Technical solutions to aesthetic problems

While browsing John Szarkowski’s book “Ansel Adams at 100” I found this wonderful paragraph, and I think it perhaps applies even more to today’s digital photography than it did to film photography back then:

“[…] as Adams stood on a granite shelf four thousand feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley, facing the motif that he later titled ‘Monolith, the Face of Half Dome’ […] it came to Adams that the finished print might more closely match his sense of the emotional power of the experience if he revised the tonal relationships of the picture by exposing his negative through a red filter, which would deepen the tone of the sky almost to black. Adams remembered the occasion because he had, for the first time, consciously applied a specific technical solution to an aesthetic problem. He used the red filter not by rote, or because dark skies were good, but because a dark sky was necessary for the picture he envisioned.”

(John Szarkowski, “Ansel Adams at 100” [emphasis & links added by me])

The difficulty today lies in keeping what’s necessary to solve aesthetic problems apart from what is a fad. And there’s no denying that a dark sky in black & white photographs has become a bit of a fad. Is Ansel Adams the one who created it? :-) I don’t know. But today, people indeed apply this effect solely to achieve “that look.” I’m certainly guilty of making skies dark in my black & whites, even though it was not always necessary or even desirable, from an aesthetic point of view.

However, the problem with bright skies remains. They need to be controlled because their brightness will dominate the frame and compete with anything else in our photo. So sometimes it’s legit and necessary, and at other times it’s just following a fad. Nothing is every easy! :-)

And that’s just one example – digital photography with all of its possibilities opens up a maze of new, different, and obviously sometimes also misleading paths. Finding one’s own artistic vision and style has become more difficult. Certain techniques to solve aesthetic problems have become quasi-standard and good practice, but when we apply them to each and every photo they get reduced to a fad nevertheless…

Autumnal trees reflecting in the water of Leitgeringer See, Bavaria, Germany. November 2008.
Autumnal trees reflecting in the water of Leitgeringer See, Bavaria, Germany. November 2008.
Available as a print, in my store. Click on the photo to open.

In case you wonder about the photo, and what my technical solution to the aesthetic problems were: no, the red toning is not real. But there was enough red in the original to make me want to enhance it. I’ve also added more blur to the water, because slight ripples caused by the wind created an uneven and distracting pattern in it. And while I could have done that “more naturally” with a denser ND filter (which I didn’t have with me) the end result is the same. Is either approach “better” in any way – other than following some absurd photographic puritanism?

I already know one obvious question that will come up: “can I see the original?” – to which I’d like to reply: “does a painter show his empty canvas to anyone before he begins his work?”

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