Ansel Adams is one of the most revered photographers of our time.
To this day it’s pretty hard to look at the stuff he shot in Yosemite and not feel a half smile creeping across your face. It’s truly beautiful. It’s breathtaking. And considering the context, understanding just how pioneering it was is really quite hard to grasp for us raised during generation Instagram.
But there’s more to it than an aesthetic beauty that’s pleasing to the eye and soul.
Working in an age when the American frontier was largely a fantastic historical account of how the great vast plains of the New World were conquered by the grit of human endeavor, his work reminded everybody that the wilderness was still there, and that its mystery and wonder was wholly worth cherishing. And that’s still true.
We spend crazy amounts of time in cars, on trains, in shopping centres, flicking through IKEA catalogues, watching reality TV, drinking coffee, charging our phones, updating our status, tweeting, filing tax returns, surfing the web, watching videos of funny goats, and generally doing other stuff that makes the world as we know it revolve. These things make it easy to forget that outside of our hubs of civil and social order, there is a vast expanse of natural wonder that still covers large parts of our planet.
As an ardent conservationist and environmentalist, his photography served, and still does to this day, as the inspiration for millions of people to get up, pack a bag, and go and explore the great wide world. His mastery of composition and use of long exposure to capture the drama of flowing water, of snowy peaks, of looming clouds, and the grand scale of the American wilderness introduced what could be called an exacting science to the masses. A Steve Jobs type of the photography world.
When quizzed on his craft and its content, he often quipped that expecting a comprehensive explanation would be ‘disastrous, because it puts between you and the living image a forced interpretation’. Also, he commented that his reluctance to discuss the meaning of his work was, some may say somewhat self-deprecatingly, not the result of an artist refusing to explain his artistry, but rather due to his inherent incapability of verbalising the content.
There were just no words that could explain it.
It was a feeling. A fleeting moment. An emotion that he had managed to capture through the medium of photography. That image is the majestic and poetic element he felt. You may also feel it, or you may not. But it’s inherent visual power would always render the pen mute. You just can’t explain some things.
Some things you have to go see for yourself.
Listen to the BBC 4 Podcast, Ansel Adams On Tape, here.
Written by Tomas Coleman