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Ansel Adams – Extract Over Abstract

A Blend of Philosophy and Technique to Create Majestic Photographs

Meticulous. Premeditated. Studious. Considered. Designed. Projected. Predetermined. All synonyms for the word deliberate. Ansel Adams just might have been the most deliberate photographer to traverse the American West. Adams crafted his exacting approach to photography by employing both technical and philosophical processes.READ ENTIRE ARTICLE

In terms of technique, Adams literally wrote the book. In the late 1930’s working with Fred Archer they invented the zone system. His heralded prints were the culmination of this film exposure and development system combined with his darkroom wizardry. Adams shooting credo included the ideas of previsualization and extraction.
Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941

The zone system is a process where the photographer understands and controls every tone, from black to middle grey to white to their best advantage, based on a numbered system of 0 to 10. The artist decides what tonality they want to assign to a specific part of the scene. This gives the photographer the freedom to interpret what is before them, rather than merely plugging settings into a camera based on what a light meter alone says.
Though the Sierra Club and other organizations (as well as the photographer himself) used his majestic images to promote conservation and protection of the wilderness, Adams did not consider himself a documentarian of nature. That category is too narrow to encompass all the ideas and skills Adams brought to the medium.
He extracted photographs from what he saw as an act of creation, not an act of recording. “When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my minds eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word. I’m interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without,” Adams said.
Monolith Face of Half Dome, 1927

Monolith Face of Half Dome, 1927

When a viewer suggested that one of Adams’s photographs looked abstract, Adams corrected him. “I prefer the term extract over abstract, since I cannot change the optical realities but only manage them.” This distinction is important and ties in with Adams’ idea of previsualization. Adams always imagined how the final print would be created while he was still out shooting.
In the opening lecture for Ansel Adams: Before & After, at the Booth Museum, Michael Adams, Ansel’s son, projected an un-manipulated image (Monolith Face of Half Dome, 1927), by his father and the same image after Ansel has worked his zone system magic. The difference was astounding. Not so much because it proved Adams’ technical prowess, but because viewers could see that Adams was able to imagine something completely unique in that scene that most people would miss.
This approach is more significant than it may appear to 21st century eyes – Adams’ approach was a break from the past. Early landscape photographers such as William Henry Jackson are referred to as “survey” photographers, because that is exactly what they were doing, making a document of the land, often for the US government on official expeditions.
Afternoon Thunderstorm, Garnet Lake, 2010

Afternoon Thunderstorm, Garnet Lake, 2010

National Geographic photographer Peter Essick, who has photographed extensively in the High Sierras, now called the Ansel Adams Wilderness, puts this shift in perspective. “That was Adams’ huge leap forward in landscape photography. Back in his day the equipment was so heavy and cumbersome that most photographers just did survey photography. They weren’t thinking of it as personal expression or art, they were simply documenting. Adams, though, captured just a section of a landscape. He used to say that nature is made up of shapes, and the artist’s job is to make form out of them. The way you do that is by including your own emotional response as a photographer. He revolutionized nature photography by bringing in the feeling of the extract.”
Some critics have suggested that Adams’ impact remains so pervasive that modern day visitors to Yosemite experience this large and diverse national park through the prism of Adams’ photographs – an extraction of enormous proportion.
This is the forth article in a series of four providing a Deeper Look at the work of Ansel Adams.
ANSEL ADAMS & TODAY’S TECHNOLOGY (1 of 4)
ANSEL ADAMS – EARLY MODERNIST (2 of 4)
THE SPIRITUAL IMPACT OF ANSEL ADAMS’ WORK (3 of 4)

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In this post from our blog archives, we bring attention to a 70’s film by Thom Tyson about Wynn Bullock, documenting the artist and his philosophy in his own words.

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November is #InspirationalRoleModelsMonth. Is there a particular artist who made you fall in love with photography?

Photo Credits: Pirkle Jones - Dorothea Lange, 1956
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Paul Strand - From the Viaduct, 125th Street, 1915
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