Ansel Adams leaves me cold!

I have admired the landscape photography of Ansel Adams for about 30 years. However, it has never excited me. His photography is always technically superb, but I have rarely found his landscapes images stirring me emotionally. This may sound heretical but, for me, Adam’s images are little more than stunning records of sublime landscapes. The subject is beautiful, but the photograph has little to add to it. What am I missing?

Please note that I am particularly discussing Adam’s large vista landscape photographs and not his intimate floral, tree or architectural images which I do find engaging both artistically and emotionally.  Ansel Adams – El Capitan

Perhaps, like the landscape painters of the Hudson River School who invented, overly dramatized scenes, such as below, Adam’s photographs are somehow unbelievable. Adams maybe making photographs, but their reality feels questionable.Thomas Cole – Scenes from the Last of the Mohicans

In part I believe this lack of credibility is due to Adam’s images not having any signs of human presence. Without such evidence, human constructs or traces, such scenes might as well be invented. Personally, I need to see that other humans have been to a location to believe in it. I am more interested in, and find it easier to engage with, a landscape when there is evidence that humans have interacted with the location. A pristine, “natural landscape” was in Adam’s time and is still a rare if not impossible location.

Thomas Cole’s painting does include humans. But it is a painting and therefore cannot be a wholly accurate portrayal of reality. For photographs, there is a long-held misconception that they do accurately record reality, but this has never been true. Since as long ago as the 1840’s photographs have been manipulated and, anyway, every photograph is inherently the photographer’s edit of the world and time, not a whole reality.

Conversely, from the first time I became aware of the New Topographic photographers, especially Robert Adams, and Lewis Baltz, I was excited and felt emotionally connected with their rendering of banal subjects as something worthy of being appreciated and investigated. Somehow, their ability to depict the mundane as (albeit accidentally) beautiful resonates with me. I am interested in understanding what it is they are trying to say about a scene. When I feel they have created beauty out of the banal then I am drawn into the image to try and understand why and to create my own meanings.

However, going back to my original argument, at a recent conference on landscape photography I saw 2 very successful and highly considered landscape photographers showing and discussing their work. They were Charlie Waite and Colin Prior. This was interesting because, like with Ansel Adams, I admire the craft of these photographers, but I often fail to be engaged by their images. Again, what am I missing?

Charlie Waite showed the following image: https://goo.gl/images/amYhtP

My immediate reaction was that the sky was too visually noisy, and this conflicted strongly with the calm, soft beauty of the sand dunes. The two elements seem to be fighting with one another and this had a negative effect on me. Charlie Waite said that his sister had surprised him when she described the sky as “too chaotic”. So, I am not alone! Was Charlie Waite only aware of the drama in the scene and overlooking the emotional conflict?

https://goo.gl/images/KFf4ox  This image by Colin Prior (Liathach and Beinn Eighe) captures a sublime, dawn scene in difficult winter conditions that took real effort and skills to make. It is beautiful but, after a few seconds of viewing, I am left wondering what it is trying to say. There does not, for me, appear to be any meaning, message or alternative way of seeing the world being proposed by such an image. Perhaps my wish for images to convey more than just (accepted) beauty is limiting my appreciation.

Both these photographers, and their success, seems to be predicated upon being able to access and record moments and locations in dramatic ways that most of their viewers could not hope to emulate. Are they selling a dream, an overly romantic view of the world, that I consider to be an unachievable fiction, for most people, most of the time. Are they selling their visions of heaven?

On the few occasions when I have been in such dramatic places and experienced the light, the solitude, the moment then I have felt spiritually uplifted. Note, I am not a spiritual person, so these occasions are rare. However, a photograph of such a time (as shown below) will rekindle those emotions within me but someone else’s images of the same or similar places and moments will still leave me cold. For this image I have a personal connection and knowledge that I cannot achieve by looking at others’ photographs.Krafla, Iceland.

Usually, and perhaps contrarily, when I am in such moments, I will take a single picture then put the camera away in order to fully concentrate on the moment, the experience. For me, enjoying the experience itself is far more important than the recording of it which can never be more than a trigger for an inadequate memory.

 

 

Glen Coe & Ullapool field trips

Please note words such a Spectacular and Juxtaposition where the first letter is capitalised indicates it is a word whose use I have specifically defined elsewhere in my researches.

In late October I had a total of 10 days photography, first leading a group of photographers on a holiday around Glen Coe and Ardgour, then with friends around Ullapool. Both trips were focused on general landscape photography rather than my usual subject, “human constructs in the landscape”.

Weather conditions and the autumnal colours resulted in many more Spectacular images than I would usually make. These encouraged me to be more adventurous in my subject matter and my approach to the lighting. Another significant factor for the changes was the new knowledge that ~75% of my Successful images are driven far more by Shapes and the Juxtaposition of shapes than any other factor. Formerly I had believed the narrative potential implicit in the Juxtapositions of human constructs and the landscape was always the primary driver.

Fallen Pines

The 2 factors initiating this image were the Spectacular light (colours) and the straight lines of the fallen trunks forming triangles against the vertical, parallel trunks behind. In other words, geometry.

So, this image has Juxtaposition (leading to a Conscious Design) and Spectacle (Colours) as the triggers for its making.

It is a plantation of trees, hence a human construct, but it would be over-stretching my concept to suggest that was in a factor in my making of this image. It was not!

Autumn Glade

Again, the Spectacular colours were a trigger for this imager as they beckon the viewer into the scene. There is also strong Narrative potential with the narrow path formed by the trees leading towards a darker, unknowable destination. This effect is enhanced by the fallen truck appearing to block access and the branch above framing the entrance.

These contradictory factors led me into Recognizing a “Little Red Riding Hood” type of Narrative where the colours encourage adventure, but the narrowing, darker, overhung path does not. The image was Consciously Designed to enhance these effects.

There is no obvious human construct in this image. Any human connotations are created by the imagination and do not exist in reality.

Reeds

Again, no human construct but the stark shapes are geometric, especially when emphasised by the reflections.

The calm water, soft light and the (almost Oriental) simplicity of the composition create an ambiance that reflected my own zen mood at the time of taking.

A friend, Muriel Robertson, compares this image to written characters, again, perhaps, Oriental.

This was a Conscious Design based upon the Juxtaposition of Shapes and reflections.

Lochailort junction

Shapes and Colours drove this piece of Conscious Design. The inclusion of Armco barrier and the bushes was an after-thought designed to give scale and to indicate that this is not a natural cliff but is actually a roadside cutting.

This is an unusual case of my conscious compositional enhancements having a very positive impact on the success of the final image. Without these extra elements there is no context and the image becomes little more than a pattern picture.

Glen Etive

This image is purely driven by Spectacle. It is all about the dramatic lighting, colours and composition. There is a human construct present, the road, but it does not create any significant Narrative Potential as there is very little ambiguity in the scene. It is a Successful document of a moment, however the image has little long-term interest for me.

Connel Bridge viewpoint.

This final image was taken on a day where the light was flat and the autumnal colours quite weak. Consequently, I reverted to type and looked for the humour in the Juxtapositions of human constructs and the natural landscape.

Conclusions

  1. Human constructs contain geometric shapes that attract attention and have narrative potential when set against the landscape. However, tree trunks, especially those of pine trees, and reeds in water can also form geometric shapes that attract, even although they may not encourage a narrative.
  2. Banality, like Narrative has been a constant presence in my images to-date. However, in this set of images there is no banality when the human construct is missing or only appears in the imagination. That is, the first 3 images.
  3. I don’t see these images as a change of direction but as an expansion of my willingness to experiment as I learn more about my practice and motivations.

How to define a “Successful” image

In order to understand the conscious and unconscious motivations behind my landscape practice I first needed to decide which images were “successful” and which were not. The thinking here is that an unsuccessful image can be a failure for any number of reasons whereas the successful image probably only has a few contributing characteristics. Therefore, it is the study of successful images that will be most effective as a strategy for uncovering what drives my image making processes. Later, I will need to test these findings against a set of unsuccessful images to look for any inconsistencies of thought or process.

As this is an autoethnographic study aimed at understanding my own practice and my own perceptions, this has to be measured against my personal criteria, not that of other viewers. Initially, the only criterium that I could articulate was that a successful image is, one that excited me at the time of making, a day later, a month later, etc. This, purely emotional, test proved to be a good tactic for sorting the successful from the rest but failed to tell me anything about why one image was good and another just average.

Using this methodology, I initially tested ~2500 landscape images taken over the last 10 years and rated just 186 as being successful images. Note, these 2500 images were images already deemed to be anything from excellent to acceptable. Any failures or unacceptable images had already been eliminated from the ~20,000 taken during that 10 year period. Over the next months I added a few recent images and started analysing the successful ones for which characteristics of the scene had “triggered”1 me to make the image and for their different types of “content”2. This was an iterative process which caused me to upgrade some additional images to the successful category and to reject others as my understanding and definitions of the various triggers and contents was clarified. The number of successful images was now 204. However, this process also revealed that not all successful images are equal. I was prompted to further segment the successful group into A, B & C categories based upon the degree of excitement that I felt about an image. Again, this is useful as a working model but is still an emotional, unquantifiable characteristic that needs to be further understood and defined.

There are now just 104 images classified as “A”, my very best images. Re-evaluating these images, I have tried to articulate why they excite me.

First, every one of these 104 images has captured and now evokes the feelings of calm, silence, isolation and insignificance that I felt at the time I made the photograph. These are not negative experiences but a recreation of previous moments in life when I have felt most joyful and free. Like Robert Adams, I too have lived in the prairies of Colorado and can perfectly relate to his comment in the Forward to his book “Prairie” (1978):

“There is everywhere silence – a silence in thunder, in wind, in the call of doves, even a silence in the closing of a pickup door.”  Robert Adams

If I consider one of my images has captured such emotions in the way Robert Adam’s images have done, then I am excited.

Secondly, I am excited when I have perceived something I believe is unique, that I am seeing and interpreting the scene in ways no-one else has ever done before. Often this is where the image reveals to me an “accidental beauty”3 in the arrangements of its man-made and the natural elements or a new perspective that encourages the viewer to ask why, to look for metaphor, to create narratives. As stated by Sean O’Hagan in the Guardian, talking about Robert Adams, I also want to be an:

“artist whose work demands close attention – and a degree of patient attentiveness – from the viewer.” Sean O’Hagan

To do this the image must not just be new but also obviously different so that a reaction, even if it is one of dismissal, is caused. Just like the New Topographic photographers (Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, in particular) I aim to depict the banal4 as accidentally beautiful. Adams used the qualities of light, Baltz uses the geometrical shapes of buildings, my trope is the juxta-positioning5 of human constructs against apparently natural landscapes.

Definitions

Trigger – my trigger words describe what had catalysed my pressing of the shutter. They are: Design (conscious), Design (unconscious), Intuition, Belief, Recognition and Spectacle.  How these were derived, and their definitions are explained in other essays.

Content – words that describe the content of my images, when later reviewed are: Narrative Potential, Incongruity, Light, Shapes, Isolation and Power/Subordinate. These words describe the dominant elements of the content. Most images have at least 2 appropriate content words. How these were derived, and their definitions are explained in other essays.

Accidental Beauty – is when the unplanned positioning of unrelated objects and elements in a scene cause a pleasing, a humorous or an intriguing arrangement. This is “found art” and not the deliberately constructed compositions of the Still Life artist. The expressionist sculptor, David Smith, described his triggers for accidental beauty as follows:

“They can begin with any idea. They can begin with a found object. They can begin with no object. They can begin, sometimes, even when I’m sweeping the floor and I stumble and kick a few parts that happen to form an alignment that sets me off thinking, sets off a vision”. Smith, D.

Or as described by photographer, Andy Wohl, on his website:

“I do not look for typically “beautiful” scenes; landscapes, flowers, animals but find more potential in the random and accidental arrangements of chairs in a courtyard, a pile of cardboard boxes or the still life arrangement of common, mundane and even homely objects found at hardware stores, grocers, garden supply stores, bait and tackle shops and antique shops.”  Andy Wohl.

Banal – “So lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring.” Oxford Living Dictionaries, viewed at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/banal on 08/10/18

Juxtaposition – everyone one of my images, other than those triggered by Spectacle, have the juxta-positioning of a human construct or traces against its environment as the key (although, not necessarily the largest) element of the composition.

Bibliography

O’Hagan, S. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/feb/16/robert-adams-photographer-sense-place  viewed on 7/10/18

Smith D. The Search for Accidental Beauty, a video published by SFMOMA, viewed at https://www.sfmoma.org/david-smith-and-the-search-for-accidental-beauty/ on 08/10/18

Wohl A. Accidental Beauty, viewed at https://accidentalbeauty.smugmug.com/ on 08/10/18