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Ansel Adams: Technique

Enter the ALL ARTS Vault and join Ansel Adams as he illustrates how different photographic techniques are a means to an end for expressing the photographer’s intent. You’ll even get to hear the photographer in his own words as he walks you through the techniques used to create some of his most iconic images, including Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California, and Winter Sunrise.

AIRED: December 08, 2019 | 0:30:40
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TRANSCRIPT

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Welcome to "The ALL ARTS Vault."

I'm Shanelle Gabriel.

The Vault is the place to go for special access

to all things arts.

So we're going into the archives to uncover

some of our greatest gems and share these programs

with you as they would've been seen decades ago

when they first aired.

Today, we're presenting the second episode

in our five-part series from 1960

featuring American photographer Ansel Adams.

Take notice of Adams' use of natural light

and how he can turn a natural landscape

into an almost abstract expression of space and forms.

Whether you're a fan of photography

or new to the art form,

this program is a fantastic introduction into the mind

and photographs of Ansel Adams.

We hope you enjoy this episode

of "Photography - The Incisive Art."

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Narrator: The photograph in the hands of the artist

is seldom a product of accident or chance.

It is the culmination of a process plotted

and set in motion long before the first exposure is made,

but to many, the techniques of photography

are as mysterious as alchemy.

Adams: There is nothing mysterious about technique.

I like to think about the fundamental properties

of photography,

the chemical, physical, optical properties

as representing the mechanics of the medium,

and it is the knowledge and the application of these mechanics

to the problem at hand that we can call the technique.

It's really nothing in itself except as a means to an end,

the means of realizing, with the greatest possible accuracy,

what the artist intends and sees and completes in his image.

Techniques are simply a means of bringing about in a print

the image as visualized by the artist

before he operates his shutter.

Narrator: As Edward Weston put it,

"In the last analysis,

man himself is the actual medium of expression,

and just as man is the basic element of expression,

the basic element of the photographic image is light."

Adams: But, of course, light is the essence of photography.

It's hard to imagine photography without light,

although, of course, we can photograph with light

that is beyond the visible range.

But in itself, it can be considered as much an actuality

as is substance, such as rock or flesh.

It's an element to be evaluated

and interpreted in its own right.

The impression of light and the impression of substance

which are achieved through a very careful use,

a comprehension of lighting conditions,

are equally essential to the realistic photograph.

Of course, when we say realistic,

we have to define what we mean

because the greater number of creative photographs

are so-called departures from reality,

where inherent values, qualities are expanded

or controlled to achieve a desired end.

I remember taking a series of photographs

at a church sunrise in Hawaii.

The camera was set up quite a time before sunrise,

and some negatives were made in the early dawn light.

Another series of photographs were made

as the sunrise struck the top of the spire,

and the light progressed down the spire

into the main body of the church.

It is a very interesting point here

that it wasn't simply a series of identical exposures,

and the prints were not just automatically

produced one after the other,

but each image has to be balanced to approximate

the total effect desired.

That is the balance of light and shade

and the feeling of presence, the feeling of some end

of the constantly changing shadow values.

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Narrator: Of course, the usable light for the photographer

is the light that passes through the lens of the camera,

and the lens can be an instrument

of marvelous precision and refinement.

ZEISS, the Tessar, the Triplet, Protar, Ektar,

Exnar, the Competon, the Ektanon, the Cook, C5, K2,

X1, GA, the long, the wide, the normal, the telephoto.

Adams: In a final analysis, photography can be reduced

to a few simple principles, but unlike most art,

it seems very complex at the initial approach.

Narrator: SEI, ASA, f-stop, t-stop, reflectance, incidence,

brightness, intensity, strobe, wink, flash, bounce, natural.

Take a subject for a photograph, an egg,

not a mountain or a breaking wave but an egg.

How can it be seen as a simple form occupying space,

its shape delineated by light?

Let's place it in an egg cup and look at it...

this way...

...and this way...

...and this way...

...and this.

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Adams: We should always bear in mind

that photography is a language,

a means of conveying thought, information, interpretation,

and expression, just as in the spoken

and written language we have journalism and poetry

and scientific essays and news and so on.

But all too often, we find that is a very confused jargon,

confused because of the unclear mixtures and distillations,

the mechanics, concepts, tastes, habits, and expediencies.

The justification for technique is being able to do

what you want to do when you want to do it.

In this way, it isn't very different

from a performing musician

who does a great deal of practicing,

working, and constructing all kinds of reflexes in his mind

so that at the moment of performance,

he has this reservoir of experience to fall back on,

and in a sense, we must do exactly

the same thing in photography.

We have to practice,

and we have to be constantly working with the camera

and with the prints to keep our fingers really alert

and our eyes sharp.

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Narrator: Photograph number one,

an illustration of what is known as the Lem effect,

a white object having a curved surface,

in this instance our egg,

and illuminated by a light source

falling along the lens' axis

will show a dark outline against a white background.

This is what is known as the Lem effect.

To continue this metamorphosis of an egg,

with a single light source from the side,

the axis light remaining as fill-in light,

a new range of exposure values must be accommodated,

and the character of the image changes

in accordance with the artist's intention,

as witnessed, the egg photographed in side light.

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With a light from the opposite side added

and the fill-in light turned off,

yet a third effect is achieved.

Who would've thought that an egg had so many faces?

As witnessed, this pure form, this perfect shape,

this egg in core light.

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With another light change,

no light directly on the subject,

only ambient and bounce light,

and with the changed exposure values noted and accounted for,

we can expect our egg to change character once again.

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Adams: As I continue to write, teach, and photograph,

I am increasingly aware of the futility of expressive formulas

and of the importance of a competent technique.

I do not make a picture with a cable release in one hand

and a characteristic curve in the other,

but I surely have to know what the curve represents.

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Narrator: The final metamorphosis of the egg

as photographed in ambient and bounced light,

and behold, the many faces of the egg.

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Adams: My basic approach to photography

depends on the visualization of the final print

before exposure is made.

I say this very often, and I don't know

whether people realize just exactly what it meant.

When you visualize a photograph,

it is not only a matter of seeing it in mind's eye,

but it's also, and primarily, a matter of feeling it,

feeling the various qualities

that you wish to obtain in the final print.

Narrator: In his "Daybook,"

the master photographer Edward Weston wrote,

"In my work, the final form of presentation

is seen on the ground glass, the finished print previsioned,

complete in every detail of texture,

movement, proportion before exposure.

The shutters release automatically

and finally fixes my conception."

Adams: A lot of people may suppose that I have a sharp,

detailed replica of the print to come

floating in front of my eyes.

Well, I really don't have anything quite as complete

as that, although in a sense,

I scan this mental image with a rapidly

changing awareness of different qualities.

I have my optical qualities,

my compositional values and arrangements,

the depth of tone, and of course,

as I think about the photograph,

all of these qualities will instinctively and subtly change

and adapt one to the other so that finally,

I can say that I visualized

the essence of the photograph to be.

I have suggested many times in my teaching and writings

that there is no photographic problem

that can't be solved by logic

and the application of a few basic principles and technique.

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Narrator: The photographic process

is a controlled cycle, not a hit-or-miss affair.

The properties of film stock, developers and so forth

can be scientifically determined,

but the creative use of these known properties

is a matter of the individual artist.

Adams: My technique is largely applied

to problems of interpretation rather to actual transcription,

interpretation based on visualization.

In other words, I prefer to work more on departures

from reality than on reality itself,

which is really the very casual, superficial duplication

of the external scene.

With the visualization well in hand and in mind,

the craft procedures follow in logical order.

First, of course, we have to assume the camera position

required in relation to our compositional ideas.

This can be intuitive.

Recall Edward Weston carrying his big 8-by-10 camera

along the beach or in the mountains,

and when he observed something

that excited his photographic interest,

he would walk up to a given point, place the camera,

and he very rarely moved the instrument from this position.

After we have composed our image on the ground glass

or in the finder of the camera,

we, of course, think of the tonal values of the print,

and that means that we have to evaluate

the brightnesses of the subject.

We do this by the use of exposure meters.

We can take average readings or instant light readings,

or, best of all, we can take photometric readings

or small areas of the subject,

and we find out what the various brightnesses are,

and the next step is to organize these on the exposure scale.

We call this placement.

We place the values on their appropriate point

on the exposure scale.

When we have done this,

it is easy to calculate the exposure required,

and at that time, we also indicate the development

to be given the negative so that we can get a negative

of the required density range.

Sometimes, this procedure is fully worked out

in conscious step-by-step detail,

and other times, it is strictly and intuitively accomplished.

Quantities and qualities of the subject

must be related to the performance of the equipment

and the response of the sensitive film and paper,

and the more we practice with equipment,

the more we use given film and paper, of course,

the more we intuitively respond to their properties.

The shutter is operated, and then the negative is developed.

The negative can now be compared to a musical score.

It's ready for its performance, the print.

If the negative, or score, is properly composed,

technically and aesthetically, it can be performed

so as to recreate the original visualized intention,

but quite often, I find that I can make in a printing,

even in the first print, further modulations

and refinements of the experience

projected at the moment of visualization.

So, in the end, emphasis upon technique

is justified only so far as it will simplify

and clarify the statement of the photographer's concept.

It is really not a matter of improving on nature.

All of these controls are directed

toward a creative objective.

The simulation of reality is only the first stage

of the creative photographic process,

reality transfigured by the imaginary process

departs constructively from itself.

No matter what I do, I must always remain

within the limitations

and the resonances and the medium itself.

This photograph of Mount Williamson and the rocks

in the Owens Valley near Manzanar,

which was the site of the old Japanese war relocation camp,

has become a rather famous image.

It had first appeared in "Fortune"

in the National Park Series many years ago,

and it had been more widely reproduced,

I guess, than any other photograph I've made.

It was the large landscape image

that was used in the the "Family of Man" exhibit.

It is, of course, a rather striking composition.

In a sense, it was almost impossible

not to get a striking image from the scene of this character,

but the problem involved was one of extreme brightness range

in the subject.

I would recall that the lowest brightness

and the foreground shadow of the rocks

was about six candles per square foot,

and the brightness in the clouds in the upper right corner

was more than 4,000.

So we have a brightness range of about one to 700,

and this necessitated very careful development control

based on an exposure which would just bring the shadow values

within the exposure scale of the negative.

This is an original Polaroid land photograph

made on what is known as Type 52 film.

It was taken early in the morning

in a little town in Eastern Massachusetts.

The quality of this picture is quite extraordinary

and represents what we call the linear quality

that this particular process offers.

In other words, the progression of tones from dark to light

is in very close proportionate relation

to the actual brightnesses of the scene.

This is one of the last portraits

I made of Alfred Stieglitz in his gallery in New York,

which was known as An American Place.

Stieglitz was merely resting in his chair,

and the light is entirely natural light from the window.

Of course, all kinds of lights could have been

brought into this image

in lighting up the corridor to the left

and building up shadows and so on,

but I really feel that there was nothing as beautiful

as natural light,

and Stieglitz himself had a very wonderful phrase,

which I've often quoted.

"Wherever there is light, one can photograph."

This is one of my favorite photographs,

my personal point of view.

It's an interpretation of Drakes Bay.

It was taken in that area,

and this rather old hull of a wrecked ship

is appearing above the sand

with the continuous line of breakers in the distance.

It is, of course,

an increased contrast over the natural brightness,

of the natural contrast of the scene,

and it is a very definite attempt to create a mood

which, of course, would make most sense

when in the actual context of the story,

are expressed, I think, in this photograph,

in the sense of it being an equivalent

rather than a mere illustration.

The Hornitos Cemetery,

it's a rather bleak place in the Foothill area.

This photograph was taken in the afternoon with the sun

almost directly behind the camera.

The visualization of the photograph is carried out

very well in the print,

feeling brightness and clarity and great brilliance,

and yet, due to the quality of the lighting

and of the materials and the scene itself,

we had to make an extreme exaggeration of contrast

and wanted to simulate the actuality of the scene.

Remember, this is a very flat light with very low contrast,

and it doesn't make any difference

whether the scene is illuminated

by flat sunlight or flat skylight.

What we have to contend with is the control of low values,

getting them into brilliant images.

This photograph of Baker's Beach and the Golden Gate,

Golden Gate Bridge and a great thundercloud, here,

we have another exaggeration of brightnesses.

The photograph is deeper and richer

and brighter than the original scene,

but the object was to convey a mood

and a recollection of presence and what was felt

rather than just a factual interpretation of earth and sky.

The cloud shadow, which breaks the line of the surf

right below the bridge, does, in my mind,

create a certain unity in the composition,

whereas a continuous sunlit surf,

it might have been a bit monotonous and commonplace.

I think that this photograph, a church near Wianno, Cape Cod,

has a greater scale, or at least implies a greater scale,

than almost anything I have done:

the extremely brilliant clean white wood

accented by an even brighter specular reflection

on the gilt rooster on top of the steeple

and, of course, the very dark, rich evergreens fall

at the very bottom of the scale.

Now, there was a filter used here,

but it was not a powerful one,

just a K2 filter, ordinary yellow,

but the depth of sky and the allover brilliance

was attained by a minimum exposure

and an increased developing time,

and in the print, if you look very closely,

you can see very subtle textures in the clapboards

and the subtle gradation in the white values throughout.

This is a scene in the Mexican area of Palm Springs,

certainly a far cry from the glossy swimming pools

and chromium palaces, but very few people realize

that there is a rather large native population

and marvelous opportunities for photographs

and the people and of their immediate environment.

In this photograph, there was a definite attempt

to convey a feeling of bright sunlight.

The sky is light, as you notice, at least on the horizon,

and there are

some rather careful placements of the various objects,

one against the other, which is, of course,

possible to do with the ground glass focusing camera,

a view camera, or the modern single reflex camera.

This photograph, which is the opening picture

in the Sierra Club Production

known as "This is the American Earth,"

is a rather interesting image in several ways.

It is taken at sunrise in winter, extremely cold,

and there were wisps of mist, as you can see,

floating in front of the peaks.

A rather strong filter was used to intensify the sky,

and we might say here that in the early morning light,

when you have yellowish-gold light on the snow,

and the sky itself is a little on the yellowish warm side,

it is rather difficult

to make these separations with the filters alone.

So, again, as I have so often done in landscape,

I resort to reduced exposure and expanded developing time

to achieve the rather high degree of contrast.

Of course, waiting was essential.

The cloud passing over the immediate foreground

produced shafts of light,

and I wanted to capture one as it came across

the part of meadow where the horse was grazing.

This represents one of the most majestic scenes in Yosemite,

the face of Half Dome from Mirror Lake.

It was done in winter, conditions rather soft light

with the Sun shining through misty clouds,

and it shows, more or less, the power of visualization

and enabling us to create dramatic and moving images

which exceed in brilliancy and contrast

the mere representation of the original.

I think that the combination here of tonality

and the feeling of the sunlight gleaming

on parts of the snow-laden cliff

plus the rather exciting relationships of scale

and the perspective due to the uptilted camera

combines to make an extremely dramatic photograph.

I think it is interesting that this photograph has appeared

only in the form of a reproduction print,

that is a print scaled specifically

for the reproduction process used,

in this case, photo [Indistinct],

and was used as the title page

of the new Sierra Club publication

"This Is The American Earth."

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Apart from the necessary delays and mechanical procedures,

a picture is made about at the moment of visualization.

What I think we might call a microscopic revelation of a lens

is just an associated clarity of perception,

mood, and communication.

Above all, it's a thrilling relationship

with that completely wonderful thing we call the world.

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Narrator: This is National Educational Television.

Thanks for joining us for this episode

of the "ALL ARTS Vault."

We'll see you next time.

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