One Image, One Opinion (ep. 2)

Like the previous one, this post is just one man’s opinion on a single image. Nothing I’m about to write is anything but an opinion; it’s not true, false, correct or wrong.

Just want to make that clear in case anyone severely disagrees, which isn’t unlikely.

The whole idea behind these kind of posts was covered the first time around, so in case you’re curious what I’m on about, please read that one first. The simple summary, taken from that post:

I pick an image that provokes me one way or another, and just write about it as if I’d discuss it. Simple as that.

There is a comment section below, so feel free to disagree, agree or simply share your gut reaction.

The Image

Ansel Adams – The Tetons and Snake River

Oh, how bloody unoriginal. Yes, this image is famous, extremely famous, published often enough to be even almost famous with non-photographers. In fact, it’s so much part of the (non-existing) Canon of Great Photos, it’s probably nearly beyond dispute.

I cannot really remember the first time I saw it, but I’m pretty sure it was some online discussion on art photography (the usual bickering whether it’s art at all, and if yes, which photos count as art, and which not). 

Somehow I don’t believe my gut reaction about this photo ever changed. Every time I see it, the initial reaction is “ah, right, that one… right…. OK”. Not a very excited reaction.

The rational mind taking over

When I look at it longer, there are aspects of this photo I definitely admire. Composition is sound, and surely it depicts an awesome vista. The sky is majestic, the silvery reflection of the river gorgeous.

Learning more about Ansel Adams is worth it in any case. As a photographer, because his works (books) on technique matter and are still as valid as they ever were. As a human, because his photos are signposts of the early days of environmentalism and drawing attention to the need to preserve nature. 

Rationally, there is a lot to like about this photo. One additional consideration: the digital reproduction most probably doesn’t do any justice to the image. Ansel Adams was a master printer. While I never actually had the pleasure of seeing one of his prints up close and personal, I’m quite sure that any scan of his prints doesn’t come close in quality to the actual print itself. Especially the shadow regions, it is to be expected there is a lot more detail in those.

Back to the gut

This photo just doesn’t move me. It leaves me cold. You see it, register it, and move on. Nothing happens. Yes, it is very pretty, very competent. An image of excellent technical skill and craft. A perfect display of how well black and white landscape photos can work.

It also is…. well, sorry, boring. Nothing happens in the frame. As a viewer, this photo poses no questions to me, it doesn’t ask my imagination to read a story into it. It doesn’t create an atmosphere or mood. It just shows what it shows, and that is it.

Is this fair? It is a landscape, after all, not a documentary image or a street photo. Should I expect a landscape to be story-telling? Am I not hoping for the wrong thing? Well, yes, it is partially unfair. But not entirely.

The composition is sound, good. By the book. And that’s where it fails: it doesn’t surprise. There isn’t an element in that photo that looks out of place, it’s all a bit mathematically clean.

This photo is good according to all the golden rules you’ll learn as you dive in into photography. Those rules that learn you how to compose successful images. So, is it fair to be disappointed with this photo specifically? Again, partially. Part yes, since Ansel Adams could and has done better. Part no, because what annoys me about this image is what it represents to me: photos made by the rules. 

Ansel Adams, El Capitan in winter

One Image?

In a way, choosing just one image was a bit cheating then. Hence a second image by Adams which I like loads and loads better. It evokes a mysterious atmosphere with the low clouds. The silence and quietness of fresh snow. I can project some story into this image in a way I cannot with Snake River.

It might be my projection,  but this second image to me feels more like a photographer in unity with his subject. Snake River has an emotional distance, the winter El Capitan image has a sense of closeness.

What’s wrong with rules?

Nothing and everything.

Of course all those rules about how to expose correctly and measure for the right light, how to apply thirds or the golden mean into your compositions, how to not cut off feet or tops of heads – all of them are extremely useful to learn. They’re a solid foundation.

But you build on top of a foundation. You don’t put in a foundation, and call it job done. By following those rules, you will create images the majority likes, that are pleasing to the eye and conceived as well done. They won’t shock anyone, leave nobody wondering. Crowd-pleasers.

But personal creativeness? Nah. For that, you’d need to start rattling the cage, break some rules. Perhaps you find your voice following the rules perfectly, but you’ll only know when you disobey them.

And maybe it’s just me looking the wrong places, but I see far too little of that around. Most images are a quest for some sort of perfection, and end up lacking in soul, depth and a personal fingerprint of the photographer. Snake River is that image for me.

Now again, that’s not knocking Ansel Adams; he knew better: 

There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs. – Ansel Adams

Which is often quoted, and perhaps eroded a bit to a cliché. Nonetheless, it is a good point. And as this post is only about my opinion on one single image: to me, Tetons and Snake River is simply not a good photo.

No man has the right to dictate what other men should perceive, create or produce, but all should be encouraged to reveal themselves, their perceptions and emotions, and to build confidence in the creative spirit. – Ansel Adams

Amen to that. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

eighteen + 14 =