I’m reading Ansel Adams’ book, “Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs” and finding renewed inspiration in his work. I must admit I get a little tired of the fuss over Adams in “Outdoor Photographer” magazine, a clear ploy to sell more issues. But when I return to the master himself and read his words I am fired up with renewed commitment to making fine photographic images.
“Moonrise,” the extremely popular photograph of the full moon rising over Hernandez, New Mexico, is the one I’d like to talk about in this post.
This iconic photograph almost didn’t happen. From the time Adams saw this image, set up his 8X10 view camera, ‘guessed’ at the exposure and triggered the shutter, the light was almost gone. In the seconds it took to reverse his film holder to get a backup shot it was gone.
I say he ‘guessed’ the exposure because he didn’t have time to do the careful spot metering and exposure calculation that is at the heart of his zone system. He didn’t have time to even dig his spot meter out. But he realized the moon was in full daylight and he new its luminance was 250 candles per square foot. He placed the moon in Zone VII, set his f/stop and shutter speed accordingly, composed, focused and pressed the cable release.
This image required the full range of his considerable technical skills, both in developing the negative and making the print. He speaks of the uncertainty in developing the negative to pull out the detail in the shadows and how difficult the negative was to print, how no two prints came out exactly the same. What becomes very clear in his technical discussion is the extent of his enormous technical skills and the decisions he made in the field when determining the exposure, in the darkroom when developing the negative to control the dynamic range, and again in the darkroom when making the prints. And the end result was this incredibly expressive image.
But all of this technical prowess was the servant or even the slave to his artistic vision. When he glanced out the window of his Cadillac while returning to his hotel in Santa Fe and saw the moon, the clouds and the sleepy village with the tombstones in the glow of the setting sun he knew at that moment what the final image would look like. For Adams, previsualization was the master of the creative process. From the instant the car came to a stop and he rushed to set up his gear and capture the moment, everything he did, every decision he made served his vision of what he would make from this moment.
And that’s what I find so inspiring, the focus of all of the technical skills we acquire, master and perfect into the realization of the connection we have with our world. For it is that connection and the skill to share it with others that makes us artists.