Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Ansel Adams and the Lone Pine Photograph

People love to speculate on whether Ansel Adams would have liked and used Photoshop. At least in a documentary of him I saw, that was made before he died, he talked with some excitement about future electronic technologies and how they might interpret his images. Digital photography and the enormous image manipulation capabilities of Photoshop weren’t available yet and wouldn’t be until 15 years or so after he died. He was seeing and liking the effect digital technology was having on the printing industry. The laser-scanned reproductions of his images were the best he’d ever seen. But he didn’t see or talk about the manipulation and compositing aspects of what was to come. Of course.

The people who think that Ansel would have embraced Photoshop usually point out a certain image of his—Winter Sunrise: Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, 1944. Ansel talked about this image in his book, Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. He made the image while in the neighborhood shooting his documentary project of the Japanese Internment Camp, Manzanar, during 1943 and 1944. In this otherwise pristine landscape, the local high school students had put their school’s initials, “LP,” on the hill side in white-washed rocks. “LP” stands for Lone Pine.

Ansel made the image and spent a number of years dealing with it after the fact. In his words, “I ruthlessly removed what I could of the L P from the negative (in the left-hand hill), and have always spotted out any remaining trace in the print.” When I took a workshop from John Sexton in 1987, he related the story that Ansel gave him the job of scraping the LP out of the 8x10 negative with a scalpel, when John was Ansel’s assistant in the 70s. On the face of things, this account isn’t all that different from what digital photographers do every day, cloning out offensive elements from their images to make them a better representative of what they saw and felt. And it’s a good way to control things beyond your control when you shoot.

Whether or not Ansel would have embraced and used Photoshop, no one can say, but I suspect that he, being the equipment junkie that he was, probably would have done so. Below are the version of this image that we usually see now and below that is one from a 1968 book This is the American Earth, written by Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall. This version of Winter Sunrise
was made before the removal of the hillside letters (I circled those annoying letters in red, just to make them more annoying) and shows how Ansel once printed it. Please forgive the big crease in the middle of the image. It was reproduced as a double page spread in the book. It is a lower contrast, quieter image and it is cropped differently. Notice how the sky is lighter in tone. Ansel’s printing grew bolder and more dramatic as he got older. He’s a great example of how an artist’s vision and language changes over time.

Hermon Joyner

Winter Sunrise: Lone Pine, 1944 (from Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs)

Winter Sunrise: Lone Pine, 1944 (from This is the American Earth)

Close-up of the "LP" on the hill.

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