Ansel Adams and the art of description

The National Maritime Museum shines a light on one of photography's great storytellers....

By: Luke,   3 minutes

Feeding is about finding inspiration and using that to become a better thinker, writer and producer. It certainly works; an opportunity to try something new, to try something you’ve been meaning to try, to simply absorb and then apply to your own practice. It is always inspiring.

But what has proved interesting to date is that each Feed has presented me with something unexpected, even if I thought I knew the road I was venturing down. A visit to the Ansel Adams exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich was no exception.

I’ve long been an admirer of Adams’ work and a few hours spent in the presence of his photography was always going to prove inspirational. But due in large part to the excellent curation, I gained a new appreciation for Adams’ work, and also its relationship to writing. I’ll attempt to summarise as best as possible.

Adams was among the first photographers to reject photographic Pictorialism (where the artist, in hope of being recognised as such, would attempt to make his image look like a painting) in favour of Modernism, where the camera’s mechanical qualities were embraced. It allowed him to produce photographs that corresponded to his emotional state at the time the photograph was taken. Adams said:

“When I see something I react to it and I state it, and that’s the equivalent of what I felt. So I give it to you as a spectator, and you get it or you don’t get it, but there’s nothing on the back of the print that tells you what you should get.”

I viewed every image in the exhibition, imagining Adams’ thought process, his emotional state at the time. I thought about this in relation to writing and specifically the written description of landscape. Adams wasn’t just representing the landscape in front of him – the sky, the mountains, the rivers, the sea – but how he felt about that landscape. A great written description should do this too but often, in an attempt to capture an accurate reflection of a scene, the writer resorts to cliché; producing something akin to the pictoralists’ soft focus approach.

The author Anne Enright said, “All description is an opinion about the world”. This is certainly true of Adams’ work and should be true also of those using the written word. A short film played alongside the exhibition, containing an interview with Adams where he used the analogy of the negative being the musical score and the print being the performance of that score – the negative contains all the notes, the information needed but in the darkroom a performance takes place, where the printer can interpret, alter contrast and capture mood and feeling. “A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed,” Adams said.

Does the writer have an equivalent at their disposal? Certainly a similar process takes place, where a writer takes the object of their description and then begins to imbue it with layers of depth and of meaning. Just as Adams spent hours adjusting darks and lights, a writer must too work hard with the words at their disposal, altering them to fit the mood of a specific character or to provide an ally to the greater meaning of the entire written piece.

Each of Adams photographs captured an emotional state; I felt it strongly looking at each one. When I got home, I wanted to find a written description that seemed to mirror Adams approach, where a space within the world provides an opportunity to convey something far more. At the exhibition, reading the accompanying notes, I thought of Cormac McCarthy and specifically his descriptions of the south-west of America.

After a few hours re-reading bits of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, I found a paragraph in All The Pretty Horses that fit the bill; an exquisite description of an approaching storm, sparsely written, evoking the uncertainty of the characters journey from Texas into Mexico and the constant feeling that pervades the entire story; that the decisions these characters make have consequences beyond their understanding yet they understand perfectly that things will never be the same again. I think Ansel Adams would approve.

‘By early evening all the sky to the north had darkened and the spare terrain they trod had turned a neuter gray as far as eye could see. They grouped in the road at the top of a rise and looked back. The storm front towered above them and the wind was cool on their sweating faces. They slumped bleary-eyed in their saddles and looked at one another. Shrouded in the black thunderheads the distant lightning glowed mutely like welding seen through foundry smoke. As if repairs were under way at some flawed place in the iron dark of the world.

 It’s fixin to come a goodn, said Rawlins.’


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