Below is a shot by Ansel Adams I recently posted to another thread, but that got me thinking more about how divided I feel about it – so I thought I’d share my thoughts here, in hope of learning more from your reactions.
(Ansel’s title is: “Student Group in Library, University of Rochester.” It appears with a few technical remarks in “The Negative,” chapter 7.)
As I mentioned, I think the photo shows a dazzling mastery of difficult lighting. Few but Ansel could blend natural light from a window – so harmoniously – with the artificial light of lamps. A brilliant performance.
What’s more, I think this lighting just happens to illuminate a composition with a highly complex and supremely enjoyable balance. Indeed, the longer you look, the more balance you discover:
– Social conversation vs. bookish concentration
– Friendly smiles vs. tightened brows
– Luxurious curtains vs. warm wood vs. slick glass
– Indoor décor vs. outdoor architecture
– Piney limbs vs. stony facades, etc.
To be a little more abstract, one might also point-out the symphonic balance of vertical lines (portico columns, book spines, lamp posts), horizontal lines (book shelves & window lattices) and graceful diagonals (tree limbs, hung curtains, furniture backs). Even key bright spots are served by darker backgrounds – and vice versa.
At risk of belaboring the point, I hope you also enjoy all the pleasing triangles – formed, for example, by the portico’s pediment, the sloping curtains, the lamp head + two talking heads. Even the lamp’s illuminated shade shares in the geometry.
The upshot: this photo is a technical and aesthetic masterpiece.
But is there a worm in the apple?
To find out, please allow me to set-aside the photo’s brilliant fireworks, and concentrate on a few of its less-visible traits.
The composition, I think, clearly implies certain assumptions – perhaps without Ansel’s conscious awareness – about the dominant role men, and submissive role of women. If this is true, one is certainly free to link such assumptions with the scene’s era (which I think is the 1950’s – does anyone know the year of the photo?). Others might say that if this assumption is there, it’s unacceptable in any time or place. Still others might argue that no such assumption exists – or even if it did, you wouldn’t be able to prove it.
I think it’s there. Examine the evidence:
This woman is at best a visitor, at worst an invader of this men’s club. (Check out the hunting scene above her head.) If she’s not, where is her book? Why does she seem to interrupt the reader in front of her, and disturb the reader nearest us? Now take a look out the window – at the world for which the students are presumably preparing themselves. With whom is this majestic, Greco-Roman architecture associated? Might you say it’s rooted (I might say floating) above the boys’ heads, like an eternal vision of past, present and future? The girl apparently shares no connection with it. Or if she does, perhaps it’s because she’s the librarian’s daughter, applying some flattery in a matrimonial quest.
Yes, I think Ansel built this masterful composition on such assumptions. And I suspect he did so unconsciously – like so many other consummate artists, necessarily working from the materials and values of their times.
I also think that while it’s important to be aware of such issues, they’re less important than the stunning photographic achievement in front of us. Photography may contain biases in its material or presentation, but in the end, photographic art means itself – and necessarily subordinates the moral lessons or cultural assumptions it may contain, conscious or not. I think this photo will remain a masterpiece – perhaps a neglected one – despite ever-changing times. Do you?