ABOVE: Yosemite Falls, after Ansel Adams. Fujifilm X-Pro2 using the ACROS+R ‘Film Simulation’ preset. Image Paul Burrows © 2016.
As the editor of sister publication Camera – which is a member of the global Technical Image Press Association – I have the privilege of participating in the judging of the annual TIPA Awards, which annually recognise excellence in the design of imaging products (you can read all about our deliberations in the news section).
This year’s judging took place in San Francisco, so it was a golden (ahem) opportunity to fulfil a long-held desire to visit Yosemite National Park, about a three hour’s drive to the east.
Yosemite is, of course, forever linked with Ansel Adams, who first visited the park in 1916 when he was just 14, armed with a Kodak No.1 Brownie. He subsequently made famous – with his signature red-filter-enhanced B&W contrast – many of the Valley’s iconic views including Half Dome (a particular favourite), El Capitan, the Yosemite Falls and the Merced River. Adams’s life-long fascination with the park is completely understandable once you’ve been there… it is a truly mesmerising landscape, about which John Muir wrote, “But no temple made with hands can compare to Yosemite. Every rock in its walls seems to glow with life”. Muir was the Scottish-born inventor-turned-naturalist who, in the 1880s, lobbied for wilderness areas of outstanding beauty to set aside and protected. In 1890 around 1200 square miles of the western Sierra Nevada in California became the world’s first national park. Today it attracts over four million visitors annually, but most of them only see a small part of the Valley, the rest – actually 94 percent – remains largely untouched.
The Ansel Adams Gallery is located in the so-called Yosemite Village – essentially a series of gift stores – and there, among the various other knick-knacks, you can buy a limited-edition Ansel Adams silver gelatine print for US$35,000. I bought a fridge magnet for US$4.95 and was well pleased.
The desire to ‘do an Ansel Adams’ was too hard to resist, so that meant using B&W 120 rollfilm, but I didn’t really want to lug around my old Hasselblad 500C/M outfit, so took my Fuji GS645S Pro instead. It’s a compact and lightweight 6x4.5cm format rangefinder camera. Interestingly, Yosemite is not a panoramic landscape and its monolithic structures actually suit 6x6cm or, indeed, 6x4.5cm. As it happens, I also took along the Fujifilm X-Pro2 – testing for an upcoming issue – and, with its new ACROS ‘Film Simulation’ preset (in the +Red setting), it delivered impressive AA-like contrast. I suspect the great man would have been impressed.
I don’t use the term “great man” lightly because, in my book, I think he was one of the truly great photographers of the 20th century and deserves all the recognition he gets in the USA. Back in Australia, I’ve been surprised at how little respect he gets, but then questioning the naysayers a little further inevitably revealed they actually knew very little about him beyond what one person termed “very technical landscapes”… and he wasn’t being complimentary either. Ansel Adams was indeed a very technically literate photographer – his infamous Zone System for determining exposure and contrast in a photographic print was just one manifestation – but he was far from the clinical, detached eye that many seem to think was the corollary. After creating what is perhaps his most famous image of Half Dome, he recalled, “I realised that only a deep red filter would give me anything approaching the effect I felt emotionally… I had been able to realise a desired image: not in the way the subject appeared in reality, but how it felt to me”.
This was in 1927, but Adams’s many subsequent photographs made in the Yosemite were all as eloquently emotional as John Muir’s writing. Indeed, the photographer himself was instrumental in the creation of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (further to the south) with a handsome limited edition book of wilderness images titled Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. Adams’s pursuit of technical perfection always had a greater goal – namely to attract attention to issues he held dear – so it seems strange he should be denigrated for it. Besides, the effects he created either in-camera or in the darkroom pale into insignificance compared to today’s Photoshop atrocities.
Perhaps it’s just the Australian ‘tall poppy syndrome’, but locally it’s resulted in a sad neglect of our own photography ‘greats’, even those from just a decade or two ago. Beyond the photography collections held in the major art galleries, you’ll be hard-pressed to encounter them anywhere, except perhaps in a second-hand bookshop (assuming they managed to get published in the first place). And, as the mists of time get steadily thicker, much more of Australia’s photographic heritage is slipping from view. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised because photography is even struggling in the present – an all-too-easy target for cuts in arts funding because, well, it isn’t really an art form anyway, is it? If we don’t value what we’ve got right now – and, to be honest, right now we don’t – what hope of we got of any meaningful preservation of the past?
Photography has been devalued over recent decades and, while technology is undoubtedly partly to blame, it’s more about attitudes and appreciation (or, more precisely, the lack thereof). Could it be that the disparaging of the individual’s input – the emphasis that’s now much more on the process – has diminished photography in this country in comparison to literature, music or virtually any other branch of the creative arts? Do collectors buy prints because of the subject matter? Maybe just occasionally, but it’s really the author that’s the selling point. It’s time to start putting the emphasis back on photographers and their unique visions as the key – no, essential – ingredient of great photography… and we could just get that ball rolling with a greater acknowledgement of the contributions of those who have gone before.
Paul Burrows, Editor, ProPhoto