A while back there was a post over on Photrio that had been picked at like a boil. I think it got up to something like seventeen pages. The conversation took a bunch of twists and turns, but the basic premise had to do with Ansel Adams and why he’s so special. Or perhaps to put it a better way, why is he so popular with the public at large?
First of all, I think Ansel Adams deserves a lot of the admiration he receives in the photographic community (and probably some of the derision as well). But regardless of whether you like his work or not, he did a lot to promote photography and bring it to the forefront as a legitimate form of art. And on top of that, he spent a lot of time teaching, writing, and generally sharing his vast knowledge of photography with others. After all there is a technical side to photography, and while it may not be as important as the creative side, it is vital nonetheless.
I don’t think that many people would argue against the fact that Ansel Adams mastered the technical side of photography and was more than willing to share that knowledge with anyone who cared to listen. In my mind, that alone should be applauded, whether you’re a Zone System aficionado or not.
What’s Not to Like
But all that is beside the point. The real question is why is Ansel Adams so popular with the general public? In my mind that’s simple. Ansel Adams is easy. There is nothing to dislike about his work. It’s undeniably beautiful. Only Rush Limbaugh could hate a glowing picture of the pristine and grand western landscape as presented by Adams. Who can’t admire the spectacle that is Yosemite or the Sierra Nevada or Denali or a hundred other places Adams has photographed? His photography is gorgeous, and everyone from my 3 year-old son to my dead grandmother can see that. Of course it’s popular. Why wouldn’t it be? After all what’s not to like?
But in a way, his photography is like Miss America. Who can say honestly say that Miss America is not beautiful? You can’t. Just like an Ansel Adams photograph is the standard that defines the beauty that is the American West, Miss America practically defines female physical beauty. Like Moonrise Over Hernandez or Clearing Winter Storm, every Miss America is seemingly perfect. There’s nothing to argue with or object to.
But that’s also the problem. Just like with Miss America, there is nothing about an Ansel Adams photograph that presents any kind of challenge. Each are undeniably beautiful, and that is the standard they both set.
But to me both are ultimately boring. That’s not to say I don’t like or appreciate them for what they are. It’s just that I want more. I want to be challenged. It’s like the old saying, nothing really worth doing is ever easy. So give me Angelina Jolie or Keira Knightly over Miss America any day of the week and twice each on Friday night. Obviously both have issues and neither one could ever be Miss America. While both have legions of dedicated worshippers, neither is universally popular. That’s because they’re different and offer something beyond the standard definition of female beauty.
Offering a Challenge
Similarly, while Edward Weston is revered and appreciated in photographic circles, a contact print of the pipes under his sink could never be an Ansel Adams print. Nor could it be as universally popular.
But unlike Adams, Weston offers a challenge. He goes way beyond the standard definition of beauty and dares you to see more. He sticks it in your face and hits you in the mouth and either you like it or you don’t. But either way he challenges your expectations and offers up a different way of seeing the world, which to me is so much more affirming than simply photographing universal beauty. It’s also what inspires the loyalty of rabid fans, it just doesn’t inspire everyone.
But most people, for whatever reason don’t want to be challenged. They want what is simple. They want to see universal beauty, because it’s easy to see. Show my Mom a photograph of a pepper and she’ll wonder why anybody would bother, but show her a print of Half Dome and she’ll immediately understand.
Of course Ansel Adams is popular. It’s just too bad that nothing hard ever is.