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.
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