Discovering Ansel Adams

I first learned about Ansel Adams after reading Christopher Schreck’s post about his photographs from the cave systems of Carlsbad National Park, New Mexico. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more so I did a bit of research and found his work buried in a few archives. I started to wonder, why don’t we know more about this guy? Could he be the next Vivian Maier? An unknown genius only recently discovered?

Alright, sarcasm aside, Wayne Bremser makes a good point in a follow up post.

This discussion about what doesn’t seem relevant about an old master, what rings false, leads to one conclusion: you are looking at the wrong examples of Ansel Adams. This mistake can be made with other art forms, but especially photography, where it’s impossible to see all of the work by prolific photographers (Adams took nearly 40,000 photographs).

Wouldn’t it be interesting if more archives from the masters were publicly available? Think about wandering through 20,000 Eggleston or Cartier Bresson photographs? Copyright and licensing issues would need to be figured out, but that’s a discussion for another day.

What I think is interesting are the variety of interpretations there can be of a body of work from a photographer. It’s preached that photographers need to focus their work, find themes, refine projects and edit, edit, edit. That’s all fine, but I think something we’re starting to learn from the freewheeling web is that people want to actively participate in how they experience photography, and often this means assembling, and remixing the work they find inspiring and intriguing.

I think photographers can harness that impulse and create really interesting new forms of storytelling where an engaged audience actively participates in the construction and interpretation of the work. A good example is the David Hurn ‘Passing Time’ show at Third Floor Gallery where he opened up his archives to the audience and allowed them to create their own pairs.

It doesn’t need to be that ambitious though. Simply having a buried archive where the adventurous explore and create unique edits would add an interesting new layer to a photographer’s work. We already see that to some extent on the web where many young photographers have vast archives on Flickr. You can see one edit of their work on a blog, and then the next day find a completely different interpretation on another blog.

Then again, maybe there aren’t too many people interested in archives and maybe photographer’s are better off editing more, and sharing less. Who knows really, but if Winogrand’s archive ever comes online, I’ll be there digging through the work, trying to discover an edit I find interesting.

  • Bryan Formhals

    Ed – You should read my introduction again. I was being sarcastic. The point of the post was that when we dig into the archives of a master (or any photographer) it can be like discovering a new photographer.

  • Ed Hamlin

    I find this ironic, that someone wouldn’t know about Ansel Adams. If you want to see a large portion of his work, call ahead to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona set an appointment to view his work.  More info at the link I have been on several occasions and learn quite a bit from his use of light for portraits and Landscapes.

    For the masters and even newer renowned photographers I would rather see prints and such versus an online archive. 

  • Bryan Formhals

    Thanks David. Insightful thoughts.

    I find most of the arguments about holding photographs back to be a bit antiquated. It reflects this authoritative stance that the boomers have toward the media: “We’re going to tell you and show you what you need to see, and you’re going to listen to us!”The world is shifting away from that paradigm so I think photographers should embrace it. The opportunities are really exciting and given the fact that very few photographers will have their work widely seen in print or on the wall, it clearly is the way to find an audience. The key though for me is that very few people are actually going to dig into the archives! I mean, it’s kind of boring, and takes tons of time. How many people actually really enjoy editing piles of photographs? So, I guess I’m kind saying that photographers should cozy up to ambitious editors who are willing to dig into the work and perhaps present their work to a new audience.

  • David Simonton

    Opening a photographer’s archives is an especially interesting topic in this age of “I’ll show you everything and then leave it to you to decide what’s worthwhile and what’s not.” It was not always the case, of course, that photographers were (happily, it seems, in some cases) willing to show us their all, so to speak, and not just a well-considered selection. It was Walker Evans who said, “Photography is editing, editing after the taking.” Intrinsically, photography *is* editting—we don’t shoot everything we see, after all; and afterwards, we (typically) don’t show everything we shoot, just as a writer doesn’t share with us every draft that fell short. The question is…is it really our place to ask to see them? to then decide for ourselves what’s worth reading?

    The work that goes in to making successful prose, or successful pictures, is often cumulative—our attempts lead to our successes. So the next question is…who decides, in the end, what we see? A.D. Coleman once argued (vehemently) that Diane Arbus’s work in “Untitled” should never have been published, because the work therein did not reflect the *artist’s* choice of what to “let out”—what to show us. And Garry Winogrand’s work, as you point out, is another ripe example: it’s a treasure trove like no other! and one that’s been similarly culled, if not looted.

    This is a hot-button topic for some, not-so-much-so for others. Your selection and arrangement of lesser-known works by Ansel Adams makes a compellng case for the re-examination of artists’ archives; it’s beautiful, and sensitively-seen (and all of the images are in one way or another in the public domain, I believe).

    But how deep do we delve? How far into those archives do we have a right to go? Whose pictures are they, anyway?