Category Archives: Landscape

Christopher Thomas: New York Sleeps

newYorkSleeps

The cover of New York Sleeps by Christopher Thomas. 310 x 285 x 23mm. 160pp. Revised and expanded edition 2016. Prestel Verlag. My first impression is of a New York that I don’t recognise. Sure, I recognise the places, but where are the people? As Frank Sinatra sang: “New York, New York. I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps.”

Right from the start this is a disconcerting book. There is a consistency of vision and technique that makes it a single body of work even though the photographs span 8 years. The sequencing of the images is clear and evidential in its logic, and the print and paper quality is gorgeous. Including the Polaroid film edges in every image give them a ring of authenticity and leads us to make the assumption we are seeing the whole, unadulterated image, and yet the lack of people gives them an other-worldly feel. The more pages I turn the more I have a premonition that some terrible instantaneous event has happened to make everyone disappear while leaving the lights on and the fountains running with only the camera remaining as witness. It’s not so much New York Sleeping as New York Depopulated.

The more I read New York Sleeps the more I find a number of tensions running through it: these are black and white images of a colourful subject but is this done for artistic purpose or to give a documentary impression?; there is a studied static feel to the images, which shatters our preconception of New York as a dynamic city; finally the lack of people lends the images a dream-like surreal atmosphere that is heightened by the time exposure blur in many of the photos.

timesSquare

Times Square. Not a typical image from the book, but one of my favorites. It breaks the rules: the highlights are bleached out, the greys carry little information and the main centre of attention is a trash can. Could it be aliens landing? 

After several readings I began to see it increasingly as a work of fiction (or perhaps ‘dream’ is a more appropriate word, given the title) so I decided to treat the book like a storyboard for a movie. It provides the raw material for the readers’ imaginations to find their own answers, make up their own stories and resolve the tensions. To treat this book as a linear set of sequenced images (as good as they are) would be a waste; there are layers beneath this that are worth exploring and for this I would definitely recommend it.

Charles Petillon: Invasions

On show for a brief period at Magda Danysz Gallery, London, was the sculpture and photos of the French photographer Charles Petillon. Petillon is a commercial photographer but the exhibition showed his personal work. Inflated white balloons of various sizes are placed or squeezed into various locations, often with associated lighting. They are fascinating interventions in space that play with scale in a fun way; an approach that has lots of potential for the future.

CharlesPetillon-2

Part of the Charles Petillon exhibition. You can just see some white balloons through the doorway on the left

The sculptures can be like clouds or foam or bubbles, or like droplets of liquid before they coalesce. The installations are transient but preserved as photos, which become the artwork. Or another artwork really. Although not a new concept (c.f. the works of Richard Long or Andy Goldsworthy), the photograph becomes the work rather than simply a record of an ephemeral installation.

CharlesPetillon-1

Petillon uses the landscape, the built environment and interiors as spaces for his sculptures

Petillon plans to continue with his balloon sculptures internationally over the coming years, so keep your eye out for some fun!

Linda Lashford’s Songlines

Linda Lashford travels for a living, and photographs as she travels. Hers are not simple documentary records of places though: Linda photographs by theme and the images in this exhibition “Songlines” are grouped into Intimations of Landscape, The Splintered Coast, and Trappings of Light. Her images are on display at the Joe Cornish Gallery, North Yorkshire, UK until 23 September 2015.

As you might guess from the title, Intimations of Landscape are intimate semi-abstract photographs of aspects of landscape such as water, distressed paint or mist using a limited tonal range and colour palatte. Most show close-up details that imply much larger landscapes.

4 images by Linda Lashford

4 images from Linda Lashford’s Intimations of Landscape series.

Most of the 12 images in this series have little in the way of compositional elements to hold them together or guide the eye; the viewer is left to wander through each image and imagine what lies beyond the frame. These aren’t images of something but rather about something. That “something” is really for the viewer to decide based on the emotions and memories the images evoke. The images hover between a physical reality and a spiritual plane. As Minor White would have said: it’s not what is photographed that’s significant but what else is photographed.

3 images from The Splintered Coast series by Linda Lashford

3 images from The Splintered Coast series by Linda Lashford

The Splintered Coast contains 6 studies of the coastlines of Cornwall, South Wales and Brittany. Of all Linda’s images these are the most anchored in reality, the most literal of the themes. Unlike her other series, most of these contain horizons – perhaps it is this horizontal reference plane that implies the reality and makes it difficult to make the mental jump to any metaphoric plane. Instead I found myself comparing the similarities and differences of the coastlines depicted, which made it, at least for me, the least satisfying of the series.

The beautifully titled Trappings of Light series was taken in an abandoned cork factory in Portugal. “Oh no, not another abandoned-factory-stroke-urban-decay project” you may be thinking. Well no, it isn’t another me-too project about decay; Linda’s control of the photographic process and her eye for isolating and composing details out of visual noise show their strength in this series of 8 images. Form and texture interact with controlled abandon; there is light and shade but the highlights have detail and the shadows never block up. The light is without doubt trapped by these images and give pleasure and intrigue to the viewer that, like Intimations of Landscape, is rewarded by lingering with each photograph in a meditative frame of mind.

6 images from Songlines

Top row: 3 images from Trappings of Light. Bottom row: 3 images from Intimations of Landscape. Photographs by Linda Lashford

Songlines is a varied and satisfying set of images from a talented photographer. My only reservation isn’t about the images but about their display: the presentation and framing of each image is excellent but the hanging splits the series between walls and floors in the gallery, making them less coherent as bodies of work, and appears to associate images by superficial visual similarity rather than developing an underlying theme or narrative. This is understandable as the gallery is quite crowded with images from various photographers and tends towards a hard-working emporium of pictures rather than an art gallery, but it is a commercial enterprise and if that’s what’s needed to keep it running then I’m not going to knock it. Just control your expectations if you go there – and I recommend that you do!

OnLandscape conference: craft versus art

OnLandscape, an on-line photography magazine, organised a weekend conference from 21-23 November 2014. I don’t think of myself as a landscape photographer but walking and photography have been synonymous for most of my life so I thought I’d attend. Here are my thoughts.

It's a fungus. No, it's a highly eroded landscape. No it's avast underground city. Yes, it's a metaphor! ©Malcolm Raggett

It’s a fungus! No, it’s a highly eroded landscape! No it’s a vast underground city! Yes, it’s a metaphor!! ©Malcolm Raggett

A glance at the OnLandscape Web site and the type of photographs that many of the contributing photographers take shows the narrow definition of “Landscape” to be expected at the conference. We’re talking “Natural Landscape” here: the urban or built environment is anathema to most of these photographers, as is any sort of environmental activism. The overwhelming aesthetic derives from that long thread stretching back from today’s Joe Cornish and Paul Gallagher (colour and black & white respectively) through Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams to the American Sublime and the English Landscape painters.

Most of the conference speakers (all male, I note) talked about the business, craft and practicalities of their photography, though David Ward considered cultural origins of colour, Rafael Rojas gave an excellent analysis of his approach to fine art photography and Jem Southam showed how he used the photographic process to satisfy his curiosity about contested spaces, narrative and metaphor. Southam’s talk was the closest we got to offering an alternative aesthetic in landscape photography and, judging from my conversations with other delegates afterwards, caused strong division of opinions amongst those who heard it.

Pushing a little harder at this division, there are those who think that a photograph should depict the subject in front of the camera in the most conventionally beautiful way possible. The recent winner of Take-a-View’s Landscape Photographer of the Year was held as an example of this, and two of his prints displayed at the conference did show a distinct tendency towards oil-painting qualities. I didn’t gather opinions from everyone at the conference but my perception is that the majority of those present fell into this “conventional beauty” camp. The concept that what a photograph is of and what a photograph is about can be entirely different hasn’t occurred to many viewers, or that a series of images can be greater than the sum of the parts was only acknowledged in a superficial way (such as a book being a collection of someone’s best photographs).

orange cone by yellow rape

Is it a road cone by a field of rape? Or is it a king leading his army into battle? Oh no, it’s another metaphor! ©Malcolm Raggett

The photograph has a powerful hold in many peoples’ minds as a reproduction of reality. Much has been written to dispel this myth but still it persists, perhaps because that is how most of us serve our photographic apprenticeship: recording photographically as an aid to memory. Yet one of the characteristics that is unique to our species (as far as we currently know) is our use of metaphor. It seems to be inate, starting with children seeing clouds that are shaped like animals through fictions that represent real life, to lines on paper that represent gods. Why then can’t aspiring photographers make the same associations in theirs and other photographs? Perhaps because the photographer never intended it? Or because the viewer never thought to push themselves outside their normal mental comfort zone?

As David Clapp pointed out in his talk, we strive for originality within familiarity but this diagram indicates we are not likely to find it there!

As David Clapp pointed out in his talk, we strive for originality within familiarity but this diagram indicates we are not likely to find it there!

I wonder if Jem Southam’s unuttered plea for delegates to think more deeply about their photography, to let go of the camera-as-craft and use it as a tool of enquiry, will have fallen on deaf ears. If a few people are encouraged along this line of thought then I think the conference will have been a success. It certainly helped me to see the different levels and diversity there is even within the narrowly defined scope of the conference. The conference was subtitled “A Meeting of Minds”; I do hope those minds have been encourages out of their comfort zones!

Light and Land photo exhibition, Mall Gallery, London

65 photographers, most of whom have had some association with the Light & Land company are exhibiting a selection of their images – around 350 in total – at the Mall Galleries this week. The exhibitors range from full-time professionals to keen amateurs so, not surprisingly, the standard of photography varies too.

Most of the images are pictures of a place: photographically competent but lacking depth of meaning. Certainly good enough for a travel brochure, having that instant ‘ooh’ or ‘ah’ appeal but little beyond. They are what I call landscape porn, that is, meant to appeal to the dopamine junky in us all. I frequently wished I had a saturation slider on my glasses so that I could turn down the colour that shouted at me from the image.

Having got that out of my system, there were some images that grabbed my attention for the right reasons; that were of a place but were about something a bit deeper. Individual images that stood out as having a spiritual or temporal dimension were Kasia Novak’s ‘Taksang Monastery’, Norma Brandt’s ‘Salt’ and Pete Nixon’s ‘Swirling Leaves’ (I apologise for the reflections in my images here, there was no angle that would remove them).

'Taksang Monasery' by Kasia Nowak

‘Taksang Monasery’ by Kasia Nowak

 

'Salt' by Norma Brandt

‘Salt’ by Norma Brandt

'Swirling Leaves' by Pete Nixon. Cropped by Malcolm Raggett

‘Swirling Leaves’ by Pete Nixon. Cropped by Malcolm Raggett

A few photographers showed a themed body of images. Notable were Patrick Kaye and Kate Somervell for their studies in time, and Davina Clift’s use of blue.

Venice photos by Patrick Kaye

Untitled images by Patrick Kaye

Davina Clift's studies in blue: 'Fade to Grey'

Davina Clift’s studies in blue: ‘Fade to Grey’

Is the exhibition worth seeing? Yes, but there are a lot of images and it would be easy to get visual overload. Be prepared to be selective and, with a critical eye, you should find something that makes your visit worthwhile.

 

Boomoon. An artist working with big concepts

The Korean photographer Boomoon (b.1955) has a selection of images on show at Flowers Gallery, Cork Street, London at the moment (ends 5 April 2014). He is an artist who deals in big ideas: studies in time and/or space. Although these are big, conceptual topics he manages to interpret them within sets, each of which is narrowly defined and therefore manageable for photographer and viewer alike.

Boomoon's photographs at Flowers Gallery are reproduced at an impressively large size, though I didn't find this necessary in order to appreciate their artistic intent.

Boomoon’s photographs at Flowers Gallery are reproduced at an impressively large size, though I didn’t find this necessary in order to appreciate their artistic intent.

The series that particularly drew me to the gallery was Naksan  – a set of images charting the progress of a snowstorm at the coast of north east Korea.  It is a cinematic sequence in which the viewer’s imagination can supply the sounds and smells of the sea as well as the freezing temperature and wind-chill; it certainly made me want to reach for a warm coat! The pictures are of a snowstorm but they are about time as the storm’s fury increases, changes direction then abates.

Another discovery was the series of blue ice images, part of Boomoon’s Northscape work, beautifully presented in large acrylic-faced mounts.

This is a very impressive show and has left me wanting to see more of Boomoon’s work. Recommended, even if you aren’t into landscape photography.

 

Alex Maclean’s Aerial Perspectives

Beetles + Huxley Gallery (renamed in 2018 to Huxley-Parlour) are currently showing aerial photographs by Alex Maclean. All of the images show either the presence or influence of man in or on the landscape. When people are present they often just give scale, though several images illustrate the randomness of humans in contrast to the geometry of man’s machine-made environment.

Some of the images in Alex Maclean's exhibition at Beetles + Huxley Gallery.

Some of the images in Alex Maclean’s exhibition at Beetles + Huxley Gallery (Huxley-Parlour as of 2018).

I am ambivalent about aerial photographs in general: I enjoy the other-worldly abstract nature of the images, making me see a view of the world in a different and sometimes revealing way.  On the other hand the very abstract nature detaches me from the lanscape as I am used to experiencing it, causing me to be less emotionally and intellectually involved with the image. Even though Maclean’s images are excellent examples of the aerial genre, they do not challenge me,  involve me or offer significant insights beyond the superficial. If you like aerial photographs I’m sure you will enjoy this show. Otherwise I can’t recommend it.

Michael Wolf at Flowers

Although Michael Wolf is German he lives on Hong Kong, and he uses the city very effectively as inspiration for his photography. His project Architecture of Density shows frontal pictures of Hong Kong’s high-rise apartment buildings without sky or horizon and more-or-less straight on.  This leads to a lack of perspective giving a flattened, semi-abstract quality.

Architecture of Density #39

Architecture of Density #39. © Michael Wolf

A few images from this extensive project are on show at Flowers Gallery, Cork Street, London until 22 February 2014 and are well worth seeing as huge, wall-sized enlargements rather than in Michael’s book.  So often we see large images which don’t benefit from being large (except that they command higher prices) but in this case Architecture of Density really does gain artistic as well as physical impact. I recommend seeing them in their 2-metre-long-edge form if you get the chance.

At first glance they could be computer-generated repetitions but the human presence revealed in the detail shows they are not. The semi-abstract quality detaches the viewer from the reality of living in these massive blocks, each of which must contain several thousand people even though we don’t see them in person.

Architecture of Density #75. © Michael Wolf

Architecture of Density #75. © Michael Wolf

It would be easy to conclude that these prison-like buildings not only de-personalise but also de-humanise the occupants but looking deeper we see order not chaos, tiny marks of humanity not criminality, faded peeling paint but not mindless graffiti. Perhaps it’s not such a bad place to live after-all.

Hong Kong Trilogy by Michael Wolf

the book Hong Kong Trilogy by Michael Wolf

Also on sale at the gallery was Michael’s book Hong Kong Trilogy. This is my kind of book: quirky, beautifully seen images of the small and unregarded cameos that make the character of a place. Again, without picturing people but their presence is everywhere. So far this is my top book of 2014 and it’s going to be hard to beat!

David Lynch at The Photographers’ Gallery

A selection of David Lynch’s black & white photographs is currently on show at the Photographers’ Gallery, London (until 30 March 2014). The pictures are moody, quizzical and elegiac. Not surprisingly, the film-maker in Lynch cannot resist using his still images to tell us a story.

The view from the top gallery distracts some visitors from the exhibition temporarily.

The view from the top gallery distracts some visitors from the exhibition temporarily.

As you can see from the above picture, all the images in this show are the same in size, format and framing.  Some images are grouped together in double rows but other than that, all images have similar weight; even images with strong vertical elements that would apparently cry out to be framed vertically are doggedly landscape format.  Although the viewer sees the images one at a time, it is important to consider the exhibition as a whole (like a film) as it takes us on a journey from the outside of a grimy but active factory, with chimneys belching smoke or steam, around the corner to abandonment, then through a door to the decaying inside of the factory where time has virtually ground to a halt, and finally out to a more modern, active, but still industrial, world again where the clock is spinning even faster than before.  Humans are not shown but their presence is felt everywhere from the brickwork to the broken glass, from the wires to the wharves. The photographs were taken at different times and several locations so the story is made by the interweaving and sequencing of time and space.

David Lynch photographs

The pictures take us on a journey from the outside (on the left) through a door (centre) to the inside (right).

Although a few images use perspective to show depth and distance, most have a 2-dimensional, semi-abstract quality to them. Broken or asymmetric frames occur frequently as do strong lines, whether they are power lines, phone lines, windows, fences, barbed wire, poles or pipes. These all form strong graphical elements but they are often not quite horizontal or vertical, which encourages the viewer to tilt their head in a rather quizzical fashion in response to the tilt that Lynch has given the camera. Combine this with detail-less shadows and/or highlights, occasional camera shake or out-of-focus detail and the viewer may consider the images to be rather casual snapshots, but when put together in this show they give an impression that Lynch is quietly passionate about the subject; that he gets beneath its surface and sees that it had and still has value. He sees it warts an’ all but he doesn’t judge it, rather, he loves it.

A visit to the Photographers’ Gallery to see this and the other exhibitions is highly recommended. I’m sorry to say that TPG has now introduced a charge for entry. This is a shame and I’m sure they did this with reluctance, but it’s preferable to not having this excellent organisation. There are times when entry is free, and members get in free at any time, so do consider joining and supporting their work. 

Pekka Sammallahti: Arctic Mindscapes exhibition

Pekka Sammallahti has an exhibition at the Siida museum, Inari, Finland until February 2014.

Pekka Sammallahti: Arctic Mindscapes exhibition
Pekka is a professor of Sami languages. He is also a very competent photographer as this exhibition shows. There are masterful portraits and landscapes from around the arctic region that go beyond simply recording their subject to providing the viewer with insights to life and light in a region that sees no sun in midwinter. Since December/January is the time of my visit, I was impressed with Pekka’s handling of twilight and it’s limited tonal pallet.

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Another aspect of this exhibition that impressed me is the blending of black & white and colour images: this can be difficult to do but the subtle, subdued use of colour did blend very well. Many of the photographs appear to have been taken on film and spread over several decades, so I assume that the show is a retrospective; there are changes and developments is his style between sections of the exhibition that adds an interesting variability along with the more obvious thematic grouping of the images.

In case the photographer’s name seems familiar to you, his brother Pentti has an exhibition at the Photographers Gallery, London at the moment and has recently published an excellent book “Here Far Away”

Pekka Sammallahti: Arctic Mindscapes exhibition

The New English Landscape – book review

The New English Landscape is a recently-published collaboration between photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole. The Essex coastline is often ignored or dismissed as a messy wasteland but in this book Worpole and Orton use it as an example and metaphor to make a strong case to re-think our aesthetic and value system in order to find beauty in contested man-made landscapes.

photo from book

Horsey Island, Essex. March 2013. © Jason Orton. The final image in the book and my favorite!

“Essex” and “love at first sight” are rarely heard in the same sentence. If you approach this UK county from the south by car it will probably be via the Dartford Crossing on the M25 motorway. From this first impression you may think that Essex is a combination of grubby industrial fringe and giant out-of-town shopping Malls. Even before you get to Essex your opinion will probably have been coloured by jokes and TV “reality” programmes about the low IQ, poor dress sense and crass behaviour of the residents. But Essex is more varied and complex than this, from the densely-populated London boroughs in the west to the chalk hills in the north, the flat fertile land of the south and the extensive coastline and mudflats of the Thames estuary, Essex has a bit of everything (except mountains).  I’ve lived in the county for over 30 years and am still discovering fresh aspects to its personality, so it was with great interest that I anticipated Ken and Jason’s new book.

book cover

I was curious about the title: The New English Landscape. In the geological sense all English landscapes are new, having been thoroughly scoured by ice sheets or their melt waters that retreated only about 10,000 years ago. So could it be man’s effect on the landscape they are referring to? This is a little closer, but again, the English Landscape is entirely man-altered and, indeed, layered. We really get closer to the core of the book when considering how the man-altered landscape and nature interact over time but in a timescale that is measured in a few generations. So, this book is about contemporary landscapes viewed not with nostalgic eyes and arcadian vision, but rather from a perspective informed by history and ecology and the sensitivity of those who care. Don’t expect the tourist’s spectacular image or the amateur’s super-saturated sunset. The writing and images in this book are about an understanding of landscape that comes with time and a sensitivity to place and context. It’s not about some nouveau-arcadian vision though; we are encouraged to be critical but from an informed viewpoint rather than a brief and prejudiced glance.

The photographic style of Jason Orton is derived from the New Topographics movement of the 1970s with subsequent adaptations. He doesn’t catalogue like the Beckers and he doesn’t do macro shots of roadkill. He is much closer to the understated, non-intrusive style of Robert Adams but in colour. Probably the closest in similarity is Jem Southam for whom I have a lot of respect. Although I would like to see a photographic book by Jason, in The New English Landscape words and photos integrate and reinforce each other so that the sum is greater than the parts, using text and images to great effect and playing to the strengths of each medium. The words don’t just caption the photos and the photos don’t just illustrate the words; each stands alone and yet together they work with tremendous complementarity.

Worpole and Orton have been collaborating for about ten years. They have developed an empathy of vision that  means they write/photograph separately but when they come together to compare output, they have cohesive material to work with.  Although this book took them about a year to produce, with most of Jason’s photographs being taken January to March 2013, I don’t believe it could have been achieved in that time from a standing start; their prior collaboration is evident and essential to the book’s success.

The most dynamic part of an ecosystem is at its edges: this is where the majority of change and evolution occurs, so choosing the coastline, at the edge where land meets sea, in an area where many layers of man’s activities are evident, and which is clearly familiar to both authors, makes sense for this book. I am concerned about the title implying that the whole of England is covered, and you may feel duped if that is what you are expecting. Literally-speaking the content  covers the Essex coastline with only a brief examination of Englishness since the Second World War. The implication is that the authors’ approach to the Essex coast is applicable to the whole country, though I didn’t find this explicitly justified in the book. Nevertheless, whether intentional or not, it is in many ways a practical, approachable implementation of Warwick Fox’s Theory of Responsive Cohesion, which puts it at the forefront of thinking about our interaction with and perspective on our environment. Since this is not geographically limiting the title is valid.

This book succeeds at several levels: it is approachably written and photographed; it contextualises and informs us about the specific geographical area; it provides a model for collaborative writing/photography that can be applied elsewhere; it fits within a coherent philosophical framework; it challenges us to see things with different eyes; and for me at least, it motivates me towards my own landscape photography. Thanks Jason, thanks Ken!

Here’s the link again if you want to buy the book: http://thenewenglishlandscape.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/a-rather-large-lorry/

Four Chairs on a Beach

This image is not about 4 chairs on a beach. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

This Image is Not About Four Chairs on a Beach. PEI, Canada. iPhone 4, Hipstamatic, Gsquad lens, BlacKeys Supergrain film. Copyright Malcolm Raggett

Landmark: the Fields of Photography exhibition

“Landmark: the Fields of Photography” is a free exhibition of landscape photography showing at Somerset House, London, UK, until 28 April 2013. There is no publication and only a few of the images are available on-line, so a visit is essential: this is a must-see exhibition for anyone interested in the genre.

Exhibition brochure

Landmark: the Fields of Photography, in London until 28 April 2013. Unfortunately and ironically for a photographic exhibition, photography in the gallery was banned so I can’t show you any samples of the layout.

The Positive View Foundation has done some fine charitable work in the past encouraging photography as a means of expression with disadvantaged young people.  This exhibition continues their reputation for excellence and I’m sure will raise money to help continue the good work.

80 photographers have contributed work to the show, which is curated by the very experienced William A. Ewing.  He has categorised the images into 10 groups:

Sublime
Pastoral
Witness
Landmark
Scar
Datum
Control
Delusion
Hallucination
Reverie

Although as I went round the exhibition I found myself questioning these categories and whether some images were placed correctly, this really is a counter-productive process.  In the end I enjoyed the progression of images that this layout gives, starting with more traditional, “straight” landscapes and ending on heavily computer-manipulated ones.  One or two even fell outside my definition of photography, being entirely computer-generated. But again, I don’t want to get hung up on definitions and semantics.

I cannot remember a better multi-artist exhibition on contemporary landscape photography.  Some of the photographers are well-known to me while others are a happy surprise.  It’s a shame that there is no accompanying publication to act as a record and also a shame that photography is banned (always ironic in an exhibition of photographs). Ah well, can’t have everything I suppose.  The curator, organisers and sponsors are to be complimented on achieving this excellent show.  You’d be mad to miss it!  

Revisiting Ansel Adams

exhibition-entranceI’ve always admired a fine craft-person  in whatever medium they work.  It was Ansel Adams that provided me with inspiration when I was developing my own photographic technique and I still use the zone system when working with 5×4 film.  However I grew away from Adams’ Modernist aesthetic and reduced the number of his books on my bookshelf.  I retain a few, mainly for nostalgic reasons, but I have far more Robert Adams than Ansel Adams in my collection now.

The National Maritime Museum, London, UK has an exhibition of his prints entitled “Ansel Adams – Photography from the Mountains to the Sea”. Not surprisingly given the venue, the emphasis is on his landscapes that include water in all its forms.  And this set me wondering: How would I view his images after about 20 years of not seeing them? Is his craftsmanship still worth aspiring to? Does his aesthetic still have relevance today or is it consigned to history?

Some of his early work showed a strong Pictorialist influence, with soft-focus and lack of detail.  The 1920s were a transition time, with some examples showing sharpness and good tonal range but not with the degree of technical control we associate with his later work. There was one abstract work in the show but it is of unknown date and so not helpful in charting Adams’ progress.

During the 1930s Adams was experimenting with sequences and what he called “extracts”, that is, showing small, isolated details of life & death, growth & decay, but not a true abstract.  Around this time he also started adopting the Modernist aesthetic, and admired the Japanese woodblock prints known as Ukiyo-e, with flattened perspective, planes of colour and bold graphic elements.

marionlake

Adams, Ansel. c.1925. Marion Lake, Kings Canyon National Park.
An example of the growing influence of Modernist aesthetic on his photography. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

He would also photograph the same scene from different viewpoints and in different light.  This is a technique he may well have adopted from painters such as Monet, as he increasingly photographed the light rather than the scenery.

Adams’ prints from the 1940s and 1950s  show noticeably high contrast with blank highlights and blocked out shadows, but by the 1960s his technique had improved and his control of tonal range was superb.

His photographic style had also stabilised by the 1960s, with the frequent use of stark compositional elements to create tension or harmony, depth or lack of it.  He often used leading lines of rivers or coast to guide the eye.   Vees or inverted vees are frequent eye-guiding elements, and of course, he used diagonals to add dynamism.

Above all, though, he used contrasting subjects as visual analogues to add depth of meaning to his images. Water adjacent to rock or snow against ice representing the animate and inanimate.  Trees are also an important feature to imply the cycle of the natural world .  I’m sure it is no accident that Adams photographed in the Grand Canyon only once  (1942, as far as I’m aware), as I think the dominance of bare rock in this location would not have been to his taste.

snake-river-poster

Adams, Ansel. 1942. The Tetons and Snake River.
. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. The ‘S’ curve of the river gives the image depth and perspective

same viewpoint as Ansel Adams view of the Snake RiverSeventy years later, my homage to Ansel, taken from the same view-point, shows that the trees now form a much more dominant foreground and the curve of the river is largely lost. Okay, who’s got the chainsaw? © Malcolm Raggett. 2012

pool1965Adams, Ansel. 1965. Pool, Yellowstone National Park. This is my favourite image from the exhibition because it surprised me: in an original print the water lilly leaves seem to float is space rather than the dark water that logic says must be there. For more details see The Center for Creative Photography http://ccp.uair.arizona.edu/item/10862. © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

So what about my original questions? Ansel Adams became a master of his craft and did much to share this skill with others, though as he himself pointed out “…no one has approached the full possibilities of the medium”.  The budding photographer can learn much from Adams’ techniques, especially if working with film.  But even in the digital world the underlying lessons of control of tonal range can be applied, whether working in colour or monochrome.  It is now possible to extend the tonal range of digital images well beyond the range of a single sheet of film but Adams’ images show us that this isn’t always desirable; we need the mystery of the shadows and the deep water.

Aesthetically there is a place for Adams, though I regard him now as “traditional” and not to be slavishly copied. But many people like the traditional approach and when you are making a living by selling images, Adams provided, and still provides, what people are willing to pay for. For me he is a worthy icon but not to be held up as the ultimate role model in my own photography.