Ansel Adams: Professional Photography
Join us on the ALL ARTS Vault as Ansel Adams gives you an introduction as to how photographers may have made a living in the 1960s, from working in portraiture, to advertising, to documentary photography. As well as hearing from Adams himself, you’ll also see terrific footage of photographer Milton Halberstadt, a giant in the field of commercial photography and advertising design.
Welcome to the ALL ARTS Vault.
I'm Shanelle Gabriel.
The Vault is a 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 have been seen decades ago
when they first aired.
Today, we're presenting the fourth part
in our five-part series from 1960
featuring American photographer Ansel Adams.
In this educational episode titled
you'll have Adams as your guide as you get an introduction
as to how photographers may have made a living in the 1960s
from working in portraiture to advertising
to documentary photography.
As well as hearing from Adams himself,
you'll also see terrific footage of photographer
a giant in the field of commercial photography
and advertising design.
And in one of the most eye-opening sequences
of this episode,
you'll get a narrated walk-through
of Eugene Smith's extraordinary photo essay,
These photographs featuring the South Carolina nurse midwife,
Maude E. Callen,
were originally published in Life Magazine in 1951.
They opened many a reader's eyes
to a world previously unknown to them
as well as speaking to the artistic
and visceral nature of the photo-essay form.
We hope you enjoy this episode
of "Photography - The Incisive Art."
Adams: I've often said that photography is a language,
and, like any spoken or written language,
can describe an endless number of things,
situations, styles, and so on.
In my own work, I would classify myself
as both professional and amateur
because the work that does not reflect
the two amateur character
is usually rather dead and lifeless,
empty of feeling or spirit.
The word "amateur" comes from basic terms
meaning love or loving, and it is perfectly possible
for the most serious professional photographer
to be also an amateur in the true meaning of the word.
I do a great deal of writing, both of articles and reports,
and I have a lot of correspondence
with other photographers who are constantly writing in
on all kinds of matters technical and aesthetic.
And in general correspondence,
I find myself doing a great deal of work
at the typewriter which annoys my friends
and wears out the typewriter ribbons,
but as a rule, most of the work is all part of the whole clause.
In any art you are in up to your ears,
and I would say that's my case.
The division of time and photography
is rather simply stated
that perhaps three quarters of the time
is what is concerned with spelling the project
and trying to visualize the images and functions,
and what is quite surprising to many people
is that there is not too much time spent
in actual shooting.
Of course it depends on the type of work.
The newspeople undoubtedly spend most of their time in the field
whereas serious professionals, especially in advertising,
may spend enormous amount of time
in consultation with the agents
and the art directors and stylists and so on.
But in my particular case,
I would say that about 75 percent is thinking
and planning and 25 percent is actually shooting and lab work,
and of course added to that as a further complication
is the amount of time spent in travel.
I do very little regular commercial work,
but I do recall my first experience
which was rather remarkable as it was the first example
I had ever come across of deception by convention.
The problem was to photograph raisin bread and of course
to show the luscious quality of glistening raisins.
The client had brought loaves of very fine grained sandwich bread
and loaves of ordinary raisin bread, and with tweezers,
extract little pieces of the dough
from the cut surface of the sandwich bread
and carefully inserted the raisins
which he had plucked from the slices of raisin bread.
Now, this was rather remarkable to me because this was obviously
impossible to bake bread with raisins in it
and not get the, I understand they call the steam holes
that come from the heated moisture in the raisins.
And it was even more astonishing that this kind of work
would have been demanded by the client
because this picture was going into a baker's journal,
and you could assume that...
One would assume that bakers would know
what raisin bread really looked like.
I think the term "professional" covers all of us
who make our living from the practice of photography.
Narrator: This is, of course, a professional photograph,
as is this photograph of smoke crystals,
one of a series taken with the aid of the electron microscope.
Adams: I, myself, while I find them
am not always able to read in any particular
aesthetic significance because the photographs are made
without selection or control in any way.
Narrator: This, too, is a professional photograph
made on assignment by Dorothea Lange.
Adams: Dorothea Lange is a very remarkable artist,
and she is able to combine the external
and the internal event to a very poignant,
moving degree, and her work,
while superficially is documentary in character,
it also contains a deep, poetic quality.
Narrator: A professional photograph
of yet a different kind --
a photograph of the Pleiades.
Adams: Some of the astronomical photographs
are amazingly exciting,
but again it is something that is beyond the real control
of the operator in the strict sense of the term.
Narrator: And finally, a professional photograph
taken on assignment for Life Magazine --
a photograph from Eugene Smith's "Nurse Midwife" series.
Adams: Eugene Smith's "Spanish Village" series
and his "Midwife" series are, in my opinion,
great milestones in the development of photography.
Narrator: Portraiture in professional photography varies
all the way from what Ansel Adams has called,
"The likeness business," to what he has termed,
Here, our subject for a portrait is Julie Orinsky,
a young San Francisco artist in the non-objective idiom.
Adams: I don't do very much portraiture,
but when I do work with a subject,
I'm primarily interested in the reaction
that I have from that subject at that particular time.
I don't have any formula that I'm conscious of.
I would like to treat every subject
as a completely individual case in every respect.
One of the most important aspects of portrait photography
is what I would call the environmental portrait
which doesn't mean that a lawyer
is photographed in front of law books
or a chemist in a chemical laboratory,
but that the subject is photographed in an environment
which conveys a mood or reinforces a mood
specifically related to that particular person.
That is distinctively determined by the photographers,
not a thing that you can cerebrate on.
It's all part of what we call "the equivalent statement."
Portraiture, to me, is a very specific branch of photography,
a rather dangerous one to monkey with
unless you really have the ability
to handle people in a creative and constructive way.
To me, a portrait is much more than a likeness,
and yet at the same time, I do not feel justified
in literally directing the subject
into attitudes and expressions
of which I would think would be appropriate.
I think it is the obligation of the photographer
to reveal the subject in terms of the subject himself.
We recognize people not only by facial configuration
but both the face and the personality through time.
And that is why the so-called candid photograph,
which is merely an aspect of a person in a short slice of time,
may be either a caricature or an exaggeration
or merely nothing as far as a basic revelation
of that person's character is concerned.
And in my own work, I frankly confess
that I prefer portraiture almost on the basis of sculpture.
What I mean by that is that the person's face in repose
will very often reveal far more of the character
and the individuality of the person
than any moment of time or any slice of time
taken out of this person's configurations in movement,
if we can use that term.
The concept of photography
as based on previsualization of the image
carries through all branches of the work.
You will have a certain visualization problem
and then of course when you get to portraiture,
you have the personality problem entering in.
You can see the ideal photograph in your mind's eye,
but you have the expression of your subject to contend with.
You have to accept the constantly changing mood
and aspect of the subject,
but I would say on the whole it would be rather futile
to attempt to interpret a photograph
without really knowing what you expected to get.
And you have a higher percentage of failure with portraiture
due to conditions entirely within the subject,
but all aspects of any art are, of course,
if satisfactorily carried through,
are always carried to the highest degree
that anyone can take them.
And we really can't be careless at any time or at any place.
We very often find a competition
in one person of two major directions in photography.
One is the purely creative,
and the other is that of the expedience and a necessity
to produce images to satisfy clients.
However, any balanced worker will realize that in both cases,
the craft must be of as high order as possible,
and certain adaptation must be made.
Here in San Francisco, we have an extraordinarily capable,
gifted professional and commercial photographer,
Mr. Milton Halberstadt,
who is very well-trained in the Bauhaus approach
and has an enormous inventive capacity
and a magnificent and flexible technique.
Advertising photography is extremely complex
and has many varied functions yet is designed not to mislead,
although of course some photographs do and,
I think, intentionally.
It is primarily, to my mind,
designed to clarify and to convince.
And there are many times when certain manipulations
of the subject and of lighting and compositional aspects
have to be applied in order to create a simulation of reality.
And one of the most important differences
in this field of professional photography lies in the fact
that we have to construct or contrive scenes and subjects
in order to convey the essential points
which the client wishes the photograph
to convey to the spectator.
There is another difference between the professional
and the advanced amateur which is this
that the professional has to adapt himself to the problems
and the projects and functions of his client.
He has to be able to handle the various assignments
that come to him whereas the more or less
independent amateur will pick and choose
with much more personal satisfaction and intensity,
and that is why it is very hard sometimes for people
who have practiced and worked entirely in the creative field
much as easel painters do to adapt themselves
to an externally presented problem.
The photography of nature, unmanipulated and simple,
is one thing, but in all kinds of advertising photography,
so on, we do have problems of subject organization.
I use the word "contrivance" here not as a negative term
but as a term which colors the building of sets,
the use of varied lighting facilities,
the preparation of models, and so on.
I think that most of this work represents construction
and creation outside of the camera.
The camera then records what the photographer and the artist
produced before it,
and that's a very difference concept from the creation
of important and moving images entirely within the camera
because one must work with nature
rather than simple portraiture.
Any creative photographer in any field over the years
develops a vast resource of experience
which is safely tucked away in his subconscious
and drawn upon when required.
I like to think of this resource as being compared
to actual capital,
and at any moment when a picture problem presents itself,
he draws upon not the capital
but let's call the interest from this vast resource,
and then he puts back into his resource fund this new
and added experience.
It's very much like a musician.
He is performing a masterwork with great complexity
on the piano, for example,
and he cannot possibly think of every note
or even of every phrase as a disjointed thing.
It's a sum totaled expression of a basic concept.
Then we have this same problem in photography
which of course only experience can solve.
That is for the fund,
resource in everyone's mind and personality
which can be drawn upon
to supply the aesthetic and craft capabilities
at any given moment for any given subject.
What we call industrial photography is of course
a branch of professional photography,
and it includes everything from the very large
down to the very small in this mechanical civilization,
and even such spectacular, now obsolete objects
as this mechanical brain
from an old B-17 fire control unit
will present unlimited possibilities in composition,
resolution of the shapes and the forms
and the various metallic textures.
I had a recent assignment to do some photographs
of a rather spectacular new power plant.
Now, of course, the ideal approach would be to spend
quite a little time and making a survey
and allowing your unconscious mind
to help you in this visualization of pictures,
but in this particular case, there was not very much time,
and I had to make a rather quick survey.
And of course, as in most big factories and plants,
machinery, it involves chaos.
Forms are there,
very interesting and exciting vital forms
but is very difficult to isolate them on a very complex,
sometimes rather crummy background and environment.
The client in industrial photography
thinks he knows what he wants,
but it is very hard for a nonphotographer
to actually visualize the photograph,
and it's the job of the photographer to, more or less,
and in a kindly way, convince the client
that he himself must trust the photographer
to develop the theme once the theme is given to him.
It is very difficult, if not impossible,
for the client to photograph any industrial scene
or in any professional field without some kind of a program.
There is a kind of utility in merely
making a lot of photographs which the client says
he'll put together after the photographs are made.
You get the comparison in architecture
where architect people would be requested to design a house
without any knowledge of the site
or of the function of the structure
or the character of the people who are to live in it.
So a mixed group photographs of any one subject
may be brilliantly edited,
and there's enough of a good, exciting presentation.
But I believe it would be accepted
by all that a well-studied
and well-faced advanced program would be the most efficient
and most satisfactory approach in the long run.
In this particular case,
I concentrated on the large stacks
and made quite a symmetrical picture
trusting to the configurations of the sky behind it
to add different composition and variety.
We can have such things
as symmetry within a basic symmetrical structure,
and sometimes we achieve a strong and powerful effect
through the carefully controlled symmetry, unsymmetrical accents.
I think it is a common concept among the general public
that photo documentation or documentary photography,
as sometimes called, is confined to aspects of human misery.
This probably stems from photography's inherent capacity
to treat nostalgia as one of the dominant conditions.
There's one basic problem,
which I think affects all photographers,
and it has something to do with the invasion
of the privacy of the subject.
Yet some of the most moving photographs ever made
have been pictures made entirely unbeknown by the subject.
The subject was under conditions of intense emotions and stress,
but as long as there was dignity and reality
and truth involved in it, I believe it would be justified
in making such documentary images.
Now, to my mind,
one of the very greatest photographers of our time,
he can be called a photo journalist.
He might want to be called a photo documentarist,
or he might merely want to be called a photographer,
but I am referring to Gene Smith
whose incredible series of the "Spanish Village"
and of the "Midwife" are absolutely unsurpassed
in photography of any time and of any category.
Narrator: Gene Smith went to South Carolina
to record the story of a dedicated nurse and midwife,
Mrs. Callen drives 36,000 miles each year within her county
acting as doctor, dietitian, diagnostician, and friend
to some 10,000 people.
Maude's working day lasts 12 to 16 hours.
The only lie she permits herself
is her determined statement that she is not tired.
In Berkeley County, South Carolina,
on the edge of Hell Hole Swamp, a new baby is expected.
The child will need a warm crib.
Bottles of hot water wrapped in clean rags will do quite well.
Preparations for birth are simple.
The doctor is not a doctor but a nurse midwife,
Maude Callen, called to a cabin near Pineville late at night.
The mother, Alice, has been labor for some hours
but is resting now.
Nurse Maude has boiling water, clean rags, and Lysol ready.
Alice awakens and listens to the heartbeat
of her unborn child.
Labor starts again.
Alice begins to cry.
Her cries grow stronger, and soon a child is born.
A new day has begun.
Puddles in the road outside reflect the dull sky,
and Nurse Maude is free to drive to Pineville
where other patients will be waiting at her clinic.
Adams: Professional photography in any of its forms
has a vital part to play in our culture,
for essentially, it is a language,
a language to be spoken with clarity,
expression, and meaning.
Its most important criterion is integrity.
Narrator: This is National Educational Television.
As Ansel Adams says during this episode,
"Photography is a language,
and like any spoken or written language,
it can describe a tremendous number of things."
To be a professional photographer
means to take this language
and use it to describe an endless number of subjects,
whether those be new products for a magazine,
a portrait of an artist, or a photo-essay series.
As you've seen in this episode, the professional photographer
brings the same level of craft to their image making
regardless of the nature of the final product.
We hope you enjoyed this program from the ALL ARTS Vault.
See you next time.