Tag: Ansel Adams


Adams & Eggleston

WHEN YOU’RE IDENTIFIED WITH BEING A PHOTOGRAPHER YOU CAN’T STOP YOURSELF FROM MAKING PICTURES. Painters are like this with oils and canvas. Even without a camera in your hands you will be making mental images that record snapshots of another world.

This world forms a synthesis of what appears to be ‘out there’, waiting to be photographed, and ‘in your head and heart’ comprised of intuition, movement and emotions. In fact there is solely one world for you, which you assemble as a result of stories you have learned, or created, and the pleasures and pains you seem to have experienced. All this occurs through and within Consciousness, however, because of conditioning most personalize Consciousness and associate it within an egoistic concept of themselves. They claim ownership of Consciousness when referring to their Personal Awareness. I attempted to explain this theory briefly, and more poetically, here in 2001.

If you ask William Eggleston why he makes photographs you get a straight, honest, answer. He says: ‘I like to do it.’ Isn’t that enough?

Alec Soth - image Jolson CC 3.0

Alec Soth – image Jolson CC 3.0

Another photographer, Alec Soth once said that there are now too many Egglestons in the world, or words to that effect. I take this to mean that there are today many people photographing mundane subjects and assembling them as collections in photo-books. This begs a question, however, are the photographs any good?

An image isn’t good, or bad, in comparison to any of William Eggleston’s photographs. Each of his images stands, or falls, on its own merit. The same applies to any image you happen to make. Some, when experiencing an image through the filters of their ‘personal awareness’, which is just code for conditioned prejudices, will not be able to see any merit in your work. An iconic landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, was critical of Eggleston’s work when it was first displayed at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, (MOMA). He dismissed it, but back then in 1976 Adams had the attention of politicians, such as Richard Nixon who, like advertising agencies, were keen to sell us the iconic idea of Americans as plainsmen. Beat photographers thought differently, especially following the publication of Larry Clark’s disturbing work Tulsa in 1971.

I think there are, today, too many Ansel Adamses in the world, and too few Egglestons. Flickr, Picassa, and Facebook are crammed with dreamy images of blurred waterfalls and saturated meadows. Meanwhile, the world is drowning in beautiful, if deadly, human-made detritus. It is true that Ansel Adams was moved by the majesty of the American landscape, especially the Yosemites. He experienced the high peaks, tones, and the struggle to achieve perfection in a print as if a great musical work, which is not a bad way. His problem, however, is that even if he heard notes, or saw a potential score in the ordinary when he photographed it few were interested.

Baton Practice Manzanar War Relocation Center, 1943 - Ansel Adams

Baton Practice Manzanar War Relocation Center, 1943 – Ansel Adams

William Eggleston, seems to live in a unique, other worldly, place where he has remained oblivious to praise and criticism alike. It helps to have been born into a wealthy family, of course. within his images everything is beautiful, even objects most find ugly. He’s on some trip!

Adrian Searle, wrote in The Guardian:

“The pleasure of an Adams photograph lies in the quality he brings to, and draws out of, the rocks and ponds, the trees and falls. . . . Adams’s America presents itself as ancient and apparently uninhabited. Eggleston’s America is trashy and shrill, messed-up, beat-up, littered with man-made detritus. Adams and Eggleston do, however, make an oddly apposite pairing, harsh though the contrasts and contradictions are.”

Shell Oil Field, Pacific Coast, 1945 - Ansel Adams courtesy of Fortune

Shell Oil Field, Pacific Coast, 1945 – Ansel Adams courtesy of Fortune

Once, following an encounter group in the 1970s, someone spiked the last cup of tea with LSD. I have long since abandoned the idea that what I experienced, during my journey home and the few days following, were the result of gestalt therapy. I am grateful to whoever it was because, for a while, I was able to fully identify with the world as it surrendered to me. Flowers would beckon from the hedgerows and seem to kiss my soul. There was no space/time between us.

I feel, somewhat this way when I see a photograph, indeed I feel I may claim no authorship, save the moral right to copyright images under the Berne Convention, for pecuniary reasons. I do not make them, any more than they make me. They simply happen. I think it must be the same for William Eggleston.

Water Tanks, Ataköy 2015 - image Stephen Bray

Water Tanks, Ataköy 2015 – image Stephen Bray

Where Ansel Adams required a mule, packed with large format cameras, plates and lenses, with which to set out like some archetypal prospector into the mountains mining for images in idyllic landscapes; Eggleston simply walks out of his front door, or takes a car ride with his son. He is not recording landscapes but, instead, experiences. Nothing is contrived, although his images are carefully framed in order to convey the psychological flavor of his experience.

It may appear that I’m suggesting that William Eggleston is a better photographer than Ansel Adams. Let’s be clear, I’m not. They are different; they come from different times. Ansel Adams was part of America’s ‘f64 group’ and lecturing in photography when Eggleston was hanging out with Andy Warhol at ‘The Factory’.

Ulli Lommel and Andy Warhol on the set of Cocaine Cowboys, 1979. Warhol is playing himself CC 3.0

Ulli Lommel and Andy Warhol on the set of Cocaine Cowboys, 1979. Warhol is playing himself CC 3.0

Warhol was also, among other talents, a photographer. He made colorful artwork inspired by commercial, everyday, packaging, and the iconography of stardom. Eggleston’s work isn’t derivative of that of Warhol in any way, but just maybe the time spent at The Factory spurred Eggleston to using the commercial dye-transfer process as the medium for his color photography.

There is a generation gap, between Adams and Eggleston, that is perhaps wider than the split between film vs digital. Eggleston reflects his conservative upbringing in his attire, but little else is conventional about him. Adams, on the other hand, looked far more like one of today’s people, dressed as he did in denim and cowboy shirts, but if he ever were a rebel it was in a different time. As Eggleston says:

“None of us was interested in, back then, what was considered art photography, which was very large large-negative landscapes like Ansel Adams.”

The Tetons and the Snake River, 1942 by Ansel Adams

The Tetons and the Snake River, 1942 by Ansel Adams

To photograph, and print, like Ansel Adams, requires great patience and skill, but I suspect there is a formula to it. Eggleston, on the other hand, is more spontaneous; almost like street photography but, when you really look, even his pictures taken on the street are more like landscapes than street photography as most know it.

Now go out and do your own thing!

Stephen Bray, 2014

Stephen Bray, 2014