Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea

On the 14th December, I went to visit an exhibition of the work by Ansel Adams. This wasn’t just the first time I had ever been to visit an photography exhibition, but the first art exhibition I had ever been to as well.

Before making the visit, I had previously heard of Adams, which is unsurprising as he is regularly referred to in lists of most the most famous photographers (1 & 2). However, I’d not researched him in anyway so my knowledge was limited to two preconcieved ideas:

  1. Adams was an American photographer who focused on producing Black and White landscape images.
  2. Adams is often used as an example of how post production isn’t something new with the advent of digital photography and he was reputed to be a master in the dark room.

These basic preconceived ideas on what Adams’ photography was about really appealed to me as I find Black and White images fascinating and if there was just one type of photography I could focus on in my life time, it would be landscapes.

The exhibition was held in Greenwich, London, at the National Maritime Museum and was titled Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea. The photographs were organised into the following sections:

  • Beginnings
  • Sea and Surf
  • Coast
  • Monumental
  • Rivers
  • Waterfalls
  • Rapids
  • Surface and Texture
  • Snow and Ice
  • Geysers
  • Clouds and Reflection

Starting at Beginnings, I was in for quite a shock. I was expecting all the images to be really large prints but I was faced with quite small, out of focus, images printed onto textured paper. I was unknowingly getting my first experience of pictorialism. The information around the images was describing Adams career starting in the early 1900’s and that, at the time, photographers could only be considered artists if the images they produced resembled drawings or paintings. I’m glad to say, that following the First World War, peoples opinions began to change, the cameras abilities began to be accepted and a new movement was started, with Adams taking a leading role, known as Photographic Modernism. I’m glad that this movement took place because I didn’t enjoy the pictorialist style.

Moving on to the other sections, the pictures started to resemble the kind of images I had imagined but we still weren’t up to the really large prints. The Sea and Surf section, showed an example of how Adams liked to freeze motion in water such that he wouldn’t be able to predict how the images were going to look. This is a concept I can currently only image. Having only taken an interest in photography in the digital era, I have yet to really experience analogue photography using film and having to wait days or weeks to see the types of images that you had captured. Looking at the series of images, I tried to image Adams trying to capture the different stages of water flow and although I liked the idea, I didn’t find the sequence of images as captivating as the idea.

Getting to the Monumental section was the when we really start to see the huge images Adams put together. The exhibition provided some technical details that I would previously not have considered. Having to go through the development process, Adams would be having to project his negatives from an enlarger onto the photographic paper in his darkroom but the paper and equipment to project these sizes of image in one go wasn’t available. Adams was having to build the images in pieces and finally assemble them into the finished product. Later in the exhibition, a video talked about how Adams would spend weeks in the dark room trying to perfect a print in a way that he wanted. Not being able to see the image as a whole must have taken an incredible amount of processing skill as even looking at the images reasonably close, you still don’t notice the joins in the paper unless you look for them.

Looking at all the images in the exhibition, I tried to concentrate on how my eyes would look through the images and how I would discover the different sections. Adams seems to place the lighter parts of the images in really interesting positions, using lines and triangles, so that it felt like you were being drawn into the landscape. Often, these light areas seemed to be split between the top and bottom of the image, roughly on the thirds, which would introduce tension to the image and have my eyes bouncing up and down discovering more each time.

Finally, in the video, it mentioned how Cartier Bresson, another famous photographer from the same period as Adams, had criticised Adams for focusing on landscapes and not capturing the major and important events that were happening at the time. I found this criticism quite an interesting thought and I think it shows how photographs and photography can be used to capture and document many different aspects of our lives.

Having visited the exhibition, I’ve been inspired and influenced to try putting some of the things I saw in Adams’ images into my own images and post production:

Walton Sea 1

Walton Long Exposure

Walton Sea 2



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