Afternoon Thoughts on Photographing Where Ansel Adams Shot
Anyone who grew up admiring Ansel Adams books on photography as much as I did probably feels an urge to see if they can duplicate the works of the master. Stand where Adams did, shoot what he shot. I admit that I do at least. But this test of photographic skill, it's a curious one.
When I was young, my only firsthand knowledge of outdoor photography was what my father shot on family vacations. My role in this body of work was to stand with my siblings next to the signpost marker in front of the attraction of interest. I didn't own a camera myself back then. I did say I was young. At any rate, the results were later projected as 35mm transparencies during a "slide show" once the stack of yellow boxes arrived back from Kodak. They weren't so much "works of art" or anything, but they were nice reminders of our travels. This sort of ritual is one of my fondest recurring memories of childhood.
Over the years, our family visited many of the national parks in the western United States. Some of those same scenic areas also served as frequent subject matter for noted landscape photographer Ansel Adams. Some became national parks in part due to his efforts. My introduction to Adams's work came mainly from a series of his books that were staples of nearly every book store back in the days before the Internet made such access just a click away from your living room couch. Again, this was a few years ago now.
And with all due respect to both of these great men and photographic influences, Ansel Adams was a better photographer than my father. Let's face it. One of them made their living off their photography and the other one didn't. when I began my own involvement in photography, I couldn't resist the temptation to try my hand at one of his famous vistas. Again, I'm talking about Ansel Adams's famous vistas here. Sorry, dad.
Most of Ansel Adams best known images were shot with a great degree of pre-planning and attention to detail. You had to be in exactly that spot to get everything to line up just that way. Camera settings and the weather, seasons and time of day all had to come together in a well-orchestrated composition at the precise moment the shutter release was pressed. It wasn't easy for him. And it sure as heck was hard for me sometimes.
Learning to be a photographer by mimicking the greats such as Ansel Adams can be an interesting challenge. Things have changed in so many ways over the years. I've found large trees where appeared only small saplings in the Adams photo I was attempting to replicate. Guard rails alongside the now paved road. Or clear-cut forest across the valley. But even when things have worked out as per my hopes and Ansel Adams's vision, its worth considering whether striving for such shots is teaching photographers what they really need to be learning.
It's not that it can't be an aid, but it doesn't really lend itself to developing your own vision. It may force you into finally figuring out how exposure and depth of field work. It may coax you into getting up before sunrise to get the shot you really want. The one that Ansel Adams had to have gotten up for some years ago. Honing your craft by replicating Ansel Adams's best work doesn't really do that much to help with finding your own shots in pursuit of your own personal best. For that, it takes you out there, camera in hand, seeing what you see. And then following what interests you until it leads you to just that one perfect expression of that interest.
Ansel Adams inspired me by showing what was possible with photography. But I think my father did more to teach me about photography than did Adams. I mean, based on an admiration of Ansel Adams work, I might easily have become more of an art patron than an artist. But it was my father who showed me that photography was something that real people did. And that meant I probably could too. I can't recall him so much as teaching me about the controls on a camera or anything, but he was definitely my introduction to the craft of what photographers actually did. And that's important. Sorry, Ansel.
In the end, perhaps both are important. My father got me started on the practical side of photography by copying what he did. Learning by example and all that. But Ansel Adams and others showed me the possibility of photography as an artistic expression beyond merely recording basic events for posterity. Photography could have an impact, embody a feeling, or make a statement.
And perhaps the two aren't really all that different when you get right down to it. Both a form of learning by example. Standing where the greats once stood and working to live up to their example can help show what is possible. And once we know that, it's up to each one of us to act on it.