on seeing photographically
to Barry's galleries -
Most photographers, would be photographers, and collectors, sooner or later run into Ansel Adamsí proclamation about, "seeing photographically," and itís usually sooner than later. As the story goes now, Mr. Adams was a struggling photographer unsure of how to raise his photography to the level of art. Then, while photographing Yosemite in April of 1927, he found the answer. Heíd hiked for three hours to get into position to photograph Half Dome. He had 8 photographic plates with him. Heíd already exposed 7; he had his finger on the release and was about to expose the 8th when, like a bolt of lightning, it hit him. Nobody who saw the pictures he took would be able to appreciate the grandeur before him because the sky, being the brightest thing in the picture, would wash out to white in the prints. So he carefully put down the release, took out his deepest red filter (red absorbs blue), put it on the camera, tripped the release, and took his now famous photo of Half Dome with the nearly black sky.
From then on, the myth goes, Ansel Adams never took a second exposure. He could see every detail of every picture in his mind before releasing the shutter- he could "see photographically." The myth is wonderful, but even the details as related belie the truth. Ansel hiked for three hours to get in position. Clearly he had an idea of the composition he wanted, and most importantly, he had the red filter with him, so he must have had an inkling he was going to use it, even if only as an experiment on the last plate of the day.
As for the myth that he never took a second exposure, that was blown after his death when curators finally started looking at his negatives and notes. He often took five or six plates of the same subject one day, then returned the next and did it again. Does this mean he was a hack? Does this mean that he wasnít "seeing photographically?" No. Itís just that the term "seeing photographically" has taken on a meaning different than Mr. Adams intended.
He was actually trying to do what he said, before the myth makers (marketers?) got hold of it- get people to really look at their subjects before photographing them. He was speaking against the snapshot, epitomized today countless times by the tourist who gets in his car, drives to the top of the mountain, gets out, takes three steps, raises the camera to his eye with one hand, snaps a picture, then gets back in and drives away, all within about a minute or two. Or even more amazingly, theyíll take their photo, then spend five minutes gasping at the sites. Or youíll see the dedicated amateur, or even pro photographer who will see an interesting subject, know thereís a good photo in there somewhere, then hose it down with a camera real good thinking theyíre bound to find it, and usually donít.
Now personally, Iím not the biggest Ansel Adams fan in the world. He took a handful of amazing photos, but when you look at the body of his work, many of them lack a certain spark. Iím also not sure he was leading the way as some of his followers claim. Personally, I think Stieglitz and Strand were in front, probably Weston, too, though their styles and subjects were quite different, and more encompassing than Adamsí nearly singular vision, which I donít criticize. (On the other hand, maybe he was in front, but working on the West Coast placed him a long ways from the East Coast idol makers- at least when it comes to the fine arts.) Anyway, despite my reservations about some of his photos, I agree with him 100 percent with regard to what he meant when he spoke of seeing photographically (as opposed to the myth the man who never second guessed an angle or exposure).
In order to take good photographs you do have to envision what the print will look like before you even take out the camera, and Iím not talking about making an ideal "minds eye" photo. Iím talking about knowing the limitations of your medium. You wonít succeed every time. Your eye isnít a camera, but your chances of making a good photograph will go up astronomically if you try. Some of it is purely technical, how wide is the latitude of this film? Will I be able to get detail in a shadow that deep? Will I blow the highlights? Do I want to do either, or both? How much depth of field do I want?
But other things are purely compositional, and they are amongst the hardest to master, if anyone truly does. Perhaps the hardest thing about it is realizing your photo will have hard edges, when human sight doesnít. A cameraís viewfinder helps here, but only as an aid, because it always cuts something off, if part of a branch, or a wall, or a horizon. This is the problem of composition. Virtually anything you want to photograph can be composed for balance or tension, symmetry, or asymmetry, and they all say something different. This is why no one will ever truly "see photographically," at least in terms of the myth. There may be "good," and "better," in terms of composition (and those evaluations are subject to change with time and culture), but I doubt thereís a "best," at least on this earth. Thatís what makes photography so exciting.
So, yes, you want to try to see photographically, just like the great master Adams, and it will improve your photography, though thereís no guarantee by how much. But if you ever get to the point where youíre "seeing photographically," so that you never second guess yourself, never look at a print and think, "this could be better," do two things. One, call me. Iíd like to see your prints. Two, move on to something else. Youíre done with photography.
September, 2002 (C.)