Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Reading: The Camera by Ansel Adams

Before commenting on this book, I must state that I find Ansel Adams' work to be very impressive, even awe inspiring, however, it is not really my gig and I am appalled by the virtual deification of the man.  He is, on the other hand, a master of the art and craft of photography.  Most people appreciate the art, it is ubiquitous in posters, calendars and books, however, it is the craft that he tries to share in this book, the first in a series of 3, the others being "The Negative" and "The Print".

From the very outset his position is quite simple, if you cannot perfect the craft of photography then how can you possibly move onto making art .  At  first I struggled with this point of view, I am now firmly wedded to the Digital world of point, shoot, review, shoot again, share, print...  However, the more I think about his stance and my own capabilities, the more I come to agree with his view. Without mastery of how a camera works, how it captures light, and how that capature is transfered to a final medium, how can we have the confidence to be free to consider the question of art or if we do will the results have any value.  This series of books provides a distillation of his knowledge of how to make photographs.  He provides many examples of his own work to illustrate points, from which one can gain inspiration, but this is not a book that sets out to explain his artistic vision.

The other aspect of the book that is at first rather daunting is that it was written in 1980, in the hey day of film and the dialog is primarily about the arcane processes involved in operating a view camera.  He does discuss 35mm cameras, and whilst he does not dismiss them, they are clearly considered to be second class citizens to medium and large format.  At its most basic this book is about developing the ability to visualize an image and then setup a camera to capture that visulization.  He starts with how lenses work and finishes with view-camera adjustments, a good technical overview of how a camera actually works.  He even goes into the simple mathematics of calculating magnification and hyperfocal distances, useful background info even if not something I plan to keep in my head.

So, how does this relate to my world of digital capture? Analog and Digital are completely different media requiring a different skill sets, however, the basics of getting what you want into the frame in a way that you want does not change. The discussion of the view camera is very pertinent to me, I bit the bullet some time ago and invested in a tilt-shift lens, turning my DSLR into an albeit simple view camera.  The workflow and thought process are almost identical, the key advantage of digital is that I do not need to shoot a polaroid to check exposure!  However, even without that lens, this book is worth a read if only to appreciate the need for a careful and measured approach to image making.  The ease of use of a digital camera, can if permitted, speed up processes too much and prevent a measured thoughtful approach to each image.  My take away from this book is both pholosophical and practical, take more time and learn the craft.

In some of my recent imagery, in particular assignment 2, I have tried to develop ideas of art that sacrificed quality, my tutors comments brought me back to ground.  Ansel Adams has now placed that in context and provided a new basis from which to work - "SLOWER".

Finally, whilst he sometimes comes across as the aging master speaking down to a junior apprentice, he was also quite prescient about where things were going, in 1981 he wrote the following in the Introduction to the second book in this series:
"I eagerly await new concepts and processes.  I beleive that the electronic image will be the next major advance. Such systems will have their own inherent and inescapable structural characteristics, and the artist and functional practitioner will again strive to cmprehend and control them."

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