Thoughts from Ansel – what are yours?

I came across this Ansel Adams quote and wanted to get your thoughts on what Ansel said as well!
My own reaction to color photography is a mixed one.  I accept its importance as a medium of communication and information.  I have yet to see – much less produce – a color photograph that fulfills my concepts of the objectives of art.  It may approach it, give pleasure and induce contemplation, but it never seems to me to achieve that happy blend of perception and realization which we observe in  the greatest black and white photographs.  I believe that color photography, while astonishingly advanced technology, is still in its infancy as a creative medium.  We must remain objective and critical, plead for greater opportunity for control, and constantly remind ourselves that the qualities of art are achieved in spite of conditions and media – never because of them.
From “Color Photography as a Creative Medium” Image, vol. 6, no. 9 (November 1957)

~ by Derrick Birdsall on February 2, 2011.

6 Responses to “Thoughts from Ansel – what are yours?”

  1. That quote is from 1957, five years before the Sierra Club first successfully added color to their groundbreaking Exhibit Format Series that popularized the coffee table photography book. Up until 1962, color reproduction methods for publishing were not up to fine art standards. Ansel was on the publishing committee of the Sierra Club and resisted the introduction of color to the series that David Brower, Nancy Newhall and he had invented with the first book, “This Is The American Earth.” Ansel believed that color reproductions were inferior to black and white, an assertion that the rest of the committee was not able to refute until 1962 with the smashing success of Eliot Porter’s “In Wildness Is The Preservation of the World” that outsold all of the other titles in the series combined, and the lesser though solid success of Philip Hyde’s “Island In Time: the Point Reyes Peninsula” a mixture black and white and color in a more documentary style that helped in the campaign to establish Point Reyes National Seashore. Color fine art print making processes did not become reasonably priced and of sufficient fine art quality until more than a decade later. There are several other quotes by Ansel in which he admits his own lack of skill in color photography. In the end though, Ansel may end up being right. Color may never surpass or even equal the fine art acceptance that black and white silver prints have. Though the best crafters of color prints today are producing the best quality color prints ever made, digital prints today are often scoffed at and mocked by galleries and museums. While we also see a resurgence in black and white darkroom printing. It may be that the art establishment is merely slow to accept new technology, or it may be that the mass proliferation and lack of rarity of digital prints may result in their own doom, when it comes to what is accepted as fine art by academia and historians. The ironic point though is that it was Ansel himself who led the charge in establishing black and white photography as a prestigious and respected art form. It will take people of equal or more artistic skill and talent to champion the cause of digital color printing and prove that it too is indeed a worthy art form. The reality that anyone can buy a digital camera and a printer and make good quality large prints right at home does not help the cause of the new medium. It contributes to the declassification of it as a fine art.

  2. Like you and David said, Adams wrote this in 1957. Color has come a long way.

    To me it doesn’t matter whether a photographer chooses to use color or B/W or both. I do both. My biggest complaint with color photography is that it’s all to easy and common to hide a weak photograph behind spectacular color. A strong photo is just as valid an expression in color as it would be in B/W.

    Interesting question Derrick.

  3. We’ve come a long way, baby! I think even Ansel would embrace color photography if he were here today! I believe there is a place for both. I surround myself with (mostly) color prints because they make me smile and draw my attention more so than b&w images (hung on walls in my own home).

  4. It was interesting to read Ansel’s progressing thoughts about color photography – ranging from excitement about the new medium to lack of interest altogether. I also read recently the latest Outdoor Photographer article titled something like “what would Ansel use today”…. all of which got me thinking about the question of what would Ansel (or Philip Hyde for that matter) use today with the current availability of technology.

    As anyone can tell from perusing my images, I’m a sucker for those candy colors, I love them! But there are times I am taking pictures and something calls out to me that the image would look better in B/W and I’ll set the camera to do so at that time rather than mess with it at home.

  5. I am coming to this discussion too late, I know, but I wonder what he meant by this – “happy blend of perception and realization”. I am often left scratching my head over art-speak.


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