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ku # 461 - Ansel Adams: A Renaissance Relic

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-10F on the Saranac River #3click on photo to embiggen it
I have received my copy of Photography: A Very Short Introduction by Steve Edwards (Oxford University Press). Some might not consider a 160 page book (full of words and very few photographs) to be a "very short" introduction, but, 28 pages into it, I'm going to issue a MUST READ alert. If you're "serious" about photography, get it, read it.

One interesting tidbit that has already captured my interest is this passage; "The art-photographer Ansel Adams criticized what is probably the most famous documentary project, the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration, which produced 270,000 photographs of American society between 1935 and 1943. Adams claimed that those working for the FSA (including, Arthur Rosthstein, Dorthea Lange, and Walker Evans) were 'not photographers' but 'a bunch of sociologists with cameras'."

Now I know that Adams came around, much later in life, to appreciate some of the photography of the so-called New Togographic photographers, but this statement by Adams puts him ever so firmly in the camp of modern Romanticist/Sentimentalist landscape photographers. As I have mentioned before, I appreciate Adams' photography within the cultural and photographic paradigms during which it was created. His Zone System was truly revolutionary and the prints which he created with it are things of undeniable idealized beauty, but...

IMO, the Zone System, was a pictorialist technique which, in its own way, was little different from the early pictorialist techniques that the f64 Group (of which he was a card-carrying member) distained and "revolted" against. It was his way of subjectizing his referent, consciously and deliberately arting it up, if you will. As Steve Edwards makes clear, as far back as the 15th century, Renaissance artists were taking great pains to "infuse their work with the explicit signs of mental effort ... the creation of idealized figures that were not copies of imperfect nature ...."

Adams was certainly mining/honoring a time-honored tradition of the art world - the distain for "mere" objective (a problematic word) documentation - the artisanal, and the embrace of broad, generalized and idealized forms = Art. To put it another way, Edwards opined; "Art was characterized by its distance from the contingent features of the actual world and in this way signified the presence of an active intelligence." (arting it up).

Which is yet another way of saying, detail (literally) = documentation/copying (lowly artsanal trade/work), whereas, mental labor employed in creating "broad and general effects and idealized forms" = art (noble and of the highest pretensions).

BTW, all of these distinctions of what-is/is-not-art were codified by academia as early as 1648 with the establishment of tha Academie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris, followed by the Royal Academy in London in 1768. Nice to know that some things never change.

In any event, back to Adams. I like Adams' photography much like I like my collection of bake-o-lite radios - very interesting relics from a bygone era, which have little or no relevence (other than historic precedent) to what's happening now. As objects, I think both possess incredible and timeless beauty.

The real pity is that, for the masses, broadcast music devices (and even the notion of "broadcast") have undergone tremendous changes while photography, for the masses and the "serious" amateur, has essentially remained rooted in a paradigm that is centuries old - the need to create photographs of idealized forms and infuse them with explicit signs of mental/technical effort.

Although, it's interesting to note that much of academia, while elevating the "signs of mental effort" almost to fetishistic proportions, has nevertheless rejected traditional notions of "idealized forms".

Posted on Friday, February 16, 2007 at 09:15AM by Registered Commentergravitas et nugalis in | Comments3 Comments

Reader Comments (3)

Actually, those teens and twentysomethings with camera phones are like new "sociologists with cameras," out snapping like crazy, but it is unlikely that many of those images will survive, due to the non permanent nature of digital photography, especially in low res, throw away formats. They also face high res snobbery from folks who only take 3 dpi photos (or whatever) seriously.

February 16, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterthe wife

How can anyone possibly be objective about AA? His work is in every mall and every other calendar. How can any art work so widely accepted be really 'good?' It is but the question pops up.

One of my favorites is Joel Meyerowitz. Back in the 1990's he had some of his then current work in a Provincetown Gallery (DNA) It was great stuff -- he was experimenting with digital and had some close ups of flotsam and jetsam or drift whatever from the beach instead of what he was known for -- Cape Cod landscapes.(Might not seem different but it was) Also had very large prints of some of his 1960 - 1970's street work that he had scanned and processed in PS -- it was 1996 and he told me 'I've mastered this program.'

Well many of the folks who showed up for that show left feeling disappointed -- they wanted prints from Joel's famous book 'Cape Light' -- those are great but I always thought -- good for you Joel -- grow or die as an artist and you picked life!

February 16, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterFrank Winters

This sounds a bit heretical, Mark, to call St. Ansel a pictoralist, when that was the style he was vehemently opposed to. But there is no doubt that he was creating an idealized vision of beauty, and by implication an entire industry of creators and consumers of a type of imagery.

Ask 1000 people to name 5 photographers they know, and I'd bet St. Ansel is the only name that would be on every list. Why is that?

February 17, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKent Wiley

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