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Indecisive? Moi?!

Ansel Adams, only human after all..

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Tim Parkin

Tim Parkin

Amateur Photographer who plays with big cameras and film when in between digital photographs.

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I've read a small amount about Ansel Adams over the last few years and he has always come across as the master technician of landscape photography. His teaching of the Zone System and his considered 5x4 and 10x8 work was an aspirational example of the master craftsman personified. So it was with a small amount of relief that I read an article about the making of "Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite" and discovered that he wasn't quite the perfectionist he is made out to be.

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Now I have to admit it's an "awesome" shot (ahem), the way that the shadows balance one another and the sunlight creates wonderful textures on the face of half dome are beautiful. However, my inner acolyte tells me that Ansel must have composed this perfectly and his knowledge of exposure would have allowed him to capture this masterpiece in a single frame! Sadly not. If we take a look at the contact sheet for this roll of film (for yes, Ansel did use a medium format camera; a gift from Victor Hasselblad in 1950) we'll see a different side of the master.

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  • Hi Tim,

    A fascinating look at how Ansel made one of his famous images. I must admit to being shocked by how scrappy the contact sheet appeared; there’s little sign of the consummate craftsman! There are light leaks all along the edge of the roll, something that only happens (in my experience) on very rare occasions, and the exposures appear to be all over the place. Where’s the evidence of carefully calculating what zone to place tones in? I think you’re right in your assumption that what he described texts such as “The Exposure” were ideals rather than the messy reality of practice. And really how could it be otherwise? When writing a technical description it’s unlikely that one would highlight one’s failures of technique ;-)

    A general ‘problem’ with people viewing photographs is that the finished article appears to have arrived without a history. There are no brush marks, no signs of reworking, it is just presented in its apparent ‘perfect’ state. Of course we know that Ansel never exhibited an unmanipulated print but the viewer can’t tell, simply from looking at the surface of the paper, what work was done. There is an implicit understanding that any painting has been ‘worked’ but this isn’t always the case when people view photography. In the light of this, it’s easy to see how an artist like Ansel can be perceived as a perfectionist who rarely, if ever, made a mistake. Of course he was only human, like the rest of us (unless this is being read outside our Solar System!), so his practice would have been just as liable to include mistakes and fudges. People have sometimes said to Joe and I, “But of course you never make a bad photograph.” Well, I can’t speak for Joe (which I’m sure he’s very pleased about) but I know that I certainly make lots of mistakes. I just try not to let anyone else see them.

    The timeline of the exposures is intriguing. The angle of view (as far as I can tell from the relatively small image of the contact sheet) doesn’t vary significantly between frames. If he did walk backwards from his original position, rather than change lenses, he found another with almost exactly the same angle. Not impossible but not necessarily all that easy in Yosemite. You state that the moon has moved a couple of diameters and estimate that there must have been a couple of hours difference between first and last exposure. But this doesn’t make sense as the shadow cast across Half Dome is in the same place. It would have moved considerably in a couple of hours so AA’s description of making the images a minute or so apart would fit with this… but not the apparent movement of the moon. As an alternative hypothesis, I wonder if the frames were actually made on more than one day, the first four being made on one day and the rest made on another. It’s not that unusual for there to be long periods of settled weather over Yosemite Valley so, unlike here in the UK, there could easily be a cloudless sky on consecutive days. An interesting puzzle!

    • How kind of you David (for not speaking for me)! Moving swiftly on, it should be possible to extrapolate the time frame of this sequence quite easily by examining the shift in the shadow position on Half Dome as the sun drops and ‘moves north’. The moon would be a slightly different ‘shape’ if the sequence was made on different days… Afraid even with glasses on I cannot tell whether this is so. But in any case the lunar path would have been running an hour later in the day the following day. Personally I would say he’s switched to a wider lens, headed back down the road a very short way (away from Half Dome) and then carried on shooting. That’s consistent with the higher moon position, the fact that the moon is itself rising, and the way the shadows are heading in the sequence when we look closely. I would suggest that a few minutes (10-20) is a plausible time frame for the sequence. I think Tim is right therefore.
      In Ansel’s defence, the fogging might well be caused by a faulty back rather than processing incompetence. Return to Victor for fixing (no, not in the darkroom!).
      I remember seeing a huge print of this image in an exhibition at the Barbican, before Adams died, I think it may have been 1982, and it was one of the most disappointing in the show. Simply put, being shot on such a small format (and cropped, as we see from your piece) and printed extremely large meant that it was quite soft compared with many of his other images, which had an incredible, grain-free smoothness to them. I even remember a suggestion of camera shake.
      Thanks Tim, a fascinating reminder that legends are human after all.

      • Hi Joe,

        Your explanation works apart from the fact that the moon has moved a couple of diameters to the right whereas the shadow has hardly moved. This might be OK if the relationship between the foreground peak and Half Dome had also changed but as far as I can tell it hasn’t. Given that the moon moves about one diameter an hour, as Tim suggests, two hours would therefore have to have elapsed. But the shadow would have moved across the valley floor much faster than that! I’m not sure what the answer is, and guess we won’t be able to tell without a close inspection of the contact at full size.

        With regard to the light leaks, I wasn’t suggesting that Ansel had made a mistake with his processing. My thought was that he hadn’t properly affixed the glued tag on roll and that it had therefore unravelled a little. I know from personal experience that light will leak along the edges if the roll isn’t very tightly wound. Again we can only speculate… But let’s not let a lack of concrete facts stop us from jumping to (informed) conclusions ;-)

        • OK, I’ll drink to that; only can we lack granite facts (as opposed to concrete), since it’s Yosemite we are discussing here! It’s all relationships after all isn’t it? I suggest we get the tape measure out when we are back in the valley next year… Is that a good moment to invite anyone reading this to join us in Yosemite for the Light and Land tour, May 2015 (shameless plug)…?!

          • OK – some astronomic facts were awry. I should have known it was a lot faster than one diameter an hour when I’ve been trying to photograph it myself as it seems to fly then. And I was right – as mentioned in the update above it travels a full diameter every 2 minutes. I also found an interesting study made by some astronomy students trying to identify the exact day it was taken.

            It does appear that this was quite rushed and the exposure guessed at. The article mentions he was using Panatomic X which probably explains the density changes at the edge of the film and frantic bracketing!!

            • Hi Tim,

              Well, I was initially sceptical of your assertion about it moving so slowly so I went had a look around the net (always a bad idea) and found corroboration of your original speed assessment from a professor of astronomy:


              I’m confused (as usual!)

          • A perfect moment for a shameless plug! ;-)

  • Peter Burgess

    Thank’s Tim, David and Joe: absolutely fascinating.

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