Ansel Adams’ words of wisdom.

In a recent article in OnLandscape David Ward quoted the following passage from Ansel Adams’ autobiography:

“To be fully committed, an artist has to believe so strongly in his own work that it is difficult to have affinities to other artists’ production. If I truly believed in the art of another artist, I would be making it rather than what I am making.“

There are several ways to read this statement, and since I have been obsessively turning some of them over in my mind for the last few months I wonder if I might come to some kind of resolution by putting pen to paper.

a) It could be read as a devine truth, handed down from the photographic pantheon: a state of mind to be aspired to.

b) It could be construed as a flash of arrogance from someone who was so lauded for his own particular (but reasonably specific) contribution to the art, that he had an over inflated idea of his own beliefs and abilities over those of other practitioners.


Canyon de Chellya, Ansel Adams

Personally I find the statement fantastically seductive, but I suspect that this is partly because it fits with my own natural tendencies towards selfishness, jealousy and arrogance. However, it is fair to say that we each form opinions (however temporary and subject to change they might be) and that if we ever consider own own opinions to be superior to others, then both interpretations are partly true… but perhaps not mutually exclusive.


Ansel Adams on location

From the statement it appears that Adams assumes that he would be capable of making all other kinds of art from that which he is currently making. But this is frankly unlikely, both from a physical and psychological perspective. Even if we remain within the medium of landscape photography and assume that he was happy to be inspired by painters, writers and musicians, or photographers of other genres, would he really dismiss the photography of that other arrogant visionary Galen Rowell ( who incidentally won the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography in 1984, the year of Adams’ death ), who climbed mountains and trekked into undiscovered places with a 35mm camera slung around his neck, making compositions on the fly on colour transparency film? Though he did shoot in colour ( and their work is very similar in many respects ), Adams stated “I have done no color of consequence for thirty years! I have a problem with color—I cannot adjust to the limited controls of values and colors. With black-and-white I feel free and confident of results.” So, maybe he did believe in Rowell’s art but ultimately felt that he couldn’t make it himself. I know that there are photographs that I just do not have the patience, eye or equipment to have realised… I would have liked to have taken them myself, but am also aware that I would probably not have been able, even if I had been at the required time and place.


Potala Palace, Tibet. Galen Rowell.

Adams also seems to suggest that you shouldn’t need to bother to look at the the work of any other artists because it will do nothing to inspire you or motivate you. Did he really not look at other people’s work? Did he really think that even his own work (and words) would only be looked at by laypeople or non-committed artists? Would he expect that his work was only judged by people that were specifically NOT his peers?


Galen Rowell on location

But at the same time, is it not true that if you are struggling along some particular route to enlightenment… attempting to track down some particular truth, then you must feel that this voyage is in some way more important than others? While I can give lip-service to the art of many other photographers, can I really say that their interpretation actually moves me more than my own would have done? Sometimes? Rarely, I suppose. And at the end of the day, if we consider what we are doing to be art, who are we doing it for? It could be argued that if you are doing it for an audience then it is not art but commerce ( actually, this is how the French tax system sees the difference between non-comissioned and commsisioned photography ), and that the pursuit of art is essentially a selfish endeavour, unique to every practitioner. But, crucially, this is not to say that loooking at the work of other artists might not be inspiring. One might not want to do the same work, but it might ( and often does ) reveal avenues of endeavour that one had not previously thought existed, techniques one had not considered or subjects as yet unkown, and for these reasons other people’s art is often inspiring.

I am going to suggest a middle way (of course): that Adams’ statement veers strongly towards arrogance, but contains a vital nugget of truth.

A less provocative statement might have been:

“To be fully committed, an artist has to believe so strongly in his or her own work that it is difficult to have affinities to other artists’ production, however much it might inspire him or her in their own endeavours. If I truly believed in the art of another artist and that I was better able to achieve its goals than him or her, I would be striving to make it rather than what I am making.“

But then it is unlikely that this would have provoked me to think so much about it.