place from different points.

11:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ansel Adams is the most over-rated photographer in America. Sure he was good, very good even, but he was not the one-of-a-kind towering genius people have made him into.

His pictures are technical perfection, but they lack depth and feeling. They show the limits of the "natural" approach, and his fame owes a lot to timing and his popular subject matter from the national parks.

His name gets mentioned so often online, in magazines and among the public that it makes me very tired of him. Is he the only good photographer people have heard about? Sometimes I feel like saying "Mention Ansel one more time and I'll scream".

12:08 AM  
Blogger under focus said...

I agree that Ansel´s work looks different with change of time. At time for exposure very few had a change to visit the places of Adam´s places of natural wonders. So the spectators at that time not only admired the beauty, the photos also carried news. Today even many Swedes have been to the places of Adam´s photos. It is no doubt that Adam´s photos are technically outstanding, also his prints. His books about the zon system can still today be used for teaching how to record a correct negative. Most of his photos of nature, like the one seen here, are well balanced and beautiful, but in my taste to clean and without surprises.
It is just a matter of every ones taste if Ansel Adam should have a photo among the top ten. Many would think so, today I do not.

5:24 AM  
Blogger under focus said...

I agree that Ansel´s work looks different with change of time. At time for exposure very few had a change to visit the places of Adam´s places of natural wonders. So the spectators at that time not only admired the beauty, the photos also carried news. Today even many Swedes have been to the places of Adam´s photos. It is no doubt that Adam´s photos are technically outstanding, also his prints. His books about the zon system can still today be used for teaching how to record a correct negative. Most of his photos of nature, like the one seen here, are well balanced and beautiful, but in my taste to clean and without surprises.
It is just a matter of every ones taste if Ansel Adam should have a photo among the top ten. Many would think so, today I do not.

5:26 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

I'm not and never have been a great lover of Adams'work - or at least his work outside the darkroom. At best it's sterile; at worst it's pretentious. Or should I say 'was'? He was, after all, from a time far removed from the one I live in, with different values. Trouble is, I just don't admire those values. But by god he was a good darkroom technician!

6:28 AM  
Blogger Scott Kirkpatrick said...

The TOP 10 list hasn't been so much about individual photographers or individual pictures as about the ways in which photography has shaped our world. I think "the land" as a fact to be conveyed, as a value to revere, and as a source or ironic observations certainly deserves inclusion. And Ansel Adams, midway between Bierstadt and the other Adams, is the perfect representative. Besides, he was the first to make a comfortable living from photographing "the land," and the art business seems to be an interest of MJ's.

7:48 AM  
Anonymous Dave said...

Its easy to criticize Adams's work today, in retrospect. In many ways he taught us how to do what he did. So it is hard to believe that before him most others were not doing what he did. In his day he was in the vanguard of a different way of using the medium, and using it for what it was and not trying to make it into a facsimile of painting. And he became the leading voice and most recognized practitioner of those who were also in that vanguard with him. Like his individual work or not (I find some of it unbelievably awe inspiring) he left a mark on the medium.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Dave, I know your comment isn't a whole argument, but I don't think it's quite right. There was already a firmly established tradition of heroic western landscapes in the 19th century--people like William Henry Jackson, Carleton Watkins, Edweard Muybridge, William Bell, and Charles Leander Weed, among others. Adams did what they did BETTER, partially because he had better equipment and materials and arguably because he had a better eye, but the position can be defended that Adams's work was as much nostalgic as it was new. The chief difference, generally, between Adams and his artistic forebears is that Adams more consistently eschewed putting people and signs of human progress in his pictures. And for that reason, Adams is if anything marginally closer to the aesthetic of landscape painting than those predecessors. Certainly O'Sullivan's pictures for the King expedition were more "modernistic," if you want to look at them that way.

--Mike

3:31 PM  
Anonymous Dave said...

Yes, not a whole argument. But just to give a window into my thoughts: I was thinking of some of Adams's work like "Frozen Lake and Cliffs" which is more of an abstract and a much smaller selection from the landscape, as opposed to the tradition of the grand landscape that I associate with Watkins and the others. This combined with the f/65 Group rejection of pictorialism and the fact that Adams's books and his disciples have taught so many of us photographers how to do it has made his work look less different than one might have otherwise concluded. Just some thoughts, for whatever they are worth.

2:25 PM  
Anonymous Dave said...

Oops. f/64, not f/65.

11:24 AM  
Anonymous TCP said...

I'm glad Ansel Adams was included in the list; I would have raised an eyebrow if he hadn't.

Even if you are not a great fan of his work, one can't deny his impact on photography, even today. One can find evidence for many outdoor photographers, including the late Galen Rowell, being influenced by his work and emulating it to some degree.

I'm not sure I would have picked this particular print, or even Moonrise, Hernandez, but it is my opinion that he has a place on this list and I think I'm probably not he only one.

1:00 AM  

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