Ansel Adams and the Polaroid

Visiting an Ansel Adams exhibit, I am unable to fully focus on the largest prints, distracted by the reflections in the glass behind which they are imprisoned. Is this how the photographer intended his work to be seen, with the world of the gallery imposed like a double exposure over El Capitan or the New Mexico cemetery in the moonlight?

The exhibit explores the decades-long relationship between Adams and Edwin Land, the founder of the Polaroid Corporation, for whom Adams worked as a consultant. Fascinating material — especially the many snapshots Adams generated as he tested the various films and cameras. But given the fact that the exhibit was sponsored by Polaroid, and not knowing much about Adams other than what I can remember from an art history course I took 20 years ago, I am unable to exorcise the demon of distrust. How really central was Adams’ experience with Polaroid film to his overall career as an artist?

They quote a couple of sentences from Adams’ autobiography: “Many of my most successful photographs from the 1950’s onward have been made on Polaroid film. One look at the tonal quality of the print I have achieved should convince the uninitiated of the truly superior quality of Polaroid film.” The uninitiated, yes — that’s me. I am able to relate to the many test snapshots on exhibit far better than to the iconic Western landscapes, in part because their small size requires close viewing, where reflections on the glass are not nearly so distracting. And the subjects are casual and domestic: the corner of a porch. A woman standing on her front stoop.

And at any rate, as a very amateur digital photographer and blogger, I am most struck by how this artist renowned for his long exposures celebrated the instantaneousness of the Polaroid. “To have a print and a negative from the same exposure is a tremendous assist in the creative process,” Adams wrote in 1961. I had also always associated the Polaroid with low-quality color snapshots of family gatherings, but the docent tells us the film was in fact designed for nature photography. All of Adams’ Polaroids in the exhibition are in black-and-white.

The docent talks about Adams’ difficult relationship with color. He spent the last years of his life trying to master color photography, but finally gave up, she says. His whole approach to photography was shaped by his early training as a classical pianist; he was a composer, not a mere finder, of images, and he couldn’t handle a lack of total control over colors and values. Moreover, he found the medium’s promise of verisimilitude deceptive:

Color photography is a beguiling medium in that it offers some apparent simulation of reality, to which the majority of the public respond. Because of economic necessity, the development of color has been keyed to popular demand (much more than black—and—white photography), and the approach to professional work has focused on “realism ” of color and fail—safe technology.

The taste—makers in color photography are the manufacturers, advertisers in general and the public with their insatiable appetite for the ‘snappy snapshot.” I have come to the conclusion that the understanding and appreciation of color involves the illusion that the color photograph represents the colors of the world as we think we perceive them to be. The images are, at best, poor simulations, but the perceptive alchemy translates the two—dimensional picture into the common world of experience. Picture reality is a philosophical and psychological impossibility. Color pictures are so ubiquitous that the casual viewer comes to accept them as the true “reality”, the color process reveals for them the real world, which is not hard to understand because the “real world” is, for most people, an artifact of the industrial/material surround. The colors of the urban environment are for the most part far more garish and “unrelated” than we find in nature. The Creator did not go to art school and natural color, while more gentle and subtle, seldom has what we call aesthetic resonance.

Among the large prints in the exhibit, the one that most impresses me has an industrial subject, “Pipes and Gauges, West Virginia, 1939.” The composition of curved white pipes and small gauges, with its frank sexuality, is far warmer and earthier than any of the landscapes, “artifact of the industrial/material surround” though it might have been.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

7 Comments


  1. If he chafed at his lack of control, I wonder how he would have liked Photoshop and even the fancier applcations. Though if he spent his last years on trying to master color photography and then imagined himself a failure at it, I guess he would have liked it. Then again, perhaps he would have found it too easy or too popular a medium and would have thrown his efforts elsewhere.

    Just talking out loud here.

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  2. Interesting article, Dave. I had the same thought as Peter. I wonder what he would think of today’s high end digital cameras. Some of today’s big name photographers, Burtunsky for example, use the digital like Adams seems to have used the Polaroid, to preview subjects before shooting with a film camera. The colour vs black & white issue is thought provoking too.

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  3. That’s a shame about the exhibit lighting–if you could let “someone in charge” know, they might be able to correct that problem.

    Ansel Adams was my teenage hero. I built myself a darkroom, and read his books, and had a really good time. I’d hoped to return to black and white film photography, but film and chemicals are hard to come by here, and there’s a hazardous materials charge for having chemicals shipped…I’ve just given up and gone digital, but it’s not nearly as much fun, at least not yet. The smell of the chemicals, the magic of exposing a white sheet of paper, dipping it in developer fluid, and watching the image come up…nothing can replace that on a computer screen.

    As for getting the same results, maybe you can, but the process is just an irritating programming problem, not a late-night adventure in alchemy.

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  4. Thanks for the post! Fascinating! I do not even own a camera. Once a year or so my wife and I buy one of those $4 disposible cameras and take a few pictures. I really prefer black and white fotos. Something unreal about the color ones. But then again the black and white are even more unreal. I have no idea what I am talking about!

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  5. What this wonderful set of Adams quotes points to is, in part, the frustration of a true artist by the “wow” factor sung by a public not as interested in art as it is in magic. And here’s the artist, either following the cries of the public, his own curiosity, or a mixture of both, who can’t figure out how to fit the new (still primitive) tools into his craft.

    Adam’s brilliance with his landscape work is that he was able to provoke an emotional response from someone looking at his photographs that could mirror the kind of emotional response one might have in being at one of those landscapes. He bore witness to the grandeur of the west. There were no shortcuts involved to get there. His work required huge commitment, physical strength, a craftspersons knowhow and incredible patience. This all in addition to his artist’s sensibility. I think he had a huge impact in terms of providing a visual canvas which the environmental movement could use and be inspired by to bring an emotional/aesthetic component to motivating people toward activism.

    In this new age of photography, is there a role that digital photography can play in saving spaces and saving our planet? I think so and I think Dave Bonta is one out there leading the way. It takes a different kind of commitment than the kind Ansel Adams had — but commitment is still a key ingredient. The combination of photography, writing/blogging, and activism can be very powerful.

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  6. Finally got a chance to come back here to read this post more carefully. A lot of interesting observations and information. Yes, I’d find that distracting to see the gallery in the reflections (and, in fact, have noticed similar in the past at some exhibits — not such a good thing).

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  7. Thanks for letting us know about this exhibit and your response to it.

    I’m a bit skeptical about Adams’ view that he was a failure in color photography. As a performance artist with his camera, he may have felt less successful than he was because the public was too attached to his black-and-white images to applaud his color work. His color transparencies still exist, and it would be fascinating to see what could be done with them using contemporary techniques of printing–and without distracting glass reflections to blurr our impressions!

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