View Full Version : Adams and Photoshop - Photo Techniques Jan/Feb 2004

Kevin M Bourque
16-Dec-2003, 15:53
Hi everyone –

The recent issue of Photo Techniques contains an essay that argues whether or not Ansel Adams would have used digital imaging and Photoshop. The author concludes that he would have, and I tend to agree.

But after I read it, I was troubled. Not to be disrespectful, but why would anyone care if Adams would use digital? I’ve seen this expressed before, the WWAD (What Would Ansel DO) syndrome. It’s as if we somehow need his permission. We feel guilty about using Photoshop, and seek absolution to make it ok. Of all the things in the world to worry about, this shouldn’t be high on the list.

Elsewhere in the issue is David Vestal’s monthly column. He’s a big proponent of, “it’s your art, and nobody else’s opinion makes any difference”. Right on, Dave. Whether you use digital, traditional process, some alternate homebrew, or Weston’s proverbial bathmat, you opinion is the one that matters. If it moves you, it’s good.

Please, I’m not putting down Adams, and I’m definitely not suggesting that we should all crawl into our caves and ignore what others are doing. In fact, I think that bouncing off other artists (and your audience) can only make you better. But, you get the final say, not Adams’ ghost or anyone else. There’s a vast range of techniques and materials out there, and they all have some validity. It’s up to us to choose what works. Whether Adams or anyone else uses Photoshop is of no relevance.

Mark Windom
16-Dec-2003, 17:08
"it's your art, and nobody else's opinion makes any difference".

It does if you're trying to sell your work.

Adams used the only form of "Photoshop" available to him at the time in the form of extensive darkroom manipulation and I for one am glad he did.

bob moulton
16-Dec-2003, 17:09
Kevin,I agree. Adams is a figure that anyone using LF should know about, study, and perhaps admre.The Photo Techniques author made a good point in recalling Adam's own innovations, experiments, and interests in technologies and devices that for his era were new and controversial. So we can appreciate what he stood for and accomplished, but must we be limited to putting toppers on cadillacs because Ansel did? Using the large format film and glass plate cameras that he used? Should we be limited to making photographs only of that small part of the Southwest and the West where Adams photographed and thus ignoring the rest of the country or the world? Should we insist that all galleries exhibit only images made in california, the four corners area, maybe Alaska but none made east of the Rockies or west of Monterey? I think not. Perhaps the lack of a figure of his stature who is as admired and as controvserial as Adams is what many LFers and others miss, and in the vacuum they turn to enshrining a man who seemed to epitomize the rejection of such deitydom. Bob

Francis Abad
16-Dec-2003, 17:50
Most forecasts about future events are 50-50 at best. You can argue that AA would have gone digital as much as he would not have. It is a forecast and as such is inherently subjective. It is all about the motives of the forecaster and his hidden agenda.

16-Dec-2003, 18:04

I agree with your comments and also wonder why we would even want to speculate on what Ansel would have used, or not used, in his artistic endeavors. That being said... I would like to think that he would have been progressive enough to have recognized that "the world is not a static place" and that technology evolves, as it should!

My thought is that he would have produced beautiful images regardless of whether he would have wanted to manipulate the image in the darkroom or via Photoshop. Afterall, there's no disputing the fact that he was a genius in the photographic world.

Lastly...let's put this all into perspective. Ansel Adams, IMHO, was a progressive person with progressive thoughts. If not, he most likely would have stayed with the traditional horse and buggy rather than what he drove (International?)

Only my two-bits worth!

Merry Christmas to all and to all... A Merry Christmas!


james mickelson
16-Dec-2003, 18:51
I must say that everyone's preconceived notion of what Ansel Adams would say or do or think or use is utter nonesense. And he would be the first to tell you so. People should quit having to justify their regard or disregard for what he would do or say or think. I read and hear so many people predicating their ideas based on whether he would agree or disagree with them. You don't think his art is to your liking, he wouldn't care. You think he would like your art or would care one wit whether you liked his or not, he wouldn't care. I say quit using him to justify your ideas and feelings. You don't carefor his art? Fine. You do like his art? Fine. Just quit bringing up his name and his art to justify some idea or give your art or opinion validity. He made his statement through his art and that's that. He's portrayed as some god by some and the devil by others and none of us knew him. You don't like his wonderfully expressive prints, ok. You like abstract urpban scenes with homeless people then fine. Do it and quit trying to justify it by villianizing Ansel Adams.

Ed Eubanks
16-Dec-2003, 20:54
I remember a day in the late 80s, when I was sitting in the office of my father's studio reading a photo mag. At that point, he far exceeded the caliber of photographer that Ansel Adams was, in my teen-aged opinion; we did everything together, and he was no small hero for me.
Having just read about the "new Minolta Maxxum" I asked him what he thought about this new camera. His response? "Computerized cameras-- auto-focus-- nothing but a gee-whiz fad. It'll never last."
He died not too long after that, but I've often recalled that brief conversation and wondered what he would think were he around today. My guess is that Ansel may have had similar thoughts, recognizing the oncoming train of technological progress as the equipment that was state-of-the-art in the prime of his career was fast becoming obsolete (or did you suppose that Moore's Law was not true before the 70s?).
Would he have used digital? Probably so, if that is what he was given to work with; probably, however, with great reluctance-- and maybe with some difficulty getting past well-established habits of using "analog" gear (I'm reminded of a beloved, aging professor from college who typed on his keyboard with the form and posture of a pianist, since that was the "keyboard" he knew the best!).

John Kasaian
16-Dec-2003, 22:39

I agree as well! The arguement is pointless unless I were trying to somehow "legitimize" digital by conjuring up a cosmic endorsement by Ansel Adams---then it becomes truly pointless. It would be like saying Michealangelo would have preferred "Bondo" to Marble, Chief Joseph would have flown an F-15 instead of an Appaloosa, or Count Basie would have traded in his piano for a moog---maybe so, maybe not, but it ain't going to happen and shouldn't be an overriding factor in selecting the vehicle that best suits our pursuit of a vision----use the tools & processes YOU enjoy! Cheers!

Brian Ellis
17-Dec-2003, 10:37
Everything we talk about doesn't have to serve a specific utilitarian purpose. Sometimes people talk just because the topic is interesting. Of course it doesn't "matter" one whit whether Ansel Adams would have used a digital camera and switched to Photoshop or not. OTOH, it's kind of interesting to speculate. I enjoyed the article in "Photo Techniques" despite the author's egregious error in crediting Minor White with being the co-inventor of the zone system along with Adams. Poor Fred Archer, he doesn't get any respect.

Guy Tal
17-Dec-2003, 10:56
Well, I'm kinda in a bind now. Before I make any expensive decisions - anyone know for sure whether Adams would have stuck with Photoshop 7 or upgrade to Photoshop CS?
For that matters would he have used a Mac?

Merg Ross
17-Dec-2003, 11:35
Brian, I noticed the same error in crediting Minor White as a co-inventor of the Zone System. It was, as you note, while Ansel was on the faculty of the Art Center School in 1942 that he and Fred Archer developed what was later to be known as the Zone System.

Geoffrey Swenson
18-Dec-2003, 17:39
I find this hang up on Ansel Adam quite ridiculous. It seems like reading some of you, that he is the ONLY photographer past and present. Yes, he had had an important role in photography once, however he wasn’t the best by any means. Even though this might sound a heresy, but there are many contemporary photographers better than he ever was. By all accounts Ansel Adam has made about 50,000 negatives and all of those about a dozen are noteworthy. I really like some of those handful, but they are definitely not the Alpha and Omega of printmaking.

Geoffrey Swenson
18-Dec-2003, 17:47
Sorry, I meant to say that he is definitely not the Alpha and Omega of photography. There are many others!

Francis Abad
18-Dec-2003, 17:54
Why is it that when people show their adoration of someone like Ansel Adams or Edward Weston or Steiglitz or Steichen etc ad naseaum that people despise these opinions. Michael Smith gets the same kind of comments of adoration and he deserves it. So does Adams. The have earned it. The have all done their time and they have impacted photography tremendously whether you like it or not. If you dont like Adams just say you dont like him. Please refrain from telling people that they are wrong to adore or that it irritates you. That is just plain mean and quite frankly it is not your place to tell people how to think.

Geoffrey Swenson
19-Dec-2003, 08:59
Now you are really going down the scale by mentioning Michael Smith’s fame as an (?)artist(?) which is dubious at best.

The key is ad naseaum here (re. AA). One shouldn’t be an ostrich with his head under the sand and reciting the mantra of the greatness of one. Instead, be brave and discover someone contemporary who might be better than the “Old Masters”. And yes I like Adams, but still he is not the best by a long stretch!

Mark Minard
20-Dec-2003, 12:45
I thought this quote from AA's autobiography (written @1980-83) might be of some interest to the discussion: "In the electronic age, I am sure that scanning techniques will be developed to achieve prints of extraordinary subtlety from the original negative scores. If I could return in twenty years or so I would hope to see astounding interpretations of my most expressive images. It is true that no one could print my negatives as I did, but they might well get more out of them by electronic means. Image quality is not the product of a machine, but of the person who directs the machine, and there are no limits to imagination and expression".

Personally, I think he'd be loving photoshop if he were around... Some here may think that this type of speculation is silly and pointless, but on a day not conductive to photography like today - 15 degrees, snow, high wind, etc, - I can't see the harm in it ;) I'm just glad to know that I'm not the only one who considers these things occasionally!


Dean Lastoria
20-Dec-2003, 23:59
Mark dug up the quote I kept thinking of which leads me to believe he probably would have, but the theme of this thread seems to be:

“Why would anyone care if Adams would use digital?”

It may not matter in day-to-day living, but it goes directly to the point of what various tools and techniques do to what we produce. Scanning is not the same as enlarging. A scanner and printer is not just a new-fangled enlarger. When new technology comes along things change. Marshall McLuhan talks of the car not being a new horse and buggy, but something that is a fundamental change – he called it Rear View Mirror thinking. So it is rear view mirror thinking to think that if Adams used Photoshop his work would change only in efficiency. To use the literary metaphor – which is perhaps more transparent – did writing change with the typewriter or word-processor. I’d say fundamentally.

As for Adams, his work is so open to discussion because his prints are the epics of our time. He is the Milton of photography. Would asking if Milton’s work would fundamentally change if he used a wordproccesor be silly? I don’t think so. Milton is not so far off topic – every photographer should read Milton’s “On His Blindness” and every photographer should mull over the line “When I consider how my light is spent”. (http://www.sonnets.org/milton.htm#002)

I don’t know how it would be different, but Adam’s work would be fundamentally different if he used Photoshop, just as the horse and buggy is about more than 40MPH difference, and a word processor would never allow Milton to use 18 line long sentences

Can you see it? Epic/8X10? Paradise Lost/ El Capitan? We yammer on about this dead guy because his work deals with epic issues and we wrestle with him whenever we walk into a friend’s house who has half a wall covered with a picture of El Capitan. Maybe he’d only have had to make one shot of the darned thing if he could have Photoshopped it.


Ole Tjugen
21-Dec-2003, 02:44
"and a word processor would never allow Milton to use 18 line long sentences"

Utterly off topic - but an image dropped into my mind of James Joyce attempting to get "Finnegans Wake" past the spellchecker in Micros*t Word...

Mark Minard
21-Dec-2003, 11:03
Dean, good post. I got about 25% of the way through Paradise Lost before I couldn't take anymore. But of course the best lines are near the beginnning "The mind is its own place - and in itself can make a hell of heaven - a heaven of hell". Paraphrasing, of course :) Try getting the old english spellings of "heav'n", or "he'vn" thru the spelchekur!

With a new house, I'm struggling with this decision right now - do I build another darkroom or do I buy the Epson? Since my ultimate goal is to someday produce a book of my work, I'm not sure it really matters.

Probably my favorite article dealing with the digital/traditional discussion is this one fron The Atlantic, titled "Photography In The Age of Falsification". It's well worth the read for those of you who haven't seen it.


Mark Minard
21-Dec-2003, 11:23
"Maybe he’d only have had to make one shot of the darned thing if he could have Photoshopped it".

Apparently he was sometimes questioned about whether or not "Moonrise" was a double exposure - as he felt the need to state that "it most certainly was not" in his book Examples, The Making Of 40 Photographs... I imagine that upon seeing a similar photograph taken today, my first thought would be "nice photoshop". The double exposure question pales in comparison.

Desperate Sam
18-Apr-2004, 12:22
This page has a Photoshop Action for use by digital photographers, called "Yosemite Sky". I tried it and on the right pictures it does something that approaches the Ansel style.


The page has a quote from Ansel....

"I eagerly await new concepts and processes. I believe that the electronic image will be the next major advance. Such systems will have their own inherent and inescapable structural characteristics, and the artist and functional practitioner will again strive to comprehend and control them." - Ansel Adams, "The Negative" 1981.

Jorge Castillo
9-Dec-2004, 19:12
Ansel Adams would not just be using digital imaging and Photoshop ... he would be TEACHING US about them!

Frank Petronio
10-Dec-2004, 04:12
Well, he did do an ad for Apple... even after he was dead - that takes brand loyalty.

http://www.smalltalkconsulting.com/html/thinkDifferent.html (http://www.smalltalkconsulting.com/html/thinkDifferent.html)

Ellis Vener
11-Dec-2004, 12:13
what just slays me in these type of multi-monologues is the inherent presumption by nearly everyone that in any given genre there is the unquestioned presumption that there is only one "best" photographer. It is sillier than presuming that there is only one best print by AA of the "Moonrise Over Hernandez, N.M" negative.