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Thread: Ansel Adams' portrait of tragedy

  1. #1
    Land-Scapegrace Heroique's Avatar
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    Ansel Adams' portrait of tragedy

    Sometimes I come across Ansel Adams images I’ve never seen.

    Often, they’re not from his landscape portfolio, but from his client portfolio, like this one:

    Click image for larger version. 

Name:	Drama students in the mist.jpg 
Views:	328 
Size:	58.2 KB 
ID:	213398


    It’s part of a 1967 project to make a book with images of all Univ. of California campuses. This one features UC Irvine – a group of drama students rehearsing Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex on school grounds. I believe the teacher/director is standing; the kneeling male is King Oedipus; and the supine woman is his Queen-wife and (to his tragic discovery) his mother. I’m guessing here, but this might be when Oedipus has taken her down from the noose after she commits suicide, and he’s reaching for her long dress pins so he can put out his eyes. Pity and fear indeed.

    I understand this was an LF image, but little else. Maybe someone can offer more about the camera, lens, film, processing, and printing. It would be nice if we knew the client’s instructions, but that’s a private affair of course – unless either party shared some of the details.

    -----
    Please tell us why you think this image works (or falls short) as a group portrait. Do you think AA considered the landscape elements carefully enough? Especially the lighting. And if you didn’t know the story behind the image, what would your initial reaction be, positive or negative?

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    Pieter's Avatar
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    Re: Ansel Adams' portrait of tragedy

    Quote Originally Posted by Heroique View Post
    Sometimes I come across Ansel Adams images I’ve never seen.

    Often, they’re not from his landscape portfolio, but from his client portfolio, like this one:

    Click image for larger version. 

Name:	Drama students in the mist.jpg 
Views:	328 
Size:	58.2 KB 
ID:	213398
    It looks like a mediocre photo at best. And from the square format, might have been shot with a Hasselblad, not LF.

    It’s part of a 1967 project to make a book with images of all Univ. of California campuses. This one features UC Irvine – a group of drama students rehearsing Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex on school grounds. I believe the teacher/director is standing; the kneeling male is King Oedipus; and the supine woman is his Queen-wife and (to his tragic discovery) his mother. I’m guessing here, but this might be when Oedipus has taken her down from the noose after she commits suicide, and he’s reaching for her long dress pins so he can put out his eyes. Pity and fear indeed.

    I understand this was an LF image, but little else. Maybe someone can offer more about the camera, lens, film, processing, and printing. It would be nice if we knew the client’s instructions, but that’s a private affair of course – unless either party shared some of the details.

    -----
    Please tell us why you think this image works (or falls short) as a group portrait. Do you think AA considered the landscape elements carefully enough? Especially the lighting. And if you didn’t know the story behind the image, what would your initial reaction be, positive or negative?

  3. #3
    Tin Can's Avatar
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    Re: Ansel Adams' portrait of tragedy

    Very 60's

    It is a time capsule of how some were

    I really wish I had been allowed in the Drama club, or Art classes

    My parents and 'testing' at five HS, said no way, back to science and math...

    art found me age 35

    sales is an art
    2022

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    Re: Ansel Adams' portrait of tragedy

    With the square format, I’d guess Hasselblad rather than LF.

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    Re: Ansel Adams' portrait of tragedy

    This photograph is from a large body of work Ansel Adams did for the University of California for their centennial (1968). Googling Ansel Adams University of California Centennial brings up a bunch of stuff pointing to the scope of this project. In 1967 McGraw-Hill published a book of (some of) these photographs titled Fiat Lux. In 1990 University of California, Irvine published a second book of photographs from this project, also titled Fiat Lux. To be clear the books are not identical but many of the same photographs appear in both. The photograph shown here does not; a different one of (presumably) the same production of Oedipus Rex does.

    Both books include some technical details. Adams used a 5 x 7 Sinar with a 4 x 5 reducing back. Lenses listed are 12" Apo-Collinear; 9 1/4" Goerz Artar (probably actually 9 1/2"), 8" Kodak Ektar and 121 mm and 90 mm Super-Angulons. Film used: 5 X 7 Tri-X and Pan-X; 4 X 5 film pack, both Tri-X and Plus-X; and Polaroid 55P/N.

    And he used the Hasselblad 500C with what looks like every lens available at the time from 50 mm to 500 mm. With this kit he used Tri-X, Pan-X and Plus-X.

    Finally he shows using 35 mm: a Contarex with 21 mm, 35 mm, 85 mm and 135 mm lenses, Tri-X, Pan-X, and Plus-X.

    Film developer was FG-7 "in various dilutions" with water and sometimes 9% sodium sulfite "and in conjunction with the alternative-waterbath process."

    In the McGraw-Hill book Adams comments "a greater part of the work was done with the Hasselblad 500C." Guessing that's what he used on this photograph.

    A factoid probably of no interest of anyone, I remember seeing him and his assistant at the time photographing Charter Day ceremonies at UC Berkeley in Spring 1964. In fact I think I can pick myself out in the photo reproduced in the McGraw-Hill book. I graduated early 1966, as I like to say, that was a bad year to use up your student deferment.

    David

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    Land-Scapegrace Heroique's Avatar
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    Re: Ansel Adams' portrait of tragedy

    Quote Originally Posted by j.e.simmons View Post
    With the square format, I’d guess Hasselblad rather than LF.
    Quote Originally Posted by David Lindquist View Post
    In the McGraw-Hill book Adams comments "a greater part of the work was done with the Hasselblad 500C." Guessing that's what he used on this photograph.

    I think you’re probably right about a Hasselblad. I hope someone has more info about the technical aspects for this shot. The white paper stack, lower right, also caught my attention. Probably the play script? I was curious why the border abruptly cut it off. But I’m sure AA had a good reason for leaving it half-seen (and not placing it fully into the scene). Such a detail wouldn’t have escaped his attention, unless this was a fleeting moment of action. (On the other hand, the paper and the queen's two arms do form a triangle, pointing at Oedipus.)

  7. #7
    Drew Wiley
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    Re: Ansel Adams' portrait of tragedy

    Unfortunately, that very year what I witnessed on Calif. campus lawns was hundreds of people at a time bashing each other with fists, baseball bats, pieces of iron pipe, sometimes Molotov cocktails. A lot of blood and bruises, sometimes broken bones, and even a few fatalities. The Vietnam war era was contentious, to say the least. Besides Irvine, UC Davis was still just a water tower and a few buildings out in the middle of nowhere farmland. Now it's the premier agricultural and veterinary school in the entire world, surrounded on one side by a burb reaching almost to Sacramento, but still miles of fields the other three directions. It has wonderful botanical gardens worth casually roaming with a camera. UC Santa Cruz was still a figment of the imagination, but not long thereafter was ridiculed as being the place to go to study underwater basket weaving - not far from the truth back then. But there were two noted serious oceanographic academies slightly further down the coast. Santa Cruz itself was one dangerous wild town back then; now it's an overpriced techie hangout. I dread to even visit the city of Irvine, and would prefer to remember it as being comprised of extensive groves instead of endless stucco and asphalt.

    I'm more familiar with Adams' book on UC Berkeley. He had a portrait of Melvin Calvin in there, who had won the Nobel prize, but also showed up to class once in boxer shorts, no pants, otherwise fully dressed, shoes, ties, coat.
    I guess one has to be lost in their thoughts to be a recognized genius. I did portrait photos for a Nobel Physics nominee there once, who had his tie on backwards and forgot to comb his hair or tie his shoes.

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    Re: Ansel Adams' portrait of tragedy

    Quote Originally Posted by Heroique View Post
    I think you’re probably right about a Hasselblad. I hope someone has more info about the technical aspects for this shot. The white paper stack, lower right, also caught my attention. Probably the play script? I was curious why the border abruptly cut it off. But I’m sure AA had a good reason for leaving it half-seen (and not placing it fully into the scene). Such a detail wouldn’t have escaped his attention, unless this was a fleeting moment of action. (On the other hand, the paper and the queen's two arms do form a triangle, pointing at Oedipus.)
    As you noted, the paper and Jocasta's left arm both point from the edges to the center of the image, at the queen and Oedipus. Also, the sapling tree and post behind Oedipus forms a third leg of a tri-star, pointing toward the center. Ordinarily we are taught not to have trees or posts directly behind a subject's head because it creates a distracting "tree growing out of head" effect, but here it works out. Probably the fact that the sapling is much skinnier and lighter in shade set it apart from Oedipus's head. Adams might have lightened it in printing, plus the general haze/fog of the background serves to focus attention on the actors in the foreground.

    The trifold symmetry of the these elements works well with the tight square composition. Even if it were originally a rectangle, I think it would be stronger this way. Squares are sometimes difficult to work in, but this one suits the subjects.

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    Land-Scapegrace Heroique's Avatar
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    Re: Ansel Adams' portrait of tragedy

    Quote Originally Posted by David Lindquist View Post
    In 1967 McGraw-Hill published a book of (some of) these photographs titled Fiat Lux. In 1990 UC Irvine published a second book of photographs from this project, also titled Fiat Lux. To be clear the books are not identical but many of the same photographs appear in both. The photograph shown here does not; a different one of (presumably) the same production of Oedipus Rex does.
    That’s a helpful context, David.

    “Fiat Lux” – “Let there be light,” in case anyone’s curious.

    Quote Originally Posted by reddesert View Post
    As you noted, the paper and Jocasta's left arm both point from the edges to the center of the image, at the queen and Oedipus. Also, the sapling tree and post behind Oedipus forms a third leg of a tri-star, pointing toward the center. […] The trifold symmetry of the these elements works well with the tight square composition.
    Nice observation. Now that I see the "trifold design," I agree that it directs the eye, adds balance, and helps control a violent moment.

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    Re: Ansel Adams' portrait of tragedy

    What I find interesting is that Adams, at age 65, was still taking on major commercial assignments.
    I see that as proof that a) he was a workaholic and b) that at the time, the art market for photographs was not enough to support him (despite his fame and undoubted success).

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