Ansel Adams: Artist or Technician?

By Chuck Gardner

I posted the following message in advanced in response to a long discussion thread regarding whether Ansel Adams was an artist or merely a skilled technician.

The definition some choose to use for "artist" and "art" appears to require as a prerequisite the use of materials, techniques, or a vision quite different from that perceived in nature to deliver a message.

In my humble opinion there is a point were technique, in itself, becomes an art form, and the craftsman transcends to the level of artisan. The only real difference between and artist and an artisan is that the latter uses familiar materials, techniques, and images but does so with such skill that it causes the viewer to stop and consider familiar content with increased scrutiny.

The net effect is the same; it causes the viewer to perceive nature in a new manner.

In the case of Ansel Adams his technique evolved into the art of being able to reproduce on a piece of silver coated paper the scene he imagined in his mind's eye with such stunning clarity it causes the viewer to stop and contemplate his commonplace subjects. Most of us have seen the sun and the moon together in the afternoon sky at some point, but his Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico and Moon and Half Dome images make us stop and ponder that it is in fact rather unusual.

Adams started back in the days or orthochromatic and panchromatic films which did not record light in the same manner the eye perceives it, and his pre visualization of how the scene would be reproduced included manipulation with filters to darken sky as with Monolith, the Face of Half Dome or lighten foliage as with Leaves, Mount Rainier . What appears on his prints may or may not be what his eye perceived, and he made the conscious decision to use technique to either overcome the limitations of the medium, or exploit them. So in that sense he is also, if you accept the definition in paragraph one, an artist as well as an artisan.

Thanks to Adams's selfless sharing of his craft through his books and other endeavors there are now thousands who can duplicate his techniques by rote like so many bricklayers. Although his techniques are now commonly understood, it does not diminish the fact that Adams was one of a handful of pioneers who elevated photography from a trade craft to an recognized art form.