Sunday, January 17, 2010

A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels

Click on this photograph to get the full effect of it.

I was able to catch the last day of the Ansel Adams exhibit at the Columbia Museum of Art, which was unsurprisingly overwhelming, even if you've seen these images many times.

Or, maybe I should say, too many times -- so many times that you may forget not just how beautiful these images are, but how haunting and strange and very deliberately personal.

It's the last point that particularly intrigues me about Adams' work, because he's the kind of artist whom people think of as realistic, which apparently was not his aim. As I listened to the tour guide (as well as the voice of Adams himself) on my cellphone and read the inscriptions on the wall, time and again it was pointed out that Adams did not aim to present natural beauty as it is, but as it felt.

On this matter, he repeatedly made himself clear:

A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.

We don't make a photograph just with a camera, we bring to the act of photography all the books we have read, the movies we have seen, the music we have heard, the people we have loved.

Simply look with perceptive eyes at the world about you, and trust to your own reactions and convictions. Ask yourself: "Does this subject move me to feel, think and dream?"

The negative is comparable to the composer's score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.

It's that last point that really got to me, especially when looking at the famous image included here, which is titled "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico." The story of how he got this image has become famous, of how Adams and his sons were driving along and saw this scene, and frantically got out of the car to set up his camera and tripod before the light left the graveyard crosses. Unable to find his light meter, Adams hazarded an educated but lucky guess on the camera settings.

You can read more about it here, along with a note from Adams' assistant that the story may be slightly apocryphal, that Adams likely knew this area and may have already had this particular image in mind.

What's striking, though, is the composition, which contrasts a sky engulfed in black with a small community where people live, work, worship and die. It's almost as if the sky is threatening to blanket the town, and not just because it's getting dark. There's something naturally metaphoric about the picture. Those crosses, which Adams almost missed getting, are absolutely key to what makes the picture so sobering. It's the story of every community, I guess, in some ways, and it's particularly intriguing the way the graveyard almost spans the length of the picture. There are no people in it; just vestiges of people who used to be.

I don't think I've ever seen a picture which captures in a single frame the smallest aspects of life on earth played out against this overpowering backdrop of the universe.

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