Ansel and I

One Year on the West Coast, Part 4

With every photo I’ve taken as part of this project, good or bad, I’ve learned something. And with every article I’ve read or tutorial I’ve watched my technical abilities have improved. I’ve made definite progress, but while there’s no shortage of educational resources or opportunities to try new skills, there’s a part of the equation that’s been missing: self expression.

Merced River, Yosemite

Merced River, Yosemite

One of the goals I set for myself with this project was to find my voice as a photographer, but honestly, I had no idea how to begin. It seemed like it should be obvious but when I asked myself what I wanted to say I didn’t have an answer. Photographers love to review equipment or explain the finer points of exposure but they’re not as forthcoming with an explanation of how to use that knowledge as an artist. It’s not even clear what makes an artist an artist, so I looked to an undisputed recipient of the term for answers: Ansel Adams.

Ansel Adams was one of America’s greatest photographers. I came to appreciate his work through my love for the national parks he’s synonymous with, both as a photographer and environmentalist. His striking black and white landscapes, especially from Yosemite, are greater than the sum of their parts, but I found it hard to explain why. As his work evolved Adams drew inspiration from many sources including the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. He said, “Rather than say Stieglitz influenced me in my work, I would say that he revealed me to myself.” That’s exactly what I wanted; I knew I didn’t want to copy Adams’ work, but I hoped he would provide me with enough insight to find my own path.

I turned to Adams’ autobiography for some direction. He too focused on establishing strong technical abilities first, then used them as a vehicle for his creativity, saying, “I consider myself an artist who employs certain techniques to free my vision.” As an example, his ‘Zone System’ for understanding exposure was a skill he passed on to students so they could work effectively with the medium and, “express themselves with conviction and enthusiasm.”

As such, Adams preferred the term ‘making a picture’ to shooting or taking because it referenced that creative process. But even then, being creative isn’t necessarily being artistic. As a designer I’m expected to be creative on a daily basis, but sometimes that’s about problem solving and sometimes it’s about helping others express themselves. I don’t believe creativity produces art without a degree of self expression and Adams himself said, “what counts in art is what’s inside of us.” Expressing myself, however, hasn’t come as easily.

“Visualization is not simply choosing the best filter…” Adams explained, “The photographer visualizes his conception of the subject as presented in the final print. He achieves the expression of his visualization through his technique — aesthetic, mechanical and intellectual.” It goes without saying that the intellectual part is the most difficult but visualizing the image before you take the picture forces you to ask what you want to create; you must tap into something personal before using your technical skills to capture it.

Adams said, “If something moves me, I do not question what it is or why; I am content to be moved. If I am sufficiently moved and it has aesthetic potential, I will make a picture.” This reassured me because following my instincts seemed a realistic approach towards self expression, and personal aesthetics were something I already had ideas about. I couldn’t do my job without a grasp of such fundamentals as composition, texture and tone. I prefer simple, graphic compositions and refined color palettes. Black Sands Beach, probably my most successful photo so far, is the best example I have of this.

At that point I definitely felt like I was getting somewhere. I was establishing my own graphic qualities and following my instincts, but there were two stumbling blocks that made me second-guess things. Firstly, I was expecting to tap into big emotions and ideas that would now come shining through if I only listened to my instincts but that never happened. And secondly, anything which feels ‘arty’ is an immediate turn off for me. I’ve never enjoyed any medium when it seems overtly theatrical, but somehow a photo in itself didn’t seem substantial enough.

Looking to the work of Adams again I began to realize both sticking points were products of my own pre-conceived ideas of what art is. Reassurances on both issues came from the ‘straight photography’ movement Adams associated himself with. He described their philosophy as, “photographs that looked like photographs, not imitations of other art forms.” Similarly, he praised the work of Eugène Atget because, “His work is a revelation of the simplest aspects of his environment. There is no superimposed symbolic motive, no tortured application of design, no intellectual axe to grind.” Not only can a successful photograph be free from the hangups that define other mediums, it may be a direct result of that approach.

This project is about more than photography, it’s also about getting to know the new landscape I now call home. 

Adams also admired the work of another ‘straight photographer’, Edward Weston. He recalling that Weston, “rarely photographed anything he did not find interest in; his pictures were reflections of his inner spiritual and unconscious drive.” For his own work he simply stated, “the Natural Scene — just nature — is a symbol of many things to me, a never ending potential.” When I began to appreciate the more sophisticated depth of feeling these artists felt for their surroundings I had a breakthrough of sorts. Their expression didn’t have to reflect overwhelming emotions or a world-changing viewpoint.

As I came to terms with the fact that most of us experience our passions in more subtle ways I found a moment of clarity in what I was trying to achieve. This project is about more than photography, it’s also about getting to know the new landscape I now call home. As an immigrant, place is extremely important to me; processing the complex way I feel about that is essential if I want to feel a connection with it. When Adams said, “I believe one must live in a region for a considerable time and absorb it’s character and spirit before the work can truly reflect the experience of the place” my goals came into focus. In time I might be able to capture the experience of this place, but right now I’m trying to capture my experience with it and express either a struggle with the unfamiliar or a growing sense of belonging.

Adams said, “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.” That’s an overwhelming statement, so huge it’s crippling. But working through this process has suggested some small steps in the right direction. I want to continue making photos of natural scenes, spending more time with them and refining my own graphic aesthetics. By following my instincts, considering how I feel about my surrounds, and visualizing the end result before pressing the shutter release I hope the end results will be more meaningful and expressive.

Learn more about Ansel Adams at Artsy.