Watching yesterday a documentary on the life of the celebrated American landscape photographer Ansel Adams, I was reminded afresh of the influence the transcendent work of this great artist had on my life; was in fact responsible for one of its turning points.
After spending years training for a career in music, I quit conservatory having convinced myself rightly, as I then thought (and today still think) despite protestations to the contrary by mentors and teachers I lacked the native gift required to become anything more than a first-rate second-rater, and as a matter of necessity turned instead to the world of business, in which world, and to my utter surprise and mild horror, it fast became apparent I did possess the native gift to become more than a first-rate second-rater, and so became fairly well-off (if not genuinely rich) fairly quickly.
After spending some ten years at this, I glimpsed into my future, and was there confronted by the bleak and depressing prospect that the most my life would ever accomplish would be to make more money. Well, money is important only when it's lacking, and as one of my favorite movie lines goes (this one from Citizen Kane, and as verbatim as I can remember it): "It's no trick to make a lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money."
So, at the ripe age of 30, I left the world of business, and struck out on a new career in the world of the arts sort of. What I did was take up a career as a photographer of architecture. While not considered among the high arts, photography, when practiced at the highest level, was art enough for me and whatever small gift for it I may have possessed. The career change also seemed to me a perfectly reasonable business decision as architecture was one of my lifelong interests, I already had a secure knowledge of basic photographic technique which I was certain I could expand easily enough to become expert, and by my taking on a well-chosen clientele I felt sure I could earn an at least bread-and-butter living by my efforts and so not have to depend on my modest investments for my day-to-day living expenses.
And it worked out just as I'd envisioned, better than I envisioned, until one day I encountered an original print by Adams, my first. It was an original print of this:
and I was lost. I almost couldn't believe that what I was looking at was a photographic print so unlike was it from any photographic print I'd ever seen. I immediately undertook a detailed investigation of Adams's work, and within a week decided to abandon photographing architecture as a career (as opposed to accepting assignments when my wallet so dictated) and so embarked on a course that for years after was determined to follow in Adams's footsteps.
So, what's with that photograph?, you may ask. It's simply a pretty picture. And it's indeed merely that until, that is, one has seen at firsthand an original Adams print of that pretty picture, whereupon the pretty picture instantly transforms into something infinitely greater; something almost unimaginable for one with no prior experience of an original Adams print.
The experience of one's initial encounter with an original Adams print is one of aesthetic shock; or better, aesthetic arrest, to use Joyce's language. As remarked above, one even has some difficulty persuading oneself that the print is a photograph so physically different does it appear from an ordinary black-and-white photographic print, no matter how well made. The blacks are impossibly deep; the whites, impossibly radiant; the gradation of tones from deepest black to most brilliant white, impossibly rich, subtle, and delicately detailed; and the lambently luminous whole so seemingly three-dimensional one imagines one could reach one's hand beyond the print's surface and deep into the image itself.
All that is the product of Adams's prodigious technical skill, and as well an essential element of the uncopyable core of his singular visual genius. That technical skill can be acquired by most dedicated photographers possessing a good photographic eye, but even when acquired is but groundwork only; a matter of mere craft the possession of which is expected of any serious photographer working in black-and-white. In his mature landscape work, however, Adams's art goes beyond vastly beyond questions of mere craft (his early landscape work is, well, early work, reflecting the perversely painterly but in-fashion "art photograph" style of the time, and his non-landscape work was, throughout his career, largely unremarkable).
At their best, Adams's printed landscape images transfigure and transcend their subjects, and render in the processed image not the subject's outward appearance, but its ineffable spiritual and mystic center as Adams "previsualized" it when looking at the framed view of the scene on the ground glass of his large-format view camera. ("Previsualization" is Adams's term for seeing in the mind's eye the finished photographic print of the image seen on the ground glass.) "I look upon the lines and forms of Nature as if they were but the vast expression of ideas within the Cosmic Mind," said Adams. Just so. And it was precisely that, not the "lines and forms of Nature" that Adams captured in his prints, thereby permitting us to see and experience it as well.
I've never met a serious photographer, myself included, who, for the first time ensorcelled by an Adams's print, did not, after first recovering from the initial shock, imagine he could exactly match its qualities if he worked assiduously enough at learning and practicing all the necessary techniques. Indeed, Adams himself fostered and encouraged such a notion, and shared enthusiastically his methods and techniques with others, wrote detailed books on the subject that are still earnestly studied classics in the field, and was generous almost to a fault with his time in giving personal help and guidance to other serious photographers. Thousands again, myself included have benefited immeasurably from his teaching, but none not one has ever succeeded in producing a self-visualized and -made print of a landscape subject that could be mistaken by an experienced eye for a genuine Adams-visualized and -made print. If nothing else, that alone is more than sufficient to refute decisively the snobbish and purblind notion that a "straight" (i.e., non-abstract) photographic print can never qualify as a work of genuine art.
There's a famous story of the renowned photographer, art historian, museum curator, writer, and scholar, Beaumont Newhall, who one day, while thumbing through a magazine, unexpectedly came across an Adams landscape image the original print of which was known to him. His fresh apprehension of the image made him literally fall back in awe on the couch on which he was sitting, murmuring to himself that Adams must surely be the greatest photographer who ever lived.
The story is not apocryphal, and in his judgment Newhall was not far wrong.