Ansel Adams Biography: Joe Cornish on the photographer who inspired him most

Ansel Adams Biography: The Tetons and the Snake River

Who is the best photographer of all time? In a recent poll of famous photographers, Digital Camera World readers gave a resounding answer: Ansel Adams. And in keeping with our promise, we’ve not only provided a profile on the legendary landscape photographer, but we’ve spoken to another of the world’s most famous landscape photographers, Joe Cornish, to find out what it is about Ansel Adams’ photography that made him so enduring. 

The 55 Best Photographers of All Time: Ansel Adams

A photo portrait of photographer Ansel Adams, which first appeared in the 1950 Yosemite Field School yearbook.

I first became aware of Ansel Adams’ photography while I was a student at Reading University in the late 1970s. There was an exhibition of his work on campus and I went along to see it. I can still remember one particular picture, taken in Wyoming or Idaho. I was absolutely knocked out by the fact that it was photography and that it was so artistic.

One typically thinks of Adams as a master of light, but in the image I recall it wasn’t the light that struck me. It was just something about the mood or the atmosphere or the texture that took me away.

His work seemed to have a magical quality; it was like reality but it wasn’t, and it took the viewer on a journey of the imagination. I found his work immediately enthralling right from the early days of seeing his prints.

His original prints were a big part of the attraction, because of the extraordinary way they work on your imagination. It’s important to see the original prints to really appreciate the quality of his work.

Ansel Adams Biography: The Tetons and the Snake River

The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the National Park Service.

Adams originally trained as a pianist and one of his famous quotes about his craft makes a musical analogy: “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance.”

It’s a great concept and in many ways I think it remains true of photography today. One often-cited example of this approach is his 1941 photograph titled Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.

The contact sheet from the negative is pretty flat, though to be fair, I think he was seeking to retain detail on the surface of the moon and therefore he couldn’t overexpose it too much. He had to do an awful lot of work to make it look as stunning as it does in the final print.

However, when he processed that negative he used an inspection lamp to examine it. He made sure it was absolutely correct and that all the information he needed to make the final print was in the negative.

I have seen original prints at a very large size, and they’re absolutely breathtaking, as you’d expect, but they are the result of an artistic journey.

Ansel Adams Biography: Church, Taos Pueblo

Church, Taos Pueblo; from the series of Photographs of National Parks and Monuments for the US National Park Service

It’s interesting how Adams’ concept of the relationship from the negative to the print has stood the test of time. Some years ago, when I was exclusively shooting large format transparency, I would have described it slightly differently. In some ways the transparency was the performance and the print was a recording.

Now in a way I have reverted to type because I feel that the digital raw file is now the score. For that reason I aim to get the exposure correct as far as I can and if Adams were alive now and using digital equipment, I’d assume he would also still be striving like crazy to get everything right in-camera.

Apart from any other considerations, getting the exposure correct as far as possible makes the printing process more straightforward. Also, the better the quality of the original capture, the greater flexibility you have in interpretation.

If you’ve got an incredibly thin or dense negative, it definitely restricts your hand, though you can still do quite a lot if you’re as brilliant in the darkroom as Adams.

PAGE 1: Ansel Adams’ influence
PAGE 2: Why Ansel Adams’ photography remains popular
PAGE 3: Timeline of Ansel Adams’ life


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