Book Review: Ansel Adams at 100, John Szarkowski

While ::amazon(“082121750X”, “Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs”):: provides us an unparalleled look at Ansel Adams from the inside, there is also a need to examine Adams’ work and life from the outside, and while no book has entirely taken on that task, one book that approaches it is ::amazon(“0821225154”, “Ansel Adams at 100”)::, the catalog of the centennial exhibition of Adams’ work.

The meat of this book is Adams’ nature images, well over one hundred, reproduced beautifully. I’ve seen his fine art prints in exhibitions and on display in the Eastern Sierra, and the images I know and love well, “Lake and Cliffs, Sierra Nevada” , “Tenaya Lake, Mount Conness”, ” Clearing Winter Storm”, each of these images is well-enough reproduced to trigger that gasp and that recognition I felt when seeing the prints the same time. I’ve read other reviews of the book that argue the quality of the printing, and I wonder at times if the writers have seen the particular prints they refer to, certainly some Adams’ early images in particular are low contrast, and the book in my hands is a fair reproduction of the few prints I’ve seen from that era.

The selection of images is strong, including not only Adams’ most famous work but often pairs of images taken from the same vantage point, or, in the case of a few images (most notably “Aspens, Northern New Mexico”), Szarkowski gifts us with reproductions of multiple prints of the same image, printed at different times in Adams’ career, in order to document, in small part, how Adams’ printing style evolved over time. Rare and early images are included in the collection and provide an additional sense of Adams’ evolution as an artist, but there is very much a focus on Adams’ nature images.

Szarkowski is equally successful with his biographical portrait, which makes up the first forty pages or so of the book, weaving together changes in his life and influences with changes in his images and technique. The author brings to bear an impressive understanding of the art history matched only by his impressive vocabulary, a combination which occasionally makes “At 100” dense (but never unpleasant) reading.

Are there lessons here for the modern photographer? I believe so. Of course, there are the images, and a simple page-by-page perusing of the images will demonstrate just how amazing a well-composed, well-directed fine black and white image can appear. But there are other lessons here as well.

I was particularly struck by the evolution of Adams’ work over time, and how that evolution played out not only in different negatives, but also how it played out on different interpretations of the same score. Every couple of years I have the experience of looking back and finding that the way I think about images has changed, I will go back and reinterpret my “digital negatives” as time progresses. While there are certainly moments in which this simply represents a clear, upward evolution of my own photographic technique, there are also times where it represents a more subjective change as well, and Szarkowski’s tome reminds me that this is not necessarily a failing or a lack of consistent personal vision.

I’ll briefly add that ::amazon(“0821225154”, “Ansel Adams at 100”):: is beautifully bound and slipcovered, and includes a 13×11 tritone reproduction print of “Aspens, Dawn, Dolores River Canyon”. It’s a beautiful book, and one I’m grateful to include in my own collection.

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