Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Ansel Adams and Me

Today is Ansel Adams's birthday. He would have been 106.

Today is also my birthday. No, I'm not telling. But let's just say the California school of Fine Art's department of photography, which Ansel founded in 1946, had already started its second decade by the time I had my first diaper change.

But other than our birthdays coinciding--and the fact that we both ended up doing photography and chose to work primarily in black-and-white--Ansel and I never met, and didn't really have much in common.

Yes, I studied the Zone System, and have occasionally used a large-format camera, especially when learning photography and in the Modern Photography studio. And yes there was a time when my fingernails were brown from all that time submersed in darkroom chemicals. But I grew to prefer 35mm, and became passionate about street photography, which in many ways is diametrically the opposite to Adams's approach. Ansel preconceived and worked deliberately, while I believe in using perception and quick reflexes to get the shot in rapidly-changing environments.

Nevertheless, I disagreed when my mentor, Garry Winogrand, called Ansel "a hack." (Actually, the shocked silence that followed that statement in his classroom was probably a moment Garry savored. Or maybe it was professional jealousy? After all, Garry wasn't nearly as financially successful as Ansel.)

I am in awe of what Ansel Adams accomplished--creatively, professionally, and as an advocate for the environment--even though I chose a different approach to capturing the world. Both approaches are valid. After all, as Garry Winogrand said, all things are photographable in any way. Ansel's way is as valid as Garry's.

So, to Ansel and anyone else who shares or shared my birthday (like Kurt Cobain, Cindy Crawford, Patty Hearst, Ivana Trump, J. Geils, Sidney Poitier, and Charles--not Gnarls--Barkley), happy birthday!

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