The Photographic idea

Ansel Adams, in the Forward to his popular selling 1950’s book “The Print”, said, “Photography, in the final analysis, can be reduced to a few simple principles. But, unlike most arts, it seems complex at the initial approach. The seeming complexity can never be resolved unless a fundamental understanding of both technique and application is sought and exercised from the start. Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas. It is a creative art. Therefore emphasis on technique is justified only so far as it will simplify and clarify the statement of the photographer’s concept.”

I have read and flipped through “The Print” many times since I got into photography. I think that it was almost required reading for photographers once upon a time, especially for those dedicated to spending hours of time in dimly-lit darkrooms peering at paper prints as they slowly materialized in smelly, liquid-filled trays.

There was a series of books by Adams from a period when photography was about striving for the perfect negative and a good final print, but those concepts are all but forgotten in this age of hi-tech, computerized image making. Those days are long gone, we don’t worry about a perfect negative any more, because even if the image file produced in-camera isn’t perfect, most images, especially RAW files are easily colour balanced, cropped, and sharpened. Contrast can be decreased or increased and the final picture doesn’t show any sign of resizing or noise reduction. And increasingly, the trend for many photographers has become to not make prints at all.

I find that Adams’ Forward in “The Print” is as worthwhile now as it was in 1950. Even with the changes of how an image is managed and finally used (whether print or electronic) the thought process and technique are important. Adams wrote about the technique of taking the picture, then the method used to develop the negative, and then finally the printing procedure. He might as well have been talking about transferring image data from a DSLR to computer, optimizing the RAW files in PhotoShop, and outputting to a personal printer for the final print. I thought about that as he continues, “We may draw an analogy with music: The composer entertains a musical idea. He sets it down in conventional musical notation. When he performs it, he may, although respecting the score, inject personal expressive interpretations on the basic patterns of the notes. So it is in expressive photography: The concept of the photograph precedes the operation of the camera. Exposure and development of the negative (RAW image file)(my remarks in parentheses) follow technical patterns selected to achieve the qualities desired in the final print, and the print itself is somewhat of an interpretation, a performance of the photographic idea.” I have always liked that final sentence of his “…the print itself is somewhat of an interpretation, a performance of the photographic idea.” Those words always remind me, as Adams put it, that, “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas.”

Modern photographers appear to be obsessing with each new offering manufacturers place on the table, and the obsession with technology may often look to be what photography is really about, and I do admit that it is fun, but photographers may need to be reminded that, “The concept of the photograph precedes the operation of the camera.” And that is why this mostly outdated book is still on my bookshelf, and why I regularly open it up. After all the prattle about what the newest camera, or lens, is capable of, I like to be brought back to what, in the end, photography is about for me personally, and as the great man said, “…grasp the full significance of visualization and planned execution in creative photography.”

2 responses to “The Photographic idea

  1. The three books in this series by A.A gave me the first insight into what could be achieved with a little bit of thought when it came to film and print.
    The biggest change was it stopped me saying ‘I think that one turned out’ 🙂



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