What Art Is Online

Ansel Adams--a Great Modern "Artist"?

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

When the question of whether photography is an art form is debated, the work of Ansel Adams is invariably cited as proof in the affirmative. Indeed his photographs come as close to being art as any I know of. As demonstrated by the recent exhibition Ansel Adams at 100--which I had the pleasure of viewing in San Francisco last October--his extraordinarily vivid and dramatically composed images convey the grandeur of the Western landscape with an often breathtaking intensity. For many viewers, the effect of such images is not much different from that of great landscapes by leading artists of the Hudson River School--Frederic Church's Heart of the Andes, perhaps, or Albert Bierstadt's A Storm in the Rocky Mountains--Mount Rosalie. All these images concretize, in readily graspable two-dimensional form, the vast sublimity of Nature--focusing our attention, eliciting our emotional response, and prompting our reflection. Because the experience of photographic images can at times be so similar to that of paintings, both laymen and critics, as well as philosophers of art, have increasingly concluded that photographers are no less "artists" than painters are. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that in the catalog for Ansel Adams at 100, curator John Szarkowski repeatedly refers to the photographer as an "artist," or that the exhibition purports to highlight his achievement "as one of the century's great modern artists."

As indicated by the excerpt from What Art Is cited above, however, the concept of "art" has always implied more than just the effect produced by an image or object. It has presumed something about the creative process as well, not merely about the technical difficulty of that process but also about the role of the artist's imagination in selecting and transforming the material presented to him by the natural world. Regarding the fundamental difference between photography and an artist's creative process, compelling (if inadvertent) testimony is provided by an account of how Ansel Adams produced his "most famous picture" (Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico), related by Kenneth Brower in the latest issue of Smithsonian magazine. Brower knew Adams personally--his father, David Brower, was the first executive director of the Sierra Club and had collaborated with the photographer on a book based on This Is the American Earth, Adams's historic exhibition for the club. He writes:

[It] was taken late one autumn afternoon. . . . While driving along a two-lane blacktop highway in New Mexico, [Adams] had slammed on the brakes and veered off to the shoulder. As soon as he saw the moon suspended over the tiny town of Hernandez, [he] must have known he had a chance to do something special, but he would have to hurry. The setting sun illuminated a range of snow-capped peaks in the distance, and in the foreground it reflected brilliantly off the white crosses in a cemetery. Adams scrambled to get his 8 by 10 camera ready on the tripod. Then, with the composition framed and focused, he couldn't find his exposure meter, so he estimated the aperture and shutter speed settings based on the constant for the luminance of the full moon, and released the shutter. No sooner had he snapped the picture than the sunlight faded. But by then the image he called Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico was fixed for all time. ["The Artful Dodger," Smithsonian Magazine, February 2002]

Of course, Adams then had to complete the process by printing the image--a process during which he could considerably alter the overall light or detail that emerged in the final print. Such alterations would usually affect the entire image uniformly (as demonstrated in Ansel Adams at 100 by different prints from a single negative of Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake, Alaska)--not selectively in the way that an artist paints or repaints various details on his canvas. For Moonrise, according to an account by the Getty Museum, Adams apparently manipulated the image more selectively than was usual for him, by printing the sky black and the foreground dark. Nonetheless, such manipulation, over a broad area of the image preformed on a negative, differs substantially from the total selectivity exercised by an artist in creating an image from scratch on a blank canvas.

According to Brower, Adams himself would often say: "The negative is the score, and the print is the performance." In that case, one should conclude that the real artist is Nature itself (including the natural photochemical process that fixes the image on the negative), while Adams's role as photographer is mainly that of an interpreter (Szarkowski observes, for example, that the last third of Adams's life was devoted to the "reinterpretation" of negatives made years before). In presenting him as "one of the century's great modern artists," however, both Szarkowski and the museum sponsors of the recent exhibition were obviously claiming far more. In that claim, they were very much mistaken. Even with respect to the many images which Adams shot more slowly and deliberately than Moonrise--waiting patiently for the natural light he wanted, carefully positioning his equipment to compose the image, deciding upon the lens and aperture--the final result is, overwhelmingly, a product of Nature (mechanically mediated by camera and film), not of art.

Also instructive in this connection is a documentary news photograph that has become as iconic in its own way as Adams's images of the West: Joe Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize-winning Flag-Raising at Iwo Jima. The genesis of this image illustrates, even more dramatically than Adams's Moonrise, the largely fortuitous nature of photography, including some of the greatest photographs. In the urgent press of events, Rosenthal shot an entire roll of film so rapidly that he was scarcely able to look through the viewfinder, much less exercise any control over the pictures. "It was like shooting a football game," he later said. "You never knew what you got on film." The editors of U. S. Camera magazine are quoted as having aptly observed: "In that moment, Rosenthal's camera recorded the soul of a nation." Rosenthal's camera--not Rosenthal.

In contrast with Adams's Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico and Rosenthal's Flag-Raising at Iwo Jima, no great painting was ever an accident. Does that fact alter the value of these images? On a scale of personal and cultural significance, not necessarily. Just don't call them art.

March 2002

See also Yousuf Karsh: Portrait Photographer par Excellence (November 2002)

What Art Is Online is a supplement to What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi (2000). The above article relates to Chapter 9: "Photography: An Invented 'Art'" Copyright is held by the authors.

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