The Making of Forty Photographs, By Ansel Adams
|Value for money||7/10|
|Did it do what it said on the box?||9/10|
A charming insight into the soul of a great photographer
There are many great books about photography, of which this is just one, but there are relatively few books about how to be a great photographer. On the latter topic this book is exceptional.
Ansel Adams was clearly both a gentleman and a gentle man, who lived to create great images for the pleasure and education of others. We are exceptionally lucky that he left us both his wonderful pictures, but also a few books which explain not only how, but also why some of them were created.
This book covers a photography career of over 60 years, taking 40 of his greatest pictures, and describing how they were made. Although much of the technical advice is still valid today, a lot of it requires on the fly translation from the language of large format cameras and glass plates to the world of digital SLRs, with tiny sensors and vast memory cards. That exercise might put some people off, but it makes you think harder about his advice, and that’s a good thing.
However, where this book really scores is with the human stories of how and why Adams made certain pictures. Two examples stick in my mind.
Firstly, how one of his iconic views of Yosemite was made after a day’s hard hiking with a full size view camera, large wooden tripod, and just twelve glass plates. He suspected that he had wasted the first eleven, and had just one left for a favourite view of Half Dome. He took extra care with that one, and the results are still thrilling 80 years on.
Then there’s his tale of photographing 50s Californian farming families. This is a charming insight into how a great photographer of people develops both trust and ideas, lubricating both with an appropriate supply of beer. You suspect these days were not so hard for Adams as the great Yosemite hikes.
"Examples" also contains some remarkable philosophical insights into the process and role of photography. The one which now sticks foremost in my mind is that enthusiasm for a subject will not create great photographs – you have to visualise the image and its impact mentally, then make it. This is perhaps the single most powerful piece of advice in the book.
In 1935 Adams was concerned that the advent of 35mm would result in a vast number of bad photographs. Yet he was keen on the new medium, because he could also see its benefits. The same page could be written ten times over about digital photography, but you know that had Adams lived a little longer he would have been a keen PhotoShop-er.
This is a good book on photographic technique, but there are others. But there are few books which give such an insight into the soul of a great photographer.