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SCL Photo Podcast 25: “Yosemite And The High Sierra, by Ansel Adams” Book Review

SCL PodcastIn this weeks episode I take a look at some some photographs by Ansel Adams, in his great work on and in the Yosemite National Park.

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Show notes:

Featured Posts:

Photowalk 52 - Fort Brockhurst.

Photowalk 53 - HDRs at The Fort.

Photowalk 54- A Cold and Frosty Morn.

My Own 12 Favourite Photographs of 2008.

adams_yosemiteAnsel Adams "Yosemite And The High Sierra" Book Review

"Yosemite and the High Sierra" by Ansel Adams, at

"Yosemite and the High Sierra" by Ansel Adams, at

Bio of Ansel Adams at wikipedia.

My Notes:

As you probably know, I'm a bit of a fan of ordering Photography books from my local library, not "how to use a digital camera" type books, rather collections, anthologies and I guess you could call them "art" books, which contain reproductions of photographs taken by renowned and famous photographers. In fact just before writing the notes for this podcast I got a phone call from my library, saying that a couple of books I'd ordered, by Ansel Adams and Richard Avedon, were ready for collection.

I think it's really important, as Photographers, that we look at as many "good" (in inverted commas) photographs as possible, not just to keep reading articles and guides on how to take better photographs, but just to read, and look at, great images, let them wash over our psyche, be absorbed into our sub-conscious, and perhaps even analyse them for technique and style.

The problem is that this type of book, with high-quality reproductions of Photographs, that contain collections of single photographers, or perhaps many, is that they're expensive. Often these books are in limited print runs, so they get even more expensive second hand. For example the book I'm reviewing today has a cover price of $50usd, and to buy it on it'll set you back almost £50, a healthy wad of cash for any photographer.

That's where libraries come in, and they're brilliant. In my case, I simply log on to the Hampshire County Council Library Services Site, then I can search through all their stock, in all their libraries and stores, for what I want. Then they'll deliver that book to my local library for the paltry sum of 50p, or about 75 US cents. Now they don't have the latest titles, but you can suggest books they should think about buying, and for me the hardest thing is figuring out what books I should be looking for. I get ideas for authors or photographers from Jeff Curtos History of Photography Podcast, names mentioned in articles and other podcasts, then just stick the names into the Library Search Engine and order anything that might be interesting. How cool is that!

Anyway, enough of me evangelising about why you should use your local library system, and onto today's book review - "Yosemite And The High Sierra" by Ansel Adams, Edited by Andrea G. Stillman and with an introduction by John Szakowski. It's published by Little Brown and Company, and the ISBN is 0-8212-2134-5. The copy I'm borrowing is hardcover, is 135 pages long with 75 black and white duotone photographs. It's a little larger than a4, and the first thing you'll notice as you flick through for the first time is the sheer quality of the photographic reproductions. The paper is super glossy and the prints are spectacular. The Ansel Adams foundation works closely with any publisher of his images, making sure they are always produced to the highest quality in his books, and it really shows. After looking at a photobook of this standard, images in magazines and those you print yourself will pale into comparison.

So it's a book that's been produced to very high standard, but who is this Ansel Adams, and why is he still revered today as a great American Landscape Photographer, who thousands of photographers wish to emulate?

Born in California, USA in 1902, Ansel Adams lived to the ripe old age of 82. His love of the great American outdoors, especially the National Park of Yosemite, shone through not only in his photography but also in his environmentalism. I'm not talking about modern green politics - when Adams was growing up, visiting and exploring Yosemite and the High Sierra with his Uncle Frank, these areas, other other places of outstanding Natural Beauty throughout the USA were under threat from commercial exploitation. That means anyone could turn up, buy some land, build a hotel, restaurant or houses, and threaten to spoil the environment forever. Although Yosemite had been a National Park, and therefore protected, since 1864, other places weren't, and Adams campaigned for other areas to be designated National Parks. In fact his photographs of Seqouia and Kings Canyon, along with his testimony to Congress, were instrumental in those areas been designated National Parks in the 1940's.

When we look at his images, it's important to remember the equipment he was lugging around these mountainous areas. We're not talking about 35mm Film Cameras as used by HCB and Cappa - Adams were using large, heavy medium and large format film cameras and tripods. Heavy and cumbersome, difficult to transport and slow to set up, these cameras do however give us some clues as to how he produced such startlingly sharp images, full of incredible detail and beautiful compositions.

If you're using a large film camera, on a tripod, you have to take time to get the composition right. There's no taking dozens of shots and picking out the best. It's a case of studying the scene, often deciding well in advance before arriving at the subject what type of photograph you're going to take. Adams was a master technician, understanding his equipment completely, using long exposures in natural light, at small apertures to retain detail, massive depth of field. There are other aspects to his work too - Adams spent hours in the Darkroom perfection each image, and studied with the best how to make prints of the highest quality.

Back to the photographs in the book. It's difficult select out individual images, as they're all so good, but I'll try.

There's the classic "Clearing Winter Storm", taken in Yosemite in 1944. We're looking down the valley at a scene with snow clouds obscuring the peaks, yet some are peering through. There's a forest of trees before us on the Valley floor, covered in a sprinkle of newly fallen snow, you can pick out individual branches on the closer trees, yet also clearly see the texture in the face of the mountains in the far distance.

As we move through the book we see stunning images of waterfalls against hard granite, often their scale mystifying until our eye settles on a tree or branch, suddenly illuminating our vision with the true majesty of these vistas.

Adams not only encompasses the grand view, as witnessed by his image of Half Dome taken in 1932, a mountain with a sheer face dropping hundreds of meters, but also the macro, with the detailed still life "Leaves, Frost, Stump, October Morning" photographed in 1931. Adams surprises us with his intimate photographs of the Forest Floor, or "Early Morning, Merced River", where instead of a view stretching for dozens of miles, we are now amongst the trees, our visions restricted to a few meters, but the detail and light just as compelling.

As I have already said it's difficult to pick out favourites, but I'd have to say that "Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite National Park", taken in '49, and "Half Dome, Winter, from Glacier Point", photographed in 1940 are pictures I could look at again and again.

Don't be fooled by the title of the book that these photographs are about the mountains. True, these great granite monoliths play an important part, but its the weather, texture, light and seasons that make Adams work stand out from earlier photographs of these subjects. Because Adams work wasn't crippled by the horrendously long exposures forced on Photographers by their equipment in the later half of the 19th Century, we can see the play of the clouds as they are shepherded the valley walls. We can see the touch of the Sun as it seemingly etches deep cracks and shadows into the rock, yet forms beautiful shapes and textures as it transforms the water vapour in the sky.

I am particularly attracted to some of Adams more Abstract pieces. I say abstract, but Adams would describe these photographs as extracts. How can a photograph of a natural subject ever be described as abstract? As Adams says, these images, such as "Grass and Pool" or "Burnt Stump and New Grass" are merely a smaller part of the whole - an extract of the scene, isolated for it's beauty and interest. Now I know that at the beginning of this section I said that it's better to look at this type of book, with photographs by an expert, rather than the dozens of "how to" publications out there, but that doesn't stop us learning a little from Adams technique - so what can we take away from Ansel Adams photography in this volume, that perhaps we could apply to our own photography.

First up, it sounds simple and obvious, but use a tripod. It slows you down, giving you time to perfect the composition as well as ensuring sharper photographs. Use a small aperture for maximum depth of field - but be aware of the limits of your lenses, don't stop all the way down otherwise you'll end up with photographers softer due to diffraction / refraction. In order to be able to produce photo's with such immense depth of field we also need to get a handle on Hyper-focal distances, and how we can use that technique to create photographs that have sharp, closer subjects, but also that the sharpness carries on all the way to the distance.

Light. Adams waited for, and took photographs when the light was at its best. Maybe early morning, late evening as a low Sun exaggerated detail and texture, both in the clouds and in the rocks. By using filters he could darken blue sky's, and we can do the same electronically in post processing.

For me the biggest lesson from Adams is the way he kept returning to, and photographing the same subjects, year after year. Because he was familiar was his subjects and the location, he developed the technique of pre-visualisation -knowing what he wanted the final print to look like long before he got to the scene and pressed the shutter release. Maybe we can learn from this too. If you've got some subjects or scenery that you think are particularly photogenic near you, why not keep returning, at different times of the day, in different light, at different seasons and in different weather, to capture the beauty of your subject in a myriad of different and unique ways.

Needless to say, if you're a fan of Adams work, this book should be in your personal library, or if you're simply expanding your knowledge of photography, borrow it from your library and soak in the photographs, spend time on each one, study the detail, the contrast and the composition from one of the true masters of twentieth Century Photography.

New End of Year Photo Assignment - "Shape Interrupted!"

Post photo's here.

Just for fun, no prizes I'm afraid, and we'll run it into January, as everyones busy at the moment with Christmas and New Year Preperations.

Technique challenges (No Time Limit):

No Sky Landscapes

Fill The Frame!

Dawn / Dusk shots

A Landscape Style Shot With Strong Foreground Interest

Remember to email me your photos if you'd like to me work on them for the Photo Workbench.

To contact me, just click on the link near the top of the page under the big picture.

Thanks for listening, Mrry Christmas to all, see you on Flickr!

Join the Flickr Group!

Cheers, Rob.

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