2. Project 2: Pictorialism

2.2. Smaller Apertures and Visualisation

Two of the best-known figures within landscape photography, Edward Weston (1886–1958) and Ansel Adams (1902–84), are indebted to the influence of Stieglitz and the Photo-Secessionists.

Weston was an aspiring artist who survived by taking portraits professionally and churning out un-challenging picturesque pictorial works. Following a meeting with Stieglitz, Weston changed direction; he took to the precisely composed, sharp and very photographic aesthetic as a valid form of artistic expression, and brought it back home to California. Ansel Adams had a similar chance encounter with Paul Strand (1890–1976). It wasn’t until 1932, however, that the f/64 group was formalised in San Francisco. The name referred to the minimum aperture of the lens (although this varies between lens designs), which yields the greatest depth of field and best optical quality throughout the image. The idea was to distinguish themselves from the softer, impressionistic imagery of traditional pictorialists.

The relationship that Adams and Weston had to the print was very different to earlier approaches. For the pictorialists, mastering control of the print was fundamental to their concept of artistic expression – understanding the different processes, techniques and chemistry, and often leaving a trace of the photographer’s brushstrokes within the emulsion on the surface of hand-coated paper. Using 10” x 8” large format cameras (sometimes called ‘plate cameras’, which take a single image at a time as opposed to being loaded with a roll of film on which multiple frames can be shot) Adams’ and Weston’s negatives were ‘contact printed’ onto a sheet of high-quality commercially available photographic paper. Contact printing is a relatively straightforward process and, although it was always the main method for printing from larger negatives (and remains so, particularly with ‘alternative’ processes such as the cyanotype), it is different to the method of ‘enlarging’ images taken on smaller formats by projecting the image onto paper, which actually allows for greater manipulation of the final print.

This meant that for the f/64 photographers, mastering the exposure in camera was essential to their creative process. This was where the real artistry lay: in the photographic technique and the pre-visualisation of the image in the first instance. The contact print is a precise analogy of the negative as made by the photographer. This approach is the antithesis to how many view photography nowadays (professionals, amateurs and the public alike) – that getting the shot right in the first place doesn’t really matter, as practically anything is easily rectified in the digital darkroom. Although as a community f/64 was not long-lived (it dispersed in 1935 due to the migration of its members away from San Francisco and the general pressure of the economic depression), the legacy of this group and its members was and continues to be widely felt.

Further Reading

Ansel Adams is best known for his landscapes of Yosemite National Park. Adams is often mistakenly credited for contributing to the area being defined as a national park, which was actually declared in 1890. However, he was actively committed to the conservation of the park. His exceptional technical skill, applied to these spectacular locations, continues to impress itself upon newcomers to photography as well as on more seasoned, critical viewers.

You can read more about Adams influence on Yosemite in: Wells. L, Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity (2011) London: I.B.Tauris. Pg 136-140.

Ansel Adams, Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park (c.1937) Image via MoMA.

Photographs of Yosemite certainly dominate Adams’ oeuvre, and to an extent overshadow the work of the other members of f/64. Like Adams, his f/64 contemporaries – most notably Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham (1883–1976) – were drawn to the realism of natural forms, rather than the grittier realism of urban life that appealed to their Photo-Secessionist peers on the other side of the country. Weston and Cunningham were, arguably, more experimental in their use of photography, however. In the majority of Adams’ landscapes, the formal elements (e.g. use of perspective and composition) are not much more of an extension of painterly traditions. Weston and Cunningham expanded the photographic way of seeing further by cropping into views to make more abstract photographs. Weston’s often-reproduced Dunes, Oceano (1936) is a typical example of this. However, as Clarke points out, the image explores much more than simply the texture and form of the landscape:

“... the photographer takes an extreme American terrain (a desert) and makes of it something other than its physical appearance. The camera transposes it as part of a larger mythology of spiritual and mysterious presence. Its two primary elements, sand and light, are both subject to continuous change, but the photograph fixes a moment from that continuum and celebrates it as part of a unity of time and space, without (on the surface) reference to the social or political... Weston has made the most barren of substances, sand, into something remarkable in its effect as a visual spectacle. The play of light and pattern, of texture and contrast, express an almost metaphysical presence.”

Clark, G., (1997) The Photograph, Oxford University Press: Oxford New York. p.63.

Key to the method of the f/64, which has remained with many of today’s photographers, is the idea of ‘visualisation’ of a photograph. Adams describes this as:

“The process of “seeing” the final print while viewing the subject. With practice the photographer can anticipate the various influences of each stage of the photographic procedure, and incorporate these intuitively in visualizing the finished image.”

Adams, R (1983) Beauty in Photography. Aperture: New York p.177.

This approach differs significantly from the idea of a photographer’s roaming eye fixed to a camera viewfinder, waiting for pictures to jump into it from the activity of the scene before him. As your own photographic skills have developed, you’ve almost certainly become more accurate at anticipating how the thing you photograph will look when you review the image on a digital camera, or when you have your film processed. Understanding how lenses of different focal lengths function is one important factor in discerning between the human binocular perception of a scene, and the photographic, monocular way of seeing. Also, knowledge of exposure – how you can manage the different tones in a scene, from darkest to brightest – is essential here, and this was a particular area of technical research that Ansel Adams focused on.

Edward Weston, Dunes, Oceano (1936) Image via MoMA.