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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?
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