Friday, July 29, 2011

Photographing Cemeteries with Ansel Adams

I figured a title like that would make the search engines happy. So just to put it out there, I’m not old enough to have photographed anything with Ansel Adams (though I could have possibly caddied for him). However, a friend of mine did photograph with him, when he participated in one of Adams' photography workshops before Adams died in 1984. My friend from the Photographic Society of Philadelphia had some 120mm film left over from this workshop that he'd kept in his freezer for the past 27 years! He gave it to me a week before I was headed to Texas on business. With such perfect timing, I decided that the gods had intended for me to photograph with Ansel Adams. Call it six degrees of separation.

"The Tetons - Snake River," Ansel Adams
So I took a few rolls with me out west last month, and shot them in a Holga. A Holga, as you may know, is a plastic toy camera. Adams would rather have died than use something like this, so on one hand, its good that he’s already dead. And speaking of death, I actually used the film to photograph some cemeteries around San Antonio. Everyone is familiar with Adams’ mountain vista images, but his singularly most famous and successful image is actually of a cemetery (entitled 'Moonrise, Hernandez, N.M,' shown below)! This, I reluctantly admit to myself, may have inspired me years ago to do cemetery photography. Something about those little glowing crosses in the foreground...

"Moonrise, Hernandez, N.M." (1942), by Ansel Adams
I say ‘reluctantly' because I’m not a big fan of Adams’ work. Maybe I felt he was too commercial, and hadn’t enough of the ‘starving artist’ in him. Moonrise, in fact, was made on a government grant. Was Adams the Maxfield Parrish of photography? Cranking out product that the average citizen could enjoy and afford? 'Good enough for government work...?' Don’t get me wrong, I love Parrish’s work, but both his and Adams' seem a little too – perfect. At least with Parrish, I thought, “Ooh, this stuff came out of his crazy wonky head.” Years ago, I thought that Adams simply took pictures of mountains, very calculated, technically perfect pictures of mountains. 

"Daybreak," by Maxfield Parrish

Dignowity Cemetery, San Antonio, TX
While this may be true, Adams shot Moonrise on the fly, on Halloween, jumping out of his car to set up and click off just one negative before the setting sun ceased to illuminate the crosses in the foreground cemetery. Sort of like how the rest of us average photographers sometimes shoot spur-of-the-moment images (which is exactly how I saw and shot the iron cross at left). For Adams, this was unusual, and perhaps ironic that his most famous photograph required far less calculation than anything else in his entire body of work. Typically, he'd backpack into the mountains of Yellowstone on specific days and times of year, toting his 8x10 view camera, to make specific photographs of, say, a sunrise over the mountains. I guess its this aspect of his work that I find a bit too calculated. And if that weren't enough, getting a great negative was only the beginning of the creative process for him.

Typically Adams would spend hundreds of hours in the darkroom laboring over the making of his prints, altering the look of his original negatives very much like people today spend hours with photo editing software programs. He turned what he considered to be water into wine for the masses. I was kind of surprised when I learned this years ago, as I had thought Adams to be such a purist, with the Zone System and all that. In fact, a straight print of the Moonrise negative shows the sky being much lighter. Adams would darken it because this is how he 'visualized' the scene.

In his book, Celebrating the Negative, John Loengard quotes Ansel Adams: "During my first years of printing the Moonrise negative, I allowed some random clouds in the upper sky area to show, although I had visualized the sky in very deep values and almost cloudless." So the next time you feel you've "manipulated" an image too much with Photoshop, consider Loengard's comment:

"Photographers do this and more. Since light shines through a negative but is reflected off a print, making a print from a negative is a bit like translating a novel from French to English. Such translation is an art, and it is wise to remember that what is translated is the original work of art." - John Loengard

One of the things I like about using a Holga (or any analog camera) is that the film original really is a work of art, in the sense that it would require a 40 MP digital camera to produce an image with the resolution of a 120mm negative! I also like the fact that with a Holga, you simply cannot be very calculated (which is why Adams would have hated them.) The camera has no controls to speak of, so your results are based solely on a wing and a prayer. Do I succeed? Not often. I'm lucky to get one or two usable images off a 12-exposure roll. My four images in this article come from two rolls. Sometimes I have to tweak the image of the scanned negative to achieve what I intended when I snapped the shutter, to achieve the result I 'visualized.'

San Jose Burial Park, San Antonio, TX
So while the print (or an electronically published image) is actually what the viewer sees, a Holga forces you to pay way more attention to creating a successful negative. There's only so much you can do after-capture with a poor original. Given the amount of work involved to make a great print back in the pre-digital age, you have to hand it to Adams for his perseverance. He was dedicated to reproducing what he SAW (as opposed to what was actually THERE) – so in that sense, he was more an artist than a photojournalist or documentarian. When I shoot with a Holga, I view things similarly. Film allows me to be a photographer – I don't have to worry about also being a digital imaging computer technician. I don't really spend a lot of time on the image after-capture, and experience with the Holga has helped me create better originals (which I can later tweak in Photoshop if I really need to). I put a lot more thought into what I want the image to be, rather than just firing off scores of automatically bracketed JPEGs.

The Alamo (San Antonio, TX)
Images made with a Holga are like a photographic Haiku - not much there to go on, but if you ponder awhile, you'll realize there's more of the artist in a crappy Holga image than in many a finely-crafted digital print. Why do I think that? Well, partly because its only six o'clock in the morning and I'm barely awake - and its the first thing that popped into my head. What I'm actually trying to say is that composition is what a Holga image is all about, its the only thing the photographer can control. Aperture, shutter speed, light leaks, lens distortion  - all inherent 'features' of the camera that cannot be changed. So a successful image requires a lot more effort on the part of the photographer, which Ansel Adams would have appreciated. Like a haiku, the resulting photograph lends itself to one simplistic idea, characterized by a familiar object presented in a sort of dream-like manner, such as the images you see here of tombstones and the Alamo.

And what better way to end this article than with a photograph of the latter, as a tribute to Ansel Adams' creativity. In addition to mountains, he photographed many of the mission churches in the southwest - the Alamo, or Mission San Antonio de Valero, being one of the more famous ones.

Further Reading:

Ansels Adams' photography in the Public Domain
Shooting Cemeteries with a Holga
Learn about "The Alamo"