Sunday, 3 July 2016

MR. ADAMS, I PRESUME?

Langkofel and Plattkofel seen from Seiser Alm, Val Gardena
Picture based on photos courtesy Beatrice Sommerfeld 

Actually not. Neither does this picture provide a view from my kitchen window. Nor did I take this photo myself. So why do I bother to put it on top of this blog post?

The week before last I spent some days hiking with a nice group of friends in the Dolomites region, in Val Gardena (Grödner Tal in German, Gherdëina in Ladin). Since I considered this a holiday, I decided not to take any camera with me, which proved, in retrospect, to be A BIG MISTAKE. You can easily see why, by looking at the title picture. Here I was, standing on Seiser Alm with the most spectacular mountain panorama in sight, in a glorious light as made for grand photography; and my hands were empty! To put acid into the wound, the scenery triggered the memory of an outstanding print by a master photographer, Ansel Adams. Thereof the title to this post.

Even if the scenery in that print differs in many respects from the one I witnessed on Seiser Alm, its general mood, as I kept it in memory, seemed to me rather similar. Once back home, I rushed to the computer to refresh my memory. You see a small version of this masterpiece on screen. But make no mistake! This is but a bleak reflection of the real thing, which I had the good luck of admiring in a museum: a large sized print ranging from darkest black to delicate white, shining with its exquisite display of greys on grey.

Adams, A., Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park
Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art 

If you appreciate this picture as much as I do, I would encourage you to buy a print. You may not afford an original printed by the Master himself, but his gallery (The Ansel Adams Gallery) is still in business and printing Special Edition Photographs from his negatives on silver paper. The prints are being made by his former assistant (a master photographer in his own right by now) and can be obtained at a modest price of 300 USD. If you are in the money, why not visit this site, where 156 of Ansel's pictures are being exhibited, of which 112 are for sale (I won't say at which price, though!)

My enthusiasm for the Master is not only grounded in admiration for his prints. Adams was also a great teacher and author of introductory courses in photography. In fact, having studied his introductory books, page by page and word by word, I learned from him everything I know about photography. There is one central theme in his teaching that I have kept in mind all these years: he considered the taking of a photo only as the beginning of a long and laborious voyage. The silver negative that photographers used to obtain after developing the film was for him as if the score for a musician. The crucial part of the work was the INTERPRETATION, in Adam's case the way the negative was enlarged onto silver paper.

We are not talking here about simply putting the negative into the enlarger, pushing the button and putting the paper into the developer. Each fine print of a negative took days of testing, trying and retrying to prepare, until, finally, a master print emerged. In his introductory book The Print, Adams lets us look behind the curtains, by publishing his exposure guides for the above print. Certain parts of the negative had to be exposed longer than average, others had to be exposed less, in an intricate sequence of partial exposures. In this way, a somewhat bleak original was being transformed into the rich master print we can admire in the museums.

Compilation of exposure guides prepared by Ansel Adams
Based on notes from Adams, A., The Print, p 108

I read the corresponding passages in this book for the first time in 1983, two years after I had bought my trusted Linhof Technica, a technical camera with negative format 9x12 cm. By then, I had already produced a sizable amount of negatives and was eager to learn how to render them into fine silver prints. But after having studied Adams' method of interpretation, it dawned on me that I could never master his techniques in my lifetime, not to speak of the sizable investment in enlargement machinery needed, too expensive for my meager income. So I gave up the idea of ever producing fine silver prints. But the urge to take pictures got the better of me and I continued clicking away with my cameras. At retirement, I had about a thousand large format silver negatives hibernating, like sleeping beauties, in my cupboards.

Digitalization to the rescue! After retirement there was suddenly time to spend on photographic experiments. So I decided to study digital photo processing. And am glad I did. After just a year of daily exercise I began to understand that I could replicate Adams' technique for the first time! Furthermore, what took the Master days and weeks I could do in hours! All the steps involved in partial exposure of negatives, as demonstrated in Adam's notes, could easily be executed by the computer and the result observed on screen IMMEDIATELY. This greatly speeded up my process of learning and I am now confident that I can do the necessary to produce prints that live up to the utmost of my exigencies.

This new ability is especially useful for those pictures, where extremes in contrast are needed to convey my special vision. Even Adams may have had difficulty to come to grips with motives like the one I am showing here.

Horses and Södertorn. Source: Ems, E., Stockholm/Brussels: a retrospective in fine prints

I see that my enthusiasm for photographic techniques has taken over this blog. Haven't I been in Val Gardena, one of the most beautiful regions in the world, and haven't I something to tell about my stay there? "Yes!", indeed, but I feel somewhat handicapped by the lack of pictures to accompany any possible tale.

Suffice it to say that I highly recommend this region for an extended hiking trip. The mountains are simply gorgeous to look at and hike between. A feast for the eye and the mind! Not to speak of the people of this valley. For ages they had to eke out a meager existence, isolated as they were between the mountains, ever since the demise of the Roman Empire. Still, they managed to cling to the memory of a realm long gone, by preserving a version of the old language, which is spoken to this very day in the valley, as well as in four other isolated Alpine valleys.

In the past two centuries, the poor valley farmers discovered that their traditional wood carvings of saints and animals could be traded outside the valley. This led to a moderate increase in income for those poor farmers. Gradually, rumor spread about the fine wooden art being produced in Val Gardena and, by the end of the 19th century, their products were well known and appreciated all over Europe. One sideline was the production of wooden toys, of which they were exclusive producers throughout that century.

What more is there to say? Actually, a lot more! But why not go there yourself and experience the real thing? Why not let yourself be inspired to go by a couple more pictures, showing the valley in all its splendour?

St Jakob Pilgrim Church, Val Gardena
Picture based on photo courtesy Hans Ekdahl


Sass Rigais and Furcheta mountains
Picture based on photo courtesy Barbara Godlewski


The author in good company of fellow hikers








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