December 14, 2021

"Monolith, The Face of Half Dome" by Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams first photographed the massive Half Dome rock formation at Yosemite National Park at age 14, using a Kodak Brownie camera that his parents had given him for the trip from his home in San Francisco.  Having owned a later model of the same simple box camera when I was a boy, I can only imagine Adams’ disappointment when he got the prints back.  There was just no way that snapshots taken with a kids’ camera could capture the magnificence of the Half Dome.

Adams returned to photograph the same landmark several times as a young man before taking the picture that would establish his reputation as a major artist.  In the spring of 1927 he arrived with a 40-lb. backpack holding a 6 ½ x 8 /12 Korona view camera, several lenses and filters, and a dozen glass-plate negatives, with a heavy wooden tripod strapped to his backpack.  He and some friends trudged through heavy snow to a nearby overlook that would give him the best view of the Half Dome’s sheer western face, which rose more than half a mile from the valley floor.  

Adams was down to his last glass negative when he had the inspiration to use a red filter to darken the sky, causing the sunlit edge of the granite edifice to stand out even more.  This was the first time Adams had used a technique he called “visualization” to photograph a subject — not as it presented itself in its natural state but as he saw it in his mind’s eye.  "I saw the photograph as a brooding form, with deep shadows and a distant sharp white peak against a dark sky,” he later recounted. 

The resulting image, “Monolith, The Face of Half Dome,” was offered for sale later that year in a portfolio of original prints called “Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras.”  The publisher advised that the word “photograph” not be used in the title, believing there was no market for fine-arts photographs.  At the time, soft-focus pictorialism still held sway among serious photographers, in which painterly techniques were used in a misguided effort to gain legitimacy as an artistic medium.  Adams went entirely in the other direction, embracing the sharpness and immediacy of photographic imagery to lay claim to its place as a unique art form.  

From the beginning, photography had been regarded as a technical marvel but never much more than that.  The camera, after all, was a mechanical device, and photographers were primarily seen as craftsmen with a certain mechanical aptitude.  The Parisian street photographer Brassaï, who had started out as a painter, shared this prejudice until he began to see photography’s artistic possibilities.  He later summarized his approach to the medium this way: "I invent nothing, I imagine everything.”

The seeming contradiction of his statement is resolved when you realize he was essentially doing the same thing Adams was.  As Adams expressed it, “The ability to anticipate—to see in the mind’s eye, so to speak—the final print while viewing the subject makes it possible to apply the numerous controls of the craft in precise ways that contribute to achieving the desired result.”

A camera may be a mechanical device, but the photograph does not take itself.  The photographer determines where to point the camera and the precise moment to press the shutter.  He or she must be mindful of composition, framing, focus and exposure.  During post-production, more factors are taken into account, including cropping, white balance, contrast and color saturation.  As Adams explained it, ”The negative is comparable to the composer's score and the print to its performance."  To a photographer, the image that appears in the viewfinder of his camera is merely the canvas on which his imagination and technical skill are applied. 

"When true imagination is at work, the same power is operating in man as operated, in the Beginning, in the creation of the world,”  the philosopher Owen Barfield once wrote.  Rabbi Moses ben Naḥman, a medieval Spanish scholar, noted that the root of the Hebrew word “likeness” in the Genesis creation story was  dimyon, meaning “imagination.”  The creature God created in his own image and likeness was given dominion over the other creatures, including the right to name them.  In effect, according to Jewish belief, this gave humankind the power to define their essence.  As William Blake expressed it,  “Man is a little God, his imagination acting upon nature in the same way that, in the beginning, the spirit of God gave form to the void.”

Think of a photographer as a kind of alchemist, who instead of transmuting base metals into gold transmutes objects in the world into images made of light.  This can be seen most readily in the darkroom, when the image appears as if by magic on a blank sheet of photo paper bathed in a chemical solution.  For those of us working digitally, the transmutation takes place inside a computer, but the result is no less magical.  You don’t have to wave a wand to make manifest what exists in  the mind’s eye; you just have to click the shutter.

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