Ansel Adams leaves me cold!

I have admired the landscape photography of Ansel Adams for about 30 years. However, it has never excited me. His photography is always technically superb, but I have rarely found his landscapes images stirring me emotionally. This may sound heretical but, for me, Adam’s images are little more than stunning records of sublime landscapes. The subject is beautiful, but the photograph has little to add to it. What am I missing? Please note that I am particularly discussing Adam’s large vista landscape photographs and not his intimate floral, tree or architectural images which I do find engaging both artistically and emotionally.

El Capitan, Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams – El Capitan

Perhaps, like the landscape painters of the Hudson River School who invented, overly dramatized scenes, such as below, Adam’s photographs are somehow unbelievable. Adams maybe making photographs, but their reality feels questionable.

Thomas Cole - Scenes from the Last of the Mohicans

Thomas Cole – Scenes from the Last of the Mohicans

In part I believe this lack of credibility is due to Adam’s images not having any signs of human presence. Without such evidence, human constructs or traces, such scenes might as well be invented. Personally, I need to see that other humans have been to a location to believe in it. I am more interested in, and find it easier to engage with, a landscape when there is evidence that humans have interacted with the location. A pristine, “natural landscape” was in Adam’s time and is still a rare if not impossible location.

Thomas Cole’s painting does include humans. But it is a painting and therefore cannot be a wholly accurate portrayal of reality. For photographs, there is a long-held misconception that they do accurately record reality, but this has never been true. Since as long ago as the 1840’s photographs have been manipulated and, anyway, every photograph is inherently the photographer’s edit of the world and time, not a whole reality.

Conversely, from the first time I became aware of the New Topographic photographers, especially Robert Adams, and Lewis Baltz, I was excited and felt emotionally connected with their rendering of banal subjects as something worthy of being appreciated and investigated. Somehow, their ability to depict the mundane as (albeit accidentally) beautiful resonates with me. I am interested in understanding what it is they are trying to say about a scene. When I feel they have created beauty out of the banal then I am drawn into the image to try and understand why and to create my own meanings.

However, going back to my original argument, at a recent conference on landscape photography I saw 2 very successful and highly considered landscape photographers showing and discussing their work. They were Charlie Waite and Colin Prior. This was interesting because, like with Ansel Adams, I admire the craft of these photographers, but I often fail to be engaged by their images. Again, what am I missing?

Charlie Waite showed the following image: Sossusvlei, Namibia, Africa

My immediate reaction was that the sky was too visually noisy, and this conflicted strongly with the calm, soft beauty of the sand dunes. The two elements seem to be fighting with one another and this had a negative effect on me. Charlie Waite said that his sister had surprised him when she described the sky as “too chaotic”. So, I am not alone! Was Charlie Waite only aware of the drama in the scene and overlooking the emotional conflict?

Colin Prior, Liathach and Beinn Eighe

The above image by Colin Prior captures a sublime, dawn scene in difficult winter conditions that took real effort and skills to make. It is beautiful but, after a few seconds of viewing, I am left wondering what it is trying to say. There does not, for me, appear to be any meaning, message or alternative way of seeing the world being proposed by such an image. Perhaps my wish for images to convey more than just (accepted) beauty is limiting my appreciation.

Both these photographers, and their success, seems to be predicated upon being able to access and record moments and locations in dramatic ways that most of their viewers could not hope to emulate. Are they selling a dream, an overly romantic view of the world, that I consider to be an unachievable fiction, for most people, most of the time. Are they selling their visions of heaven?

On the few occasions when I have been in such dramatic places and experienced the light, the solitude, the moment then I have felt spiritually uplifted. Note, I am not a spiritual person, so these occasions are rare. However, a photograph of such a time (as shown below) will rekindle those emotions within me but someone else’s images of the same or similar places and moments will still leave me cold. For this image I have a personal connection and knowledge that I cannot achieve by looking at others’ photographs.

Krafla, Iceland

Krafla, Iceland

Usually, and perhaps contrarily, when I am in such moments, I will take a single picture then put the camera away in order to fully concentrate on the moment, the experience. For me, enjoying the experience itself is far more important than the recording of it which can never be more than a trigger for an inadequate memory.


  1. But isn’t that modern landscape photography all over? Ask a landscape photographer “why” they are taking their pictures and not many would provide more than “because it’s pretty/sublime/dramatic”. Nothing wrong with that but, clearly, not for everyone.

    Much of Adam’s work is a bit different when you consider the environmental conditions he was photographing in. Yes, there are no people in his Storm Clearing over El Capitan but then you consider the valley and several other Sierra valleys were under threat of being dammed, and his pictures helped the Sierra Club mobilise public opinion. We’re quite fortunate that El Capitan isn’t under 2000 feet of water – there’s human interest for you! Just go next door to Hetch Hetchy.

    Not that there were too many folk around in Yosemite when he took his pictures. The same shot these days would see climbers and ropes festooned all over El Cap (the climbers have even abbreviated the name!) Back in the 20’s/30’s no one even imagined themselves up there. The fastest climbers race up in a matter of three hours or so.

    So what does a photographer do when confronted by such enormous lumps of rock, quite outside their, and their audience’s, usual range of experience. Ignore them? Just gawp at them? Or do they try to make sense of them and communicate some sense of awe to others? The cliffs dwarf people so how would you indicate their scale with reference to a human?

    Maybe we dismiss the pictures as too obvious these days because we’ve become inured to them and similar pictures. When Adams was taking his pictures he and other were reacting to more pictorial interpretations, setting their apertures to f64 and such (and only then making their artistic interpretations…!)

    I guess to appreciate any image you have to be able to construct a story with it. Some people will expect to derive a sense of the spiritual. The stories I see in Adam’s Yosemite revolve around the conservation issues and especially around the climbing, imagining myself up there, perhaps for days at a time. But unless you have some back story to attach, the pictures might well seem arid.

    • Hi Nick. Thanks for your comments. I appreciate that Adams had a big issue to combat and that he was very successful. And I know that I am the unusual one in that don’t feel anything when I see his images. However, I have always been attracted to his namesake, Robert Adams’, images of the Banal, both aesthetically and politically. They are so different as photographers but with similar motivations. I’m just trying to understand why this is.

  2. Hi Neil and Nick, I very much enjoyed reading Neil’s writings on Ansel Adams and your response Nick. My first photographer hero at a young age was Ansel Adams and while I aspired to achieve anything close to his photography the Pentlands didn’t quite compete with the grandeurs of Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Death Valley but I guess that wasn’t the point as I had now begun the journey into photography which is something I’ll always be grateful to Ansel Adams for. I get Neil’s argument as I now look at the work of Ansel Adams with less awe and have discovered many more photographers whose work I have greater interest in but it was Ansel Adams who got the ball rolling and I’ve been kicking it ever since so I’ll always have a place in my heart for him. Charlie.

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