Other than Ansel


We can all appreciate the beloved Ansel Adams. He was one of the greats. His story is inspiring, fascinating and enduring. The man worked as a custodian in Yosemite National Park in order to live in the beauty he so much appreciated and desired to record. He seemed a harmonious blend of romantic artist and master technician. He devoted his life to the pursuit of what he loved. As a darkroom junkie myself, the first time I saw an Ansel print in person, printed by his own hands, I admit that a tear, (yes, a tear) fell down my face. The sheer craftsmanship of his prints was surprisingly moving. I am not here to dispute the fact that Ansel Adams was one of America’s greatest and seminal landscape photographers. I am here, however, to challenge you to find another one. After Ansel, who is your favorite photographer?

When I ask my students to name a favorite photographer, 75 percent say Ansel Adams. Really? That many of you relate so closely to a black and white, large format, traditional landscape photographer from forty years ago? Or is it because he is the most well known and easily named photographer of our time?

When I jump to the next question, "Why do you like Ansel Adams?" I hear crickets chirping, dead silence.

"Uh, because it’s pretty?"

Ahem. I will confess, I am one who values the presence of beauty in art. However, I feel an important practice of looking is to identify what we appreciate (or don’t appreciate) in images, so we can infuse (or reject) these methods/visual aspects into our own images. So, for instance, if you find you are a fan of Ansel Adams, I would urge you to check out the California Modernists. Do you also respond to Weston, Cunningham and Modotti? If so, then I would offer the idea that you appreciate clean lines, detailed images, vast tonal range in black and white, and the study of light and shadow.

If you are a fan of Alfred Stieglitz (the grandfather of art photography), I might ask you to explore the Pictorialists.

If you enjoy these artists, I would offer that perhaps you have an affinity for hand-worked images, textured papers, ethereal atmospheres and lyrical subject matter. Our medium’s history is rich with movements, genres, techniques, ideas and visual styles. There are so many photographers to explore. I feel satisfaction when a student finds inspiration in an unexpected or previously unknown genre, time period or art movement. 

Images influenced by Pictorialism, Minimalism and Modernism, respectively. ©Eileen Rafferty.

Take the leap and ask yourself, "What about a contemporary photographer?" Who is your favorite photographer working today? You owe it to yourself to explore the medium in which you work, which you practice and love. Do yourself a favor—choose a historical photographer and a contemporary photographer and call them your favorites. Just for today—you can pick new favorites next week!

Then ask yourself, why are they my favorites? What do I like about their work?

Is it the subject matter?

Their use of light?

Their narratives?

Their techniques?

The visual style?

What about each of these are you responding to? Be specific, write it down. Make a list. Now, look for these elements in your own work. Are they there? Are they missing? Are you close?

Remember the Nike ad, Be like Mike? Of course, from a distance the skeptic would say, "Impossible! I can’t dunk a ball taking off from the foul line, suspended in the air for an eternity, while making it look effortless." But maybe 'be like Mike' means his effortless style, positive attitude, crazy ball handling skills, agility, warm smile, etc. It’s not about being Michael Jordan, but about adopting the characteristics/methods/style of this amazing player.

So be like (fill in the blank) photographer. You will not become this overnight, but study his/her style, techniques, approach, subject matter, message. Decide why they are your favorite (for this week) and find those elements in your own work. And if Ansel really is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, your number-one favorite photographer, then I urge you to pick your second favorite.

And decide why.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Photo, Video, Pro Audio

Discussion 7

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I am just returning to film from a long hiatus, but the work and style of Ansel has always been on my mind.

Today though, Clyde Butcher captures me almost completely. He is consumate. He has a deep love of Old Florida that captures the world I grew up in. He goes to the extreme to obtain it. So many think of Fla. in the terms of South Beach or Disney or even the abused Keys. Clyde finds what is left of what the Spaniards called "La Florida". I live IN the 'Nature Coast' of Florida, I am a 'Cracker'. Most cannot understand the difficulty Clyde goes through to obtain these moments. His dedication to my Florida almost breaks my heart. One of my greatest desires is to emulate him. Though my pitiful efforts will never match his, I feel compelled to try.

Experience Clyde.

le Ce'libataire

Stellar insight and inspiration, thanks Eileen! Eerily along the same lines of  my current ponderings and will help push me past my own perspective. 

My personal work and heading on the compass tends to point in the style of Alison Shaw and Tony Sweet . While no one can copy another's vision , we can , by studying those we admire find our own vision . For me that is Burkett , Burnstine , Cornish, Fatali , Freeman , Soloway , Sexton  and Kenna just to name a few.

When I can't find time to photograph I'm buried deep within the work of others .It's amazing what one can learn about themselves this way.

Thanks Eileen for the new ideas .

I too really like Moose Peterson's work. Moose tends to shoot a lot of the same subject as I do and I like the techniques he uses to get the shoot. I have learned a lot from if over the last couple of years via his blog, videos, and book.

A close second would be Scott Kelby.  I have also learned a lot from him from his blog, videos, and all his books. Even though Scott shoots a wide verity of subject, some I really have no interest in, I really like the fact that he is willing to pass is knowledge on to the next generation of photographers.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post. I actually answered Galen Rowell, but now I need to examine that more closely.  8-)


For Landscapes? Laurence Parent.

Favour photographer today...has to be Moose Peterson. for me.