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The Power of the Print

March 02, 2017

      I try to educate myself about photographers whose work has preceded mine whether they are known for street photography or not. I recently watched a BBC Master Photographers episode about Ansel Adams (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rdCq-1MJmHw). Adams was thoroughly charming, and listening to him talk not only about specific photos but also his technique was enlightening and encouraging.

      Adams visualized what the photo would look like before he snapped the shutter. To achieve complete control over the final image, Adams did his own printing. “You can make enhancements when you print,” Adams said, “but you can never escape the original visualization.”

      The print to Adams is the equivalent of two things – what the photographer saw and how he felt about it. Adams was a trained pianist, and for him, the negative provided the score, while the final print was the performance. “You interpret the original score,” he said, “but you are never far enough away to violate the essential concept.”

      In the video, Adams showed three versions of one of his photos produced over the course of several years. Each photo, processed differently, has a different emotional quality. “Well, if I were a pianist and giving a concert I would probably play a particular piece very differently in Feb than I did in June,” said Adams.

      His most famous photo, Moonrise Over Hernandez, NM, became more and more dramatic as Adams reprinted it over the course of about 40 years.

 At the Andrew Smith Gallery in Santa Fe there is an entire room devoted to the transformation the print made over Adams' career.  The earlier (and much more valuable) prints are lower in contrast, with more subtlety in the clouds; the moon is a medium gray.  In the later prints the sky is almost black, and the moon and cemetery crosses almost white.  Some of the clouds have completely disappeared.  The early prints are a more quiet observation of the scene, the later ones - well, they just hit you over the head. Kevin Shick, “Revisiting Ansel Adams Moonrise, Hernandez, NM,” (http://www.kevinshick.com/blog/2013/4/revisiting-hernandez-nm)

      Although there is a procedure for printing, there is much judgment involved on the part of the artist. Adams said that the negative for Moonrise was difficult to print. He tried many methods using different chemicals, processing times and papers. With the negative in the enlarger, he increased the light hitting certain areas (burning-in) which made the sky blacker and the clouds less bright so the moon would stand out more. With all these artistic adjustments, Adams said "it is safe to say that no two prints are precisely the same."

      With the advent of Photoshop and other post-processing software, two misconceptions have developed (no pun intended) about the final image that one produces from a negative. The first is that film photos before post-processing software were SOOC (straight out of camera) and the second is that contemporary photographers who use post-processing software are cheating by manipulating their photos. (To clarify, this is an essay about photography as art, not about photojournalism which carries with it an assumption that the photo is an unmanipulated depiction of actual events.)  I have been at the Harrisburg Camera Club’s photo booth at ArtsFest where members sell their images only to have people approach us and ask if the images were “colorized” or “Photoshopped” as if they are dirty words or, in fact, not  “real” photographs because the photographers played with the images.

      Adams, like other film photographers, used the darkroom to process his photos. What contemporary photographers do sitting at their computers, Adams did standing in his darkroom, although admittedly the options might have been fewer and results more difficult to achieve. (https://whitherthebook.wordpress.com/2013/02/27/ansel-adams-and-photography-before-photoshop/ )

      I’m reminded of a story told by I think John Barclay at a photography workshop I attended. Adams did a series of photographs of the national parks and received hate mail from someone who visited the parks and complained that they didn’t look like Adams’s photographs.

      I often wonder if historical figures in photography had the same tools we do today would they be using them. For Adams, I think the answer is “yes.” This video was created in 1983 before digital cameras became available, but there were technologies being developed. What excited Adams is that in a few years (after the filming of this video) there would be a new medium of expression of the electronic image. “I know the potential is there and I know it’s going to be wonderful,” he said.

      In the 1970s, Adams developed a partnership with the University of Arizona that culminated in the Center for Creative Photography (http://artmuseum.arizona.edu/events/event/photography-ansel-adams), and in 1975 the Ansel Adams Archive became one of the founding collections. Adams provided the negatives to his images with the stipulation that the advanced students would have an opportunity to print them. “These negatives will be reinterpreted through a fresh medium, and I think that is marvelous,” said Adams.