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The Ansel Adams Trap

Many photographers aspire to be ‘like Ansel Adams’, which is unsurprising given his accomplishments. However, as Guy Tal explains, the best way to do this is to be unique and dare to pursue things not yet accomplished by others

It is fair to say that Ansel Adams accomplished greater fame and recognition than any photographer in history. He made great contributions to both the art and craft of photography, and demonstrated photography’s power in promoting environmental awareness. He associated with celebrities and presidents and helped define nature photography, particularly landscape photography, as both a genre and a profession. It is not surprising that so many photographers today consider Ansel Adams a role model.

But this was not always the case. Early in his career, Adams aspired to mimic the accomplishments of Alfred Stieglitz, the preeminent American photographer of his day. After meeting with Stieglitz and being inspired by his philosophy and work, Adams set about opening a gallery in San Francisco, modelled after Stieglitz’s space in New York. It was a failure. For a period, Adams also tried pursuing the modernist style of Edward Weston, who was better known and more accomplished at the time. This, too, proved to be a futile effort. Adams was trying too hard to become someone that he was not. It wasn’t until he embraced his own social and creative temperament and refocused his work on the Sierra Nevada landscape that he loved, that success ensued. With this in mind, I find it lamentable that too many today set it as their goal to become “like Ansel Adams.” Indeed, to reap the most value, personally and creatively, I propose that being like anyone other than yourself may be the greatest mistake you could make. Even Ansel Adams could not do it.

Publications are rife with articles proclaiming to teach novice shutterbugs how to do certain things “like Ansel Adams.” These are all fairly useless, since Adams himself already described his own methods and approaches in great detail in his own books, and who could do it better? Despite his technical teachings being focused on film photography, many of his insights regarding visualization, the creative value of departing from realistic renditions, and other topics are still very relevant and useful today and deserve careful study. However, they should be considered exactly as such; insights rather than instructions or recipes. Several of Adams’ former assistants still practice and teach his methods, but if you examine their work you will find that even they, too, did not stop at being “like Ansel Adams”, and instead apply his teachings to express something of their own.

If you were tempted by the concept of being “like Ansel Adams” before, ask yourself honestly what it is that appealed to you about it. If it was Adams’ creativity, you should want to be creative and come up with your own original work; if it was the exquisite quality of his prints or other technical matters, you may also develop such expertise and leverage technology today that was not available to him; if it was his fame and celebrity, you should consider whether these are useful aspirations in general, because in pursuing such desires you are no longer free, your artistic intentions and decisions are at risk of becoming, at least to a degree, tainted with vanity.

We should all celebrate Ansel Adams for his very well deserved reputation and contributions, but we should not want to be like him. Ansel Adams was already more like Ansel Adams than any of us will ever be, and that is enough. The world does not need more copies, it needs more pioneers who can carry the legacy of those like Ansel Adams to accomplish and contribute beyond what they already have. Consider, instead, what it is that makes you unique and how you can leverage your own individuality and creativity toward yet more worthwhile goals. Be like Ansel Adams in the sense that you imagine, and dare to pursue things not yet accomplished by others.

Read this and many more articles in High Definition inside Issue 56 of Landscape Photography Magazine.

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About Author

I am a full-time photographer, writer, and naturalist living and working in the Colorado Plateau – a scenic and diverse desert region of the western United States spanning an area larger than most countries and states.

2 Comments

  1. Ansel Adams ! Is this the most over rated name in photography? With the most adavanced digital cameras , softwares , Computers and printing technology available today , are modern day photographers still can’t reach what Ansel Adams have done 50 years ago ? Are those the best landscape photographs ever made??? Just curious ! Correct me if I am wrong !

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