Lens Work: Ansel Adams and the F64 group

22nd February 2021

For photographer Ansel Adams (1902–84) and the F64 group, the position of the aperture was an important political as well as aesthetic choice, allowing photography … ‘to remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself’  (F64 Group Manifesto, 1932)

The period and culture they struggled for independence from was the late nineteenth and early twentieth century photographic style of Pictorialism, and before that, painting (Wells, 2009). 

OCA EYV (2014:

Technique

Techniques are simply a means of bringing about in the print, the image as visualised by the artist before he operates the shutter.

Ansel Adams, Technique and Working Methods. Getty Museum

It has been an eye opener researching Ansel Adams. I have read Ansel Adams 400 Photographs, specific chapters in other books, internet publications and watched a couple of documentaries on YouTube, one of which was Ansel Adams himself talking about his technique and working methods (which can be seen below).

Getty Museum, uploaded to YouTube March 2014 (accessed 25th February 2021)


Knowing Adams work previous to this research. I always had mixed responses to it. I am not a fan of landscape photography, it is not something that particularly excites me although some types do actually move me to tears. The emotion comes from images that spark memories of my childhood roaming around Wiltshire with my Grandad Lake, over walls, in woods, in fields of all types, down by the stream and anywhere else my Grandad took me for long walks. They were and always will be the happiest times of my life.

But then there is Ansel Adams images. Striking and dynamic compositions, black and white and all the tones in between, texture and sharpness from foreground to background. The research however showed me that there was far more to Ansel Adams than his breathtaking landscape images, including a group that he belonged to called the f/64 Group.

In some photographs the essence of light and space dominate; in others, the substance of rock and wood, and the luminous insistence of growing things…It is my intention to present-through the medium of photography-intuitive observations of the natural world which may have meaning to spectators…

Ansel Adams shuttermuse.com (accessed 24.02.21)

The f/64 Group

There were eleven photographers in the f/64 Group: Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Brett Weston, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Preston Holder, Consuelo Kanaga, Alma Lavenson, Sonya Noskowiak, Willard Van Dyke and Henry Swift. The Group announced themselves officially in 1932 in a group exhibition at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.Their name f/64 Group refers to a technical description of the smallest aperture available in large-format cameras at the time in which the group lived. When used the small aperture allowed the images to capture the world as it is in maximum clarity of details and definition.

The f/64 manifesto:

Group f/64 Manifesto

The name of this Group is derived from a diaphragm number of the photographic lens. It signifies to a large extent the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image which is an important element in the work of members of this Group.

The chief object of the Group is to present in frequent shows what it considers the best contemporary photography of the West; in addition to the showing of the work of its members, it will include prints from other photographers who evidence tendencies in their work similar to that of the Group.

Group f/64 is not pretending to cover the entire of photography or to indicate through its selection of members any deprecating opinion of the photographers who are not included in its shows. There are great number of serious workers in photography whose style and technique does not relate to the metier of the Group.

Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the “Pictorialist,” on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.

The members of Group f/64 believe that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.

The Group will appreciate information regarding any serious work in photography that has escaped its attention, and is favorable towards establishing itself as a Forum of Modern Photography.

Although Group f/64 concentrated on landscape photography they also took close-up images of items in the natural world, for example, leaves and pieces of wood. Additionally some members of the group shot images of industrial structures and every day objects. These differing subjects were connected not by the subject matter but by the techniques of capturing the smallest of details and ensuring that the images are sharp. Examples of different subject matter are Edward Weston’s Bedpan (1930) and his Nudes.

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams is best known for his black and white landscapes covering subject matter such as mountains, atmosphere interacting with the landscape for example where clouds meet the mountain peaks and mists which come in low to the ground. He was also fond on shooting in storms or just afterwards to gain dramatic contrasts in tone which emphasised the powerful landscape compositions, texture and detail. Adams took photographs particularly in Yosemite National Park and used his work to promote conservation of wilderness areas.

Adams used many different cameras throughout his photographic career but he was best known for using a 4×5 view camera which would give him ultra sharp images. He shot only in black and white and he invented the ‘zone system’ with fellow photographer Fred Archer which enabled him to get the best exposure onto film which would make the best print on a normal contrast paper. Adams also believed in the concept of the ‘art of visualisation’ where as a photographer he would visualise in his mind’s eye the end result that he was trying to achieve before taking the photograph.

Photographic examples

The Zone System

In the YouTube film ‘The Zone System in Photography’, we are taught that Adam’s Zone System, divides the gradient from black to white, which includes the tones in between, into a series of ten zones. Each zone is one stop of light from the next. This can be seen in the image below where pure black is zone 0 and pure white is zone 10.

The Zone System
screenshot image: The Zone System in Photography (accessed 22.01.21)

Although there are ten zones, only five are effective. John Blakemore states in his book ‘Black and White Photography Workshop’, that zone 3 is the darkest you can achieve and still gain details in the shadows. As the image scores nearer 0 and X it begins to loose definition, if this happens the shadows becomes crushed and the highlights will blowout.

My notes below explain Adams Zone System in more depth and they have been taken from the YouTube film ‘The Zone System in Photography’ (accessed 22.02.21).

Visualisation

Visualisation is the concept of interpreting a scene and deciding on the final shot before pressing the shutter. Taking place within the ‘mind’s eye’, as Adams often said, visualisation involves intuitively assessing a subject and choosing the most important attributes to frame and highlight. Alongside the appropriate technical skills, having the ability to capture the mood of a scene is something that requires its own practice, which often only comes with experience.

Brown, H. Urth Magazine, mygobe.com (accessed 23.02.21)

It has been very interesting researching Ansel Adams and that which I have learnt has given me a deeper understanding of the man behind the images. He has influenced photography in many ways and now when I view his work I see it from a different perspective. Has my views on his work changed? I still appreciate the beauty he has captured but understand that it took far more than a click of a camera button to achieve his end results.

Ansel Adam’s production technique went through various stages before the final image was ready for viewing, these were:

  • Appreciation for the natural world around him
  • Visualisation of the image before it had been taken
  • Use of leading lines and horizon in compositions
  • The Zone System
  • Dodging and burning

There is nothing mysterious about technique. It is really nothing in itself except as a means to an end.

Ansel Adams, Technique and Working Methods. Getty Museum

Notes

Reference


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