| The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography: Book 1 Revised |
By Ansel Adams and John P. Schaefer
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The Language of Photography
All art is a vision penetrating the illusions of reality, and photography is one form of this vision and revelation.
A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed, and is, thereby, a true manifestation of what one feels about life in its entirety. This visual expression of feeling should be set forth in terms of a simple devotion to the medium. It should be a statement of the greatest clarity and perfection possible under the conditions of its creation and production.
My approach to photography is based upon my belief in the vigor and values of the world of nature, in aspects of grandeur and minutiae all about us. I believe in people, in the simpler aspects of human life, in the relation of man to nature. I believe man must be free, both in spirit and in society, that he must build strength into himself affirming the enormous beauty of the world and acquiring the confidence to see and to express
his vision. And I believe in photography as one means of expressing this affirmation and of achieving an ultimate happiness and faith.
Language is mankind's most important invention. Through it we communicate and share experiences, emotions, and abstract thoughts. The spoken and the written word are two aspects of language and communication, and visual images are another. The successful photographer is a master of the language in which he communicates, the language of light and form.
Photography is a visual language. It can touch and stimulate our deepest emotions and convey moods ranging from lyrical to somber. Ansel Adams was one of photography's greatest practitioners, a master of the art of making explicit insights, experiences, and philosophy through memorable images. He used photography as a medium to communicate his concerns and values. In his view,
The picture we make is never made for us alone; it is, and should be, a communicationto reach as many people as possible without dilution of quality or intensity.... To the complaint "There are no people in these photographs," I respond, "There are always two people; the photographer and the viewer."
Imagine how different our lives would be without the photograph. In most families every single event of any importance is captured on film. Pictures and snapshots are shared with friends, proud grandparents, and schoolmates, and they even appear in hometown newspapers when the occasion demands. Most of us begin our involvement with photography through the snapshot, and Ansel was no exception.
When I first made snapshots in and around Yosemite, I was casually making a visual diaryrecording where I had been and what I had seenand becoming intimate with the spirit of wild places. Gradually my photographs began to mean something in themselves; they became records of experiences as well as of places. People responded to them and my interest in the creative potential of photography grew apace.
It is tempting to adopt a casual attitude toward snapshots. Their enormous number and universal presence make it easy to dismiss them as something less than "serious" photographs. Ansel did not share this view:
The snapshot is not as simple a statement as some may believe. It represents something each of us has seenmore as human beings than as photographersand wants to keep as a memento, a special thing encountered. The little icons that return from the photo-finisher provide recollections of events, people, and places; they stir memories and create phantasies. Through the billions of snapshots made each year a visual history of our times is recorded in enormous detail.
While to many the snapshot is a symbol of thoughtlessness and chance, it is a flash of recognitionsomething which for many reasons we wish to perpetuate. It may have real human and historic value. The more we look, the more we see, and the more we see, the more we respond. When we begin visualizing our responses to the world in terms of images, we become photographers in the most rewarding sense of the term.
In any language, if you want to learn how to write, you must first learn how to read. Photographs must also be read, just as we read the words in a book. Photographs, like words, are abstractions, and through light, form, and colorthey generate emotional reactions and responses. We listen to what they say with our eyes, not with our ears.
To move your level of competence beyond that required to make a snapshot, you must develop skill in reading photographs. Just as adding new words to your vocabulary increases your ability to express ideas, gaining an understanding of photographic principles and techniques and how to use them to create visual symbols enables you to generate moods in photographs to reinforce the messages you want to convey. Many of the examples in this book represent an attempt to analyze photographs and how they were created, a sharing of approaches that you may find useful in your own efforts.
Photography has a soul of its own. The ability to capture and fix a space and a moment in cleanly defined detail and tonal values is unique to photography. Photographs simulate reality so effectively because our minds and memories unconsciously make us participants in the image: the camera's eye becomes our own.
Faithfully used, photography can be an unrivaled medium for communication and artistic expression. Understanding the singular capabilities of a camera, a lens, and film is the first important step in learning to see like a camera. The systematic exploration of photography's tools and techniques is one theme of this book.
With all of my analysis of photography, there is still something quite incomprehensible to me about the photographic process. The physics of the situation are fearfully complex, but the miracle of the image is a triumph of the imagination. The most miraculous ritual of all is the combination of machine, mind, and spirit that brings forth images of great power and beauty.
Great photographs are not a simple measure of life and our surroundings; nor are they the result of mastering the operation of a camera and darkroom manipulations. They are value judgments by the photographer that take the viewer beyond the experience of "peeking through someone else's window." Compelling images are most often powerful expressions of lifelong concerns of the photographer, and these concerns frequently have a universal appeal.
Memorable photographs, moving speeches, music we want to hear again and again, sculpture we return to, ballet, poems and novels that endure, masterpieces of paintinggenuine art in any formall have two elements in common: the artist has an important statement to make, and that statement is made with eloquence. Eloquence and substance are what we should strive for in any form of expression.
Photographic expression is a skill that can be learned, and the aim of this book is to teach you how to make expressive photographs. While the choice of subject matter for your photographs is a personal one, your photographic messages must reflect your thoughts, concerns, and experienceswhatever is important to you.
Once completed, the photograph must speak for itself The creative essence of the image has no language but its own. It is a communication from one human being to others. It may repulse or reveal or stimulate; it may be rejected or accepted with perfect freedom or conscience by all concerned.
The approach to photographic expression detailed in the chapters that follow is universal, independent both of the camera and film used and of the images recorded. No book or workshop, no course of study, can make anyone an instant "master"; mastery requires patience, dedication, talent, opportunity, and an intense commitment. Experience has shown that a basic understanding of photographic principles and their systematic application as practiced and taught by Ansel Adams provides a sensible and solid foundation that photographers can use to develop their mastery of the craft and make expressive photographs.
This book is intended as an introduction to photography, and it is structured so that each lesson and technique you learn will make you a better photographer and increase your capabilities. It encourages you to adopt sound working habits and to use a systematic approach to all phases of photography so that its mechanical aspects will not intrude upon the emotional response you should feel when you are moved to create a photograph.
Your rewards as a photographer will be directly proportional to the time and effort you are willing and able to invest, but if after reading this book you choose not to work in a darkroom yourself, you will at least have an understanding of what a competent printer of negatives can do for you. If you choose not to explore the subject of exposure and development control of the negative in detail, you will at least know what factors influence the quality of your negatives. And, most important, you will begin to appreciate the immense potential of photography.
Excerpted from The Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography: Book 1 Revised , by Ansel Adams and John P. Schaefer . Copyright (c) 1992 and 1999 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