| Ansel Adams in Color |
By Ansel Adams
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QUEST FOR COLOR
By James L. Enyeart
It will be of no little surprise to the public and scholars alike that Ansel Adams made more than three thousand color transparencies. He is, of course, known for his blackandwhite photography elegant, silverladen tableaux of naturewhich changed American landscape photography from being essentially documentary and derivative of nineteenthcentury painting to an expression of purely photographic drama and effect. His unique vision and technical virtuosity inspired a school of followersstudents, imitators, and admirerswho make up the largest, most coherent photographic audience of this century.
However, what remains largely unknown to the public is the extent of Ansel Adams' involvement with color photography. He actively and persistently explored color for over forty years. He not only made photographs in the form of color transparencies, but also published articles on color, exhibited a selection of prints in the exhibition "Color Photography" in 1950 at the Museum of Modern Art, and left nearly two hundred pages of letters and notes on his philosophy of color photography. It was his belief that color would become, along with electronic imaging, the medium of the future it had been his intention to produce a book on the aesthetics of color, the fifth volume in his technical series, though he denied it would be a technical book. The notes and letters quoted here were drafted by Adams with that book in mind. Thus, while most of his involvement with color, with the exception of commercial assignments, remained unknown to the public, Adams developed within the privacy of his own studio an appreciation for color as an art form.
In one version of a draft introduction to the planned color book (1978), Adams explained his basic reason for publicly addressing his concerns for color photography so late in life:
I should state here that most of my readers do not think of me as being a color photographer. In fact, I have given the impression of being hostile towards it. During my professional years I did a lot of work with Kodachrome. I never engaged in color printing, but I did concern myself with printing press reproductions, Were I entering photography now as a young man I undoubtedly would deeply concern myself with color. I stayed with blackandwhite simply because I enjoyed the controls the process offered. However, I feel strongly that color photography is one of the major expressions of our time. I have applied visualization and the zone system to a great variety of color images and I find both are compatible and effective.
Yet his ongoing quest to apprehend color as a medium of personal expression and his sometin1es optimistic statements about color represent only part of the story. Color presented three issues of artistic concern that plagued Adams throughout his life: reality, control, and aesthetics. Each in its own way prevented him from ever fully engaging the medium as an artistic endeavor. These concerns are examined in depth in the text that follows. Moreover, Adams maintained deep feelings of selfdoubt in respect to his own color efforts. Late in his life he wrote:
I have done no color of consequence for thirty years! I have a problem with colorI cannot adjust to the limited controls of values and colors. With blackandwhite I feel free and confident of results.
However, I have done some color in the past which is acceptable.... The Kodachromes have lasted the best of all. I am perplexed over what to do about the good transparencies, as some are worthy of preservation.
It is the intention of this book to present Ansel Adams' unpublished color legacy. This essay provides a historical context for understanding Adams' experiments with the medium of color photography, and, to the extent that appreciation for his work is also gained, the history of photography is better served.
Considering all that has occurred in color photography since Adams' death in 1984, our eyes may be more accepting and understanding of his work than his were in his own time. Adams was plagued with a neverending search for confidence in his own color images, even though he recognized the accomplishments of others. It was decided, therefore, that it would be appropriate to invite a fellow artist, one of his peers, to select examples of his color work for reproductionto hold tlp a mirror, as it were, to history.
Harry Callahan, a photographer of Adams' generation (he is now eighty) who has often expressed the debt he owes to Adams in terms of his own work, enthusiastically accepted an invitation to apply his visual sensibilities to this task. Esteemed as one of America's greatest visual poets and admired for his color and blackandwhite work, Callahan is a virtual magician in selecting from the world at large objects of significance and recreating their scale, light, and position so that they become altogether new visions of reality.
It was, after all, an altered reality that had moved him in 1941 when he first saw Adams' blackandwhite landscape photographs. Even more important, he gained an appreciation of technical control, which Adams provided in his Detroit lecture of that year and in subsequent meetings whenever Callahan needed to test a technical idea. When he saw Adams' prints for the first time and heard his explanation of process, Callahan realized fully that he too would be able to make prints that would satisfy his own aesthetic desires and abilities.
Callahan readily agreed to apply his keen visual perception, "what looks good" in his words, to making this selection of Adams' photographs. Adams did not consider his many commercial works to be part of his personal creations, so the selection was limited to the landscapes that he had produced for his own pleasure and satisfaction. Callahan selected the fifty works in this book from nearly a thousand transparencies. His method was intuitive and straightforward; he described it as "selecting those things that pleased me." And this is as it should be between one artist and another. If color in one image had slightly shifted through the years this was of no concern to Callahan. He responded to his task as a contemporary artistvisuallywithout justification, adjustments for historical reasons, or concern for what the image might once have looked like. The task before him, as he saw it, was to select the best pictures according to what his eye had taught him over the past fifty years.
Callahan never involved himself in Adams' philosophical defense of not making color photographic prints or, for that matter, his photographic philosophizing in general. He admired much of Adams' work, and that was sufficient reason for his aesthetic interests; he did not need nor did he want explanation of the creative process.
Callahan could accept the idea that Adams chose never to make prints from his color work, especially in view of the limitations and changes in materials over the years. Just as artists like Adams and Callahan were beginning to explore the aesthetic value of color with confidence, their primary choice of materials began to disappear. Dyetransfer printing, which required three separation negatives (one for each primary color of cyan, magenta, and yellow), allowed a considerable amount of control. Three relief matrices made from the separation negatives were dyed and transferred to a photographic paper base, resulting in rich, saturated color prints. Adams experimented in one or two cases with it, but Callahan produced a substantial body of color work by this process. Unfortunately, dyetransfer was no longer widely available by the mid1980s.
Callahan felt about dyetransfer printing the same way that Paul Strand felt about platinum prints: once the ideal process was no longer possible, then one's judgment of quality had to be based solely on content. The loss of a print's unique visual appearance, its syntax, produced by a particular technique like dyetransfer eroded the base of its particular color aesthetic. Both artists tried a few other
Color printing techniques without satisfaction. Callahan. therefore. looked at Adams' color transparencies in the same way. He selected images based on their content without concern for what they might have been as color prints.
In order to appreciate Adams' work in color and his seemingly contradictory feelings of apprehension of and attraction to the medium, some background information is necessary. Hence, let us probe briefly into the history of color photography and then examine Adams' actual involvement with color, and his fundamental artistic concerns.
Prevailing attitudes about color photography before and during Adams' career played an important role in fostering his reticence toward, and his simultaneous desire to master, what he called "a beguiling medium."
From as early as 1843 Henry Fox Talbot had offered through his photographic establishment in Reading and in his London studio handcolored calotypes of both portraits and scenes. He sold them for twice the cost of a print in its original monochrome form. But Talbot was not enthusiastic about the results.
Hand coloring of photographs, including cartes de visite and cabinet cards of the 1850s and 1860s, not to mention daguerreotypes, was part of the commercial bias that condescended to a public desire for natural color images. But like Talbot, those interested in the aesthetic potential of the medium had less than enthusiastic thoughts about the introduction of such color. J. H. Croucher, an American photographer, made the following statement in an 1853 book about the daguerreotype process:
While it is true that a little colour may relieve the dark metallic look of some daguerreotypes, it must not be concealed that the covering of the fine delicate outlines and exquisite gradations of tone of a good picture with such a coating [hand tinting] is barbarous and inartistic. The prevailing taste is, however, decidedly for coloured proofs, and the following directions will assist the amateur in ministering to this perverted taste, should he be so inclined.
Croucher presaged the sentiments of most photographers who practiced conventional monochrome photography as an art form well into the last quarter of the twentieth century.
In a similar vein the issue of the public's attraction to colored images centered on the curious debate photographers have always had among themselves about their medium, that of reality. To the general public, photography has always represented a means of capturing reality, and color serves only to enhance the illusion. For photographers, photography has historically been either a vessel of truth (documentary) or an abstraction (personal interpretation), but it has never been confused with reality. Color seemed to beg the question of reality for both the public and photographers.
Adams' own statements reflect the ongoing prejudice and fear of color photography among the medium's practitioners well into our century. Exactly one hundred and thirty years after the condemnation of coloring photographs by Croucher, Adams wrote an elaborate statement on the same subject, found in notes written on March 22, 1983
Color photography is a beguiling medium in that it offers some apparent simulation of reality, to which the majority of the public respond. Because of economic necessity, the development of color has been keyed to popular demand (much more than blackandwhite photography), and the approach to professional work has focused on "realism " of color and failsafe technology.
The tastemakers in color photography are the manufacturers, advertisers in general and the public with their insatiable appetite for the 'snappy snapshot." I have come to the conclusion that the understanding and appreciation of color involves. The illusion that the color photograph represents the colors of the world as we think we perceive them to be. The images are, at best, poor simulations, but the perceptive alchemy translates the twodimensional picture into the common world of experience. Picture reality is a philosophical and psychological impossibility. Color pictures are so ubiquitous that the casual viewer comes to accept them as the true "reality ", the color process reveals for them the real world, which is not hard to understand because the "real world" is, for most people, an artifact of the industrial/material surround. The colors of the urban environment are for the most part far more garish and "unrelated" than we find in nature. The Creator did not go to art school and natural color, while more gentle and subtle, seldom has what we call aesthetic resonance.
Color is seen as a debased desire on the part of an unknowing public, who values a semblance of reality over the personal vision of a photographer expressed in blackandwhite. Aesthetic judgment held little sway over the magic and mystery of an illusion that looked just like things seemed to be in life, no matter how ordinary. The photographer was left with the inevitable pain of knowing that the majority of people could not appreciate "the fine delicate outlines and exquisite gradations of tone" in 1853 and 1983 alike.
The first actual color photographic process, as opposed to hand coloring of photographs, that approximates the technology we know today and that Adams experienced in his time was published as a theory by Clerk Maxwell (a Scotsman) in 1855. It was, however, a Frenchman, Louis Ducos du Hauron, who put theory to practice and produced examples as part of the publication of his own color process in 1869. Ducos du Hauron gave to blackandwhite photography the original color process of mixing colors by using filters, a technical manifestation of his desire to achieve color separations for book illustration and for reproductions of works of art.
Ducos du Hauron's invention of the color separation process failed commercially for a variety of reasons, but it inspired a rapid sequence of improvements. In 1880 Charles Cros (also French) published a method of making color prints (imbibition) that is considered the precursor to modern dyetransfer color printing, which until its recent demise was itself the preferred printing process by artists. In 1892 an American, Frederick Ives, developed an apparatus called the Kromstop, which resembled a stereo viewer, to view simultaneously three colorseparation negatives through a mirrored sequence, resulting in a fullcolor image. It was reported to have been "invaluable for evening parties, at homes, conversations, garden parties, etc. and is the most beautiful invention of the nineteenth century."
From the first handcolored prints and daguerreotypes to various inventions and improvements in color photography at the end of the nineteenth century, color was enthusiastically received only by the public and then for the wrong reasons, according to photographers. The public sought pastimes and entertainment that increased the illusion of reality as a curiosity. Photographers of serious aesthetic intent developed an innate prejudice against color photography over time that lasted well into the latter part of the twentieth century. This attitude and desensitization to color in photography had residual effects on Photography.
Just after the turn of the century there appeared for a brief period a new color process that raised hope for truly aesthetic possibilities. The Lumière brothers in France announced in 1904 that Autochrome process, which created the equivalent of a color transparency on glass, usually within a 4 x 5inch camera format. The colors were vivid, yet were separated by delicate soft edges created by the slightly granular texture of the emulsion.
No less than Adams' greatest aesthetic mentor, Alfred Stieglitz, declared the new medium a marvel and a success: "Gentlemen, color photography is now an established fact." Stieglitz is reported to have spoken these words as he introduced a special demonstration of the process on September 27, 1907, in his gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue.
In 1921, long before Adams had come under the charismatic influence of Stieglitz, he had tried his own hand at the Autochrome process. It was, to the best of our knowledge, his first experiment with color, which he described in a letter of 1921 to his future wife, Virginia Best. In 1921, however, Adams was still more naturalist and pianist than photographer, so his very early experiment with color and his enthusiasm for the medium are all the more remarkable. He was entranced by the luminosity of the Autochrome and the relative ease of making a color image with a single exposure. In fact, Adams never lost this initial attraction to the vibrancy of the transparency, carrying it forward with him throughout his career, referring time and again in his notes on color to his preference for color transparencies over prints.
The Autochrome survived into the early 1930S, but then died a quiet death when it was replaced in 1936 by 35mm Kodachrome and by sheet film Kodachrome in 1938. At about this same time, in 1937, another photographer of great accomplishment, László MoholyNagy, was expressing his views on color photography, while Adams was formulating his own thoughts on the matter. There is no evidence that Adams was aware of MoholyNagy's paper "Paths to the Unleashed Colour Camera," published in the Penrose Annual. Nevertheless, MoholyNagy's was an important voice in American photography and art in 1937, when he opened the New Bauhaus school in Chicago. His views, in whatever ambient form they might have reached Adams, most certainly contributed to the general aesthetic attitude of the period.
MoholyNagy's essay was both an acknowledgment and a prediction that color photography was about to be "unleashed" from its cumbersome past: "Colour Photography still sets itself the same tasks which the best photographers of the pioneer period were already solving a century ago.'' He went on to predict that new singleexposure cameras would set the color photographer free by making it possible to make colored snapshots by which he meant images that incorporate the unusual angles and points of view characteristic of the blackandwhite photographs of the original Bauhaus. He also introduced the idea that, in the future, the new medium could be used to produce color photograms and abstractions.
He provided an analysis of Cezanne as the basis for color photography, tracing three periods of the painter's work, which naturally culminates in abstraction and color tensions.
This issue of abstraction, evident in the early stages of color photography, would present difficulties for Adams throughout his search for a color aesthetic. MoholyNagy's concept could not be further from Adams' own. More than once in his notes Adams referred to his impatience with and dislike for abstract color photographs. His dilemma with color photography becomes apparent: he cannot accept it as a representation of reality and, at the same time, he is very suspicious of abstraction, and in particular, as he says, "I thoroughly dislike 'abstract' color photography that merely apes abstract painting!"
Excerpted from Ansel Adams in Color, by Ansel Adams . Copyright (c) 1993 by the trustees of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top