Ansel Influences

Ansel Adams and I, circa 1981
Ansel Adams and I, circa 1981

Here is a photograph of Ansel Adams and me, made at The Ansel Adams Gallery in  June of 1980 or 1981.  The occasion was an evening party during one of his famous workshops.  I was the “staff photographer” at the Gallery, and so got a “free pass” to events and lectures by Ansel and other instructors.

Below is an essay about my time with Ansel and his influences on me.  Enjoy!

Thoughts on Ansel

© 2009 William Neill

“…It is difficult to explain the magic: to lie in a small recess of the granite matrix of the Sierra and watch the progress of dusk to night, the incredible brilliance of the stars, the waning of the glittering sky into dawn, and the following sunrise on the peaks and domes around me. And always the cool dawn wind that I believe to be the prime benediction of the Sierra. These qualities to which I still deeply respond were distilled into my pictures over the decades. I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite.” —Ansel Adams

When we think of photographs by Ansel Adams, we all have images that come readily to mind.  “Moonrise.”  “Clearing Winter Storm.”  Winter Sunrise.”  All icons of landscape photography, of all photography.  I always enjoy seeing his books, or an exhibit, not just for these icons, but to absorb the range of his vision — still life imagery, incisive portraits, details of nature as well as grand landscapes.  As I imagine is the case for many of you, his images are burned into my memory.

His images aside, when I think of Ansel, I think of his generosity in sharing his extraordinary knowledge, especially in the form of his Basic Techniques of Photography book series.  He advocated photography as an art form equal in creative potential to other major art forms such as painting and sculpture.  His efforts elevated the respect for fine art photography, and included founding the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Ansel was dedicated to the creative spirit within each artist, and encouraged photographers to reach within for their own viewpoint rather than mimic him or other artists. At his workshops in Yosemite and Carmel, he included a diverse range of photographers as instructors. One didn’t attend Ansel’s workshops just to learn the Zone System and take wide-angle, large format, black-and-white landscapes. You were exposed to people using various photographic styles, materials and formats.

Back then, I was guilty of being fairly narrow-minded in my photographic tastes until I attended the instructors’ lectures that Ansel brought to the workshops. I looked at one instructor’s work and initially had no response to it.  But when listening to him, I could see through his eyes and understand his creative motivations and goals, and I appreciated his work far more.  One didn’t come out of a workshop with Ansel feeling like you should copy him–in fact, it was the opposite. All the photographers he brought in had developed a unique way to express themselves.

Giant Sequoia trees, Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, CA
Giant Sequoia trees, Mariposa Grove, Yosemite National Park, CA

The photograph here, Giant Sequoia trees, Mariposa Grove, is a photographic effort to see these amazing trees in a new way.  Instead of the often-used “wide-angle, vertical, soaring tree” approach, the truncated composition of the panoramic format implies the weight, the massive presence of the trees without including more.  Often less is more.  I had been photographing sequoias in Yosemite for fifteen years, under the influence of Ansel’s advise for photographers to seek creative approaches in their work, before finding this solution.

Like millions of others, I was inspired by Ansel’s tireless efforts on behalf of the natural environment.  I have tried, although I am not the extroverted activist Ansel was, to find ways to use my work for environmental causes.  During my time working at The Ansel Adams Gallery, I had the honor of handling and displaying Ansel’s original prints.  Like millions of photographers upon seeing his fine prints, I was inspired to make expressive, high-quality prints of my own.  I saw Ansel’s open-minded view of technological advances in photography, and that has helped me see the potential of digital imaging.

It is difficult to summarize in any brief manner the extent of Ansel’s influence on me .  I can only feel blessed to have known him, even briefly and to a small degree.  The greatest lesson that I learned from Ansel is the importance of personal vision.  The essence of artistry in photography is expressing your own perspective as deeply as possible–not being derivative, and not mimicking, but by pushing yourself to make creative images.

“It was one of those mornings when the sunlight is burnished with a keen wind and long feathers of cloud move in a lofty sky. The silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendor; there was nothing, however small that did not clash in the bright wind, that did not send arrows of light through the glassy air. I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the LIGHT. The moment I paused, the full impact of the mood was on me; I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks. There are no words to convey the moods of those moments.”Ansel Adams

Addendum:  Speaking of Ansel influences, see my recent Black and White portfolio in ebook form:  Meditations in Monochrome- Digital Edition


Published by William Neill

William Neill, a resident of the Yosemite National Park area since 1977, is a landscape photographer concerned with conveying the deep, spiritual beauty he sees and feels in Nature. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars, posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection, and The Polaroid Collection. Neill received a BA degree in Environmental Conservation at the University of Colorado. In 1995, Neill received the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's assignment and published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. Also, he writes a monthly column, On Landscape, for Outdoor Photographer magazine. Feature articles about his work have appeared in Life, Camera and Darkroom, Outdoor Photographer and Communication Arts, from whom he has also received five Awards of Excellence. His corporate clients have included Sony Japan, Bayer Corporation, Canon USA, Nike, Nikon, The Nature Company, Hewlett Packard, 3M, Freidrick Grohe, Neutrogena, Sony Music/Classical, University of Cincinnati, UBS Global Asset Management. His work was chosen to illustrate two special edition books published by The Nature Company, Rachel Carson's The Sense of Wonder and John Fowles's The Tree. His photographs were also published in a three book series on the art and science of natural process in collaboration with the Exploratorium Museum of San Francisco: By Nature's Design (Exploratorium / Chronicle Books, 1993), The Color of Nature (Exploratorium / Chronicle Books, 1996) and Traces of Time (Chronicle Books / Exploratorium, Fall 2000). A portfolio of his Yosemite photographs has been published entitled Yosemite: The Promise of Wildness (Yosemite Association, 1994) which received The Director's Award from the National Park Service. A retrospective monograph of his landscape photography entitled Landscapes Of The Spirit (Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown, 1997) relates his beliefs in the healing power of nature. William has taught photography since 1980 for such prestigious organizations as The Ansel Adams Gallery, the Friends of Photography, Palm Beach Photographic Workshops, The Maine Workshops and Anderson Ranch Workshops. He specializes in landscape and nature photography and is concerned with conveying the beauty seen in Nature. Currently, he teaches online courses for BetterPhoto.com and One-on-One Workshops in his home studio near Yosemite National Park.

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  4. Bill –

    This is great to have photos like this to bring back memories! And I really appreciate your comments about the different perspective of redwoods to visually demonstrate their mass and presence from the perspective we see them most commonly at, human eye level.

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