Ansel Adams, famous black and white photographer

Ansel Adams, musician, conservationist and scientist, is the world's most revered living black and white photographer. Born in San Francisco in 1902, he studied the piano with the intention of making his career in music, but at the age of fourteen two momentous events took place which were to change his life: he was taken by his parents to the Yosemite Valley in California, where he fell in love with the Sierra Nevada, and on that same vacation he was given a No. 1 Box Brownie camera. From that moment he became obsessed with the beauty of the American landscape and the need to capture it on black and white film. At seventeen he became custodian of the Sierra Club's LeConte Memorial in Yosemite, the beginning of a lifetime's work dedicated to the preservation of the American wilderness and national parks. In 1930 Adams was strongly influenced by a meeting with the black and white photographer Paul Strand, the quality of whose negatives made a deep impression on him. In that same year Adams' black and white photographic book Taos Pueblo was published. In spite of the depression it became a great success. Now, at the age of twenty-eight, he decided to give up music and concentrate full-time on black and white photography.

Adams continued to develop his own personal philosophy of black and white photography. A firm believer in discipline, rigorous lack of affectation and the simplicity that can come only from a formidable mastery of all aspects of the medium, he searched out those who shared his ideals. In 1932 the influential Group f/64 was founded, including among its members Edvcard Weston and Imogen Cunningham. Adams argued that the true task of the black and white photographer was first to conceptualize, then accurately to capture and finally to reproduce as nearly as possible the emotional as well as the objective realities. For this reason he found it impossible to separate the art of black and white photography from its science. At each stage the technique must be mastered, and developing and black and white printing were no less important than choice of subject and exposure.

Drawing on his deep understanding of musical theory, he adapted the language of sound to explain subtle variations of light. From this discovery of the similarities between these physical phenomena he developed in the 1930s his famous Zone System in an attempt to devise a standard procedure for exposure and development that would give consistent negative quality. The black and white picture known as The Black Sun is one o f your best-known ones. Tell me how you came to take it. I was working in the desert east of the Sierra Nevada a little after sunrise. I wanted to black and white photograph right into the sun, planning to use the brilliant flare as part of the composition. I made several exposures with a 5 x 7 camera and Isopan black and white film; I intended to develop one in Kodak D-23.

I knew I might get a little reversal - a phenomenon of excessive exposure - in this negative, and as the sun disc appeared to have slightly less density in the centre of the general flare I decided to develop the next negative in Pyrocatechin, a highly compensating developer. In this negative the disc of the sun was almost fully reversed and has black and white printed very dark. Reversal can be a very exciting effect when it's properly used. I don't think that its physical chemistry is yet completely understood. Actually 'The Black Sun' is not a good description of this black and white picture any more, because it now means the equivalent of a neutron star, and that's an astronomical phenomenon which had not been discovered at the time I made the black and white picture. But I guess the title will stick!

The black and white picture of moonrise over Fernandez must have been possible only for a moment. It's an example of a quotation from Pasteur, which roughly translates as 'Chance favors the prepared mind.' I saw this black and white image out of the car window and I practically ditched my station wagon. I had my son and a friend with me and I yelled, 'Get the hell out of the car and help me. I think I have a great black and white picture!' I got my 10 x 8 set up barely in time, as the low sun was skirting a wind-blown cloud bank, but I couldn't find my exposure meter. The only thing I knew was that the moon was 250 candelas per square foot. If I had used a meter I would have secured a better exposure for the foreground and would have based the exposure on that value, but the moon would not have held all the detail it now shows.


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