Thursday, May 11, 2017

How I Became Ansel Adams - And How I Became Me

Airport Lobby - McKinney, Texas
A black-and-white print from back in my college days.
I remember it clearly. It was the fall of 1998, and I was attending Photography 101 class in college. My instructor, June Van Cleef, was doing the usual class routine of presenting the great photographers and their images. On this day she was showing the work of Ansel Adams.

I knew the name Ansel Adams and had seen a couple of his Yosemite pictures--everybody has heard of Ansel Adams and knows that he's probably the most famous photographer in American history--but I really didn't know a whole lot about him or his pictures until that day. I was only 18 years old.

One photograph shown during class that caught my attention was Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. The picture looks like it was taken at night, but really it was a daytime image. Adams used a red filter to turn the blue sky black. I was just learning about the use of colored filters with black-and-white film. It was a really cool picture to me, and I began to realize that abstract photographs don't necessarily have to be all that abstract to be effective.

Another picture that grabbed my attention was The Tetons and the Snake River, 1942. The composition, contrast and subject make for an amazingly beautiful image. I knew absolutely nothing about the Grand Teton National Park or the Snake River. I remember thinking that I wanted to be able to capture pictures like this, and that I'd be satisfied with my photography if I ever succeeded in doing so.
The Tetons and the Snake River, 1942 - Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Photograph by Ansel Adams
About eighteen-and-a-half years have passed since that class where I first saw Adam's great image of the Grand Tetons. Photography has changed so much since then. My photography has evolved extensively. Yet though the years I have kept that picture in the back of my mind.

One year ago I moved to the Salt Lake City area from California. Something I've wanted to do is visit all the nearby National Parks, including Grand Teton. My birthday was two days ago, and my wife decided that the family should load up into the car and head to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to see the majestic mountains. It's just close enough that a two day, one night trip is possible.

After settling into our cabin and before eating dinner, we drove up U.S. Highway 89 to see the Grand Tetons. We headed towards the Snake River Overlook, which is where Ansel Adams captured his famous photograph 75 years earlier. We got there at a good time, just after a brief snow storm had lightly dusted the landscape and as some fog was lifting and the lighting was becoming decent enough.

I felt a little chill as I stood with the amazing vista in front of me, camera in hand. This was the spot! This is where Ansel Adams was when he captured his great picture. The photograph that inspired me all those years ago was made right here. I was going to create my own Ansel Adams picture. In a sense I had become Ansel Adams. I had come full circle. I reached the moment that I hoped to get to while sitting in that classroom learning of the great photographers. It was a satisfying feeling.
The Tetons and the Snake River, 2017 - Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Photograph by Ritchie Roesch
My image is different than Ansel Adams' photograph. For starters, the Snake River at the bottom of Adam's picture is now blocked by trees, and you can't really see it, so I didn't include it. That's too bad because it was such an important composition element in his photo. I did try to use the fog to make a similar composition (the fog becomes the bottom of the "S" curve), but I don't think it was all that effective.

Another difference is that my image is more telephoto, putting a bigger emphasis on the mountains. I chose this because I couldn't include the full curving river, and so I needed the picture to be more about the mountains and less about the river. Adams' picture has more dramatic lighting (thanks to the thunderstorm) and better contrast play (thanks to the lower sun). My image is brighter and has a different mood. They are similar photographs, but they aren't the same.

I wouldn't want my photograph to be the same, even if I could have done so. Seasons change, environments change, light changes, gear changes, processes change, and everyone has unique experiences and perspectives that they bring with them. It would be very difficult to make an exact copy of Adams' photograph, and the effort needed would be better used to create something unique, something that I could say is my own.

My picture is my picture, and Adams' picture is his picture. That's how it was always meant to be. I'm very happy that my photograph is different than his, and not an exact copy. I'm satisfied with how it turned out.
Snake River Fog - Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Photograph by Ritchie Roesch
Still, I felt like I borrowed a little from his vision. I don't know if I would have captured that image if I hadn't had the original bouncing around inside my head for nearly two decades. Every great artist takes a little from other artists and incorporates those ideas with their own, making a unique mix. But I wanted something that I could say was a little more my own and a little less Ansel Adams. So I captured Snake River Fog. I think it is the stronger image and the one that I'm more proud of.

While it felt good for a moment to become Ansel Adams, it is even better to be me. It's better to have my own photographic vision, my own voice and style. I'm proud and satisfied with how my photography has evolved. I'm happy with where I am as a photographer. After tens of thousands of exposures, with plenty of ups and downs and lots of successes and failures, I reached the place where I wanted to be. It was not a straight line to get there, but I arrived by constantly moving, even when it didn't seem like I was.

It's time to consider where I want to go from here. Where do I want to be as a photographer 18 years from now? What kind of images do I want to capture in the future? You are either moving forwards or backwards, and standing still means getting left behind. Where will photography lead me if I continue moving forward?

There is a lot to think about and some decisions to be made, plus lots of hard work to come. I believe that this is a moment I'll look back on, a moment that I'll come full circle to. But in the meantime there are many adventures that await. I'm looking forward to the journey.

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