Friday, November 14, 2008

Do Ansel Adams' Photos Lie?


"The camera doesn't lie."

We all know this is not true, especially in this day of digital manipulation. We see it all the time on the newsstands on magazine covers. Photos are retouched, manipulated, transposed and composited within an inch of their lives on a regular basis.

I've complained about this numerous times in this blog, particularly when it comes to magazine covers.

But is there ever a time when manipulating a photo -- photographing something that essentially is not really there -- OK? Well, sure there is.

When you're dealing with something like, say, journalism -- where you're supposed to be telling a story and just giving the facts -- manipulating photos is definitely out of bounds. You photograph what you find, whether you like it or not. Whether it's pretty or not. It's not OK to take a photograph and change some elements because they interfere with your concept of what the reality should be.

In advertising it's done all the time. You could argue since advertisers are trying to sell a product -- and reality has little to do with it -- that it's OK to manipulate photos in this context.

One of the places where manipulating photographs is accepted as "normal" is in art. After all, the art photographer is giving you his vision of reality, not actually reality.

All of which is a long way of asking if it's OK for Ansel Adams to manipulate his photographs or not. His mission was to show us the beauty in nature. Using his talent and vision, he would photograph what he considered some of the most beautiful places in the United States and spend hours meticulously spotting, dodging and burning his prints to present his exact vision of what he saw before he took the photo.

He wouldn't manipulate his photographs, in the sense that he would never physically remove or reposition objects from the scene he was photographing. The only manipulation he would do involved waiting for a certain type of light to appear while he was photographing or use a certain combination of chemicals in the developing or printing of his photographs to achieve his vision.

But what about his 1944 photo "Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California"? (seen at left) This may be the only instance when he actually removed an object that appeared in the photograph.

According to Adams in his book "Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs."

I set up my camera on my car platform at what I felt was the best location, overlooking a pasture. It was very cold — perhaps near zero — and I waited shivering, for a shaft of sunlight to flow over the distant trees. A horse grazing in the frosty pasture stood facing away from me with exasperation, stolid persistence. I made several exposures of moments of light and shadow, but the horse was uncooperative, resembling a distant stump. I observed the final shaft of light approaching. At the last moment the horse turned to show its profile, and I made the exposure. Within a minute the entire area was flooded with sunlight and the natural chiaroscuro was gone.

I used my 8×10 Ansco view camera with the 23-inch component of my Cooke Series XV lens with a Wratten No. 15 (G) filter. The film was Isopan, developed in Kodak D-23. The negative is rather complex to print. It is a problem of agreeable balance between the brilliant snow on the peaks and the dark shadowed hills.

The enterprising youth of the Lone Pine High School had climbed the rocky slopes of the Alabama Hills and whitewashed a huge white L P [the letters “L” and P”] for the world to see. It is a hideous and insulting scar on one of the great vistas of our land, and shows in every photograph made of the area. I ruthlessly removed what I could of the L P from the negative (in the left-hand hill), and have always spotted out any remaining trace in the print. I have been criticized by some for doing this, but I am not enough of a purist to perpetuate the scar and thereby destroy — for me, at least — the extraordinary beauty and perfection of the scene.

So there you have it. Adams actually removed a "feature" of the landscape he was photographing. He manipulated this photograph to eliminate a part of the landscape he was not happy about.

So is this acceptable or not? As you can see from the photograph at right (with the offending "LP" clearly visible in the circled portion) I think Adams was justified in removing this "graffiti."

Since the rocks spelling out "LP" did not form themselves into that configuration -- they were put that way by some kids -- they are not a naturally occurring part of the landscape. The landscape, in effect, was already manipulated before Adams got there. Since the offending rocks don't actually belong in that configuration and do not add anything to the photograph, he was right to remove them. It's as if he climbed up the mountain and removed some trash he found lying around. By spotting out the rocks he essentially restored the landscape to the way it would have been had those kids not gotten around to putting them there.

2 comments:

Tim said...

I can hardly claim to agonize over the issue, really, but I do have some thoughts to contribute.

1) all photographs are the product of a selective process at many levels - just starting from the fact of putting a frame around it or choosing a particular film/sensor to work with means you'll get different results to anyone else passing by. Far from the camera never lying, it actually always does.

2) you talk about the subject as though it were of primary importance. This is a fundamental issue of philosophy. The idea of a photo's sole purpose being to be "of a mountain" is anathema; since you have to put a frame around it somewhere, look within the frame and make something balanced, divide it up, with abstract or proportional qualities that appeal on their own merits as well.

3) A photographer is an artist constrained to work starting from reality. Put a painter in front of a valley+river and who knows what you'll get out? So why should a photographer strive for some unattainable "realism" rather than art?

4) Yes there are such things as expectations and honesty, depending on genre. Fashion, expect serious work on models; various fields of reportage, expect nothing at all; landscape is then a grey area where the question is more "what would you like to convey about a place, at the time you photographed it, to someone else who might want to come along and glimpse the spirit of the environment?". So if, in the grand scheme of things, the "LP" on the mountain is not normally there, Ansel has obviously conveyed a true impression of the mountain. It's unlikely that I'll ever visit Yellowstone myself so I'll take it, and the knowledge of what was done, and be grateful for a nice view. :)

Dean W. Armstrong said...

Ha. I never knew that about Winter Sunrise, despite having that book somewhere. Doesn't he seriously burn the foothills in?

I've seen a print of this at the Wilderness Society headquarters, and don't recall noticing. I do remember how dark the hills are in the print.

In his autobiography there is the photo "Mount LeConte and Lone Pine Peak, from the Owens Valley, California, c.1940" that has the foothills lit up, and I don't see the LP. Pretty good spotting for that one.