Sunday, November 28, 2010

10/11 Academic Decathlon The Great Depression Art Selection #9 - Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, Ansel Easton Adams, 1941, Gelatin silver print, 36.9 x 48 cm (14 1/2 x 19 in.), The Art Institute of Chicago

Who doesn't love the work of Ansel Adams!?! So vivid, beautiful, even though you know he is shooting a real scene, his work looks hyper-realistic because of the crisp clarity of his picture. It was his destiny - he fell in love with Virginia Best whose family owned a photography studio in Yosemite National Park. He had a unique opportunity to have access to equipment, a darkroom and an incredible area of the country that defined his aesthetic eye. He was a pioneer in the field of photography and preferred working with a camera that had large format film (8" x 10" negatives). One thing that makes his pictures so exceptional is the contrast (or difference between the light and dark areas of the image). He is able to get the whitest whites right alongside the darkest darks, which adds to the drama of his scenes. In order to control the contrast precisely, he developed a technique called the "zone system" which allows the photographer to adjust the level of exposure in different areas of the photograph. His love of precise photography led him to a group of seven California photographers that were dedicated to "straight photography" - they were called Group f/64, named after the smallest possible opening of the aperture of a cameral lens (the part that lets the light in). When the aperture is adjusted to this setting, it produces a picture that has very sharp focus, with the foreground and background equally crisp and sharp. Their mission was to shoot without manipulating the image using cropping or special effects.

This aesthetic had a contemporary ideology behind it. Just like the art and architecture of the time, "straight photography" was interested in simplicity, objectivity and realism. Adams was interested in photographing the glory of nature and hoped that his pictures of the national parks would spur politicians to protect them and keep them pristine. He also became a part of the nature preservationist organization, the Sierra Club, and later became the director. What a great pairing - he could use his pictures to promote the mission of the club. He worked with the Department of Interior in 1941, then was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue with his work of photographing the parks. It was through this continued work and exposure that Adams lifted photography from a journalism tool to the status of fine art. He has been one of the most famous photographers of all time.

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico is a serene landscape with a huge sky. In painting, perspective is shown by blurring the background detail in order for it to recede into the back, but the mountains in this photo are crystal clear even though we know them to be far away. Adams perspective is flat and emphasizes the contrast between the light and dark that create abstract shapes in the landscape. In the foreground we see different buildings nestled around the few trees in the landscape. This moment captures the setting sun - you can see the crosses of the churchyard gleaming in a brilliant white as the moon rises over a bank of clouds.

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 print

Once the negative is developed, additional prints can be made. Because printing a photograph involves chemicals and light, many variations can be made to manipulate the image. Ironically, though Adams didn't want to manipulate the image in the original shooting of it, he was not opposed to manipulating subsequent prints of the negative. Adams developed several prints of Moonrise, and each print has a difference in contrast. Compare the photo at the top of the post with the one just above this text. This is one of the places the artistry of photography comes in. Playing with the contrast, Adams could change not only the appearance of the photo, but could also alter its mood. Color is a big element in visual media - removing the color to black, white and shades of gray allows the viewer to focus more on the composition and the subject of the photograph. It helps distill the image down to its very nature. Black and white photography has been very popular in fine art photography because of its simple and direct nature.

The circumstances surrounding Adams shooting this particular scene are described by the artist:

We were sailing southward along the highway not far from Espanola when I glanced to the left and saw an extraordinary situation - an inevitable photograph! I almost ditched the car and rushed to set up my 8x10 camera. I was yelling to my companions to bring me things from the car as I struggled to change components on my Cooke Triple-Convertible lens. I had a clear visualization of the image I wanted, but when the Wratten No. 15 (G) filter and the film holder were in place, I could not find my Weston exposure meter! The situation was desperate: the low sun was trailing the edge of the clouds in the west, and shadow would soon dim the white crosses. I was at a loss with the subject luminance values, and I confess I was thinking about bracketing several exposures, when I suddenly realized that I knew the luminance of the moon: 250 c/ft2.

The perfect photo required not only the correct equipment, but ultimately the eye of the artist seeing the image in the flash of a second. Nature's cycles do not wait, and photography is ultimately about capturing light on film. Adams, though he had been out working for the government that day, did not bill the government for the photograph. Somewhere in his mind his intuition was acute. This image would become one of his most famous and popular images and he was ultimately able to profit from it. He also had full rights of the image and could control how he developed and used each print.

I lived in New Mexico as a young girl in the early 1960s. This print captures the nostalgia of that special part of the country and supports the slogan still sported on the New Mexico automobile license plate - "Land of Enchantment".

Ansel Adams Self-portrait, 1936


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