Visual Review – Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams is considered to be the greatest photographer in the world. When taking into account that he lived in a non-digital world, his accurate exposures are well known for their clarity, and he also is known for promoting high aperture shoots which broke the generally accepted aesthetic standards. The photos that he took are mostly landscape photos of the national parks and coastal areas in the west coast. Influenced by his father when he was young, Adams went to many exhibits and bought his first camera the age of 14 on a trip to Yosemite National Park with his parents. Adams started his career from there. As a promoter of taking pictures through a small aperture, he formed a group called f/64 (which is the highest aperture that cameras can reach during his time). His idea of imagining the final print before taking the shoot developed into his  idea of Previsualizatioin and Zone System. This master control concept and technique allows him to control nearly all of the potential variables on the camera, and determine the best exposure and development of time for every given photo.

Since all of his pictures are mostly low aperture, we can say that all of his photos are sharp and has a greater depth of field. Although he took close ups of photos of flowers and plants, he never preferred using high apertures to get a soft image of the object.

Adam’s pictures have lines and curves, especially when it comes to rivers and deserts. For instance, one of his most famous pieces The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) portrays a meandering river across the photo, with the end of the river dividing the whole picture into two unequal portions: the mountain with the sky on top and plain that the snake river runs across.

Besides using low aperture to break the rules in his time, he used red filters to block infrared sunlight to make the sky seem dark. In his first project he shot a picture called The Face of Half Dome by using red filters. This photo became so popular because the red filters to made the sky look dark in contrast with the snow, and also because of the unique perspective of the mountain in the center, making the mountain in half as well as the whole picture.

The only portrait shot project that he ever did is Born Free and Equal: The story of Loyal Japanese-Americans. The reason for doing this is because of his frustration of seeing how unequal the Japanese people was treated after the attack on Pearl Harbor during WWII. Adams wanted to use his camera to record how “how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and dispair [sic] by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment”. One of the most famous pictures in this book have small girls standing on the playground raising their hands up like bird’s wings. The photo was taken at a low angle, relatively low aperture so that we can see other people’s hands held up, paraphrasing the children in the camp wants to be free like a bird.

Ansel Adams’s accuracy of exposure was not only considered as a masterwork back then, but also today as well. The sharp images that he took help us reproduce his pictures that are 50 years old, and the choice of composing the lines and curves are also makes landscapes elegant and gorgeous.