Ansel Adams, Photographer: 1958 Documentary Captures the Creative Process of the Iconic American Photographer

Amer­i­ca has spe­cial­ized in both the beau­ti­ful and the ter­ri­ble, inspir­ing awe of every pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive vari­ety. That goes for both the human achieve­ments that have hap­pened there as well of the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ments they’ve hap­pened in and around, both of which define Amer­i­ca equal­ly and have made it the kind of place the word sub­lime, mix­ing in as it does a tinge of fear with admi­ra­tion, was coined to describe. Ansel Adams, who ascend­ed to the top of the pho­to­graph­ic pan­theon with his career spent shoot­ing the 20th-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can West, seemed born to cap­ture that sub­lim­i­ty.

How did he do it? The 1958 doc­u­men­tary Ansel Adams, Pho­tog­ra­ph­er (also avail­able on offers a twen­ty-minute look into the life and work of the man whose name has become a byword for the majes­tic black-and-white Amer­i­can land­scape. We also hear a few of his philo­soph­i­cal posi­tions on his work. “Per­haps music is the most expres­sive of the arts,” says Adams him­self after a few min­utes at the piano. “How­ev­er, as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, I believe that cre­ative pho­tog­ra­phy, when prac­ticed in terms of its inher­ent qual­i­ties, may also reveal end­less hori­zons of mean­ing.”

We then see and hear about all the (high­ly pre-dig­i­tal) cam­eras and asso­ci­at­ed tools with which Adams engaged in that prac­tice before head­ing out to the coast to watch him in action. “Like every good pho­tog­ra­ph­er,” says the nar­ra­tor, Adams “pre-visu­al­izes his final print right there,” a tech­nique we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly cov­ered here on Open Cul­ture. Then out comes the light meter, in order to “esti­mate what expo­sure he needs now and what devel­op­ment he needs lat­er.” Every choice Adams made — about “film, lens, fil­ter, lens exten­sion, lens aper­ture, shut­ter set­ting,” and more — he metic­u­lous­ly record­ed in his note­book.

After devel­op­ing and exam­in­ing the neg­a­tive in his lab, he tries out a “test expo­sure,” which pleas­ing­ly turns out as a “quite well-bal­anced” image, but one that nev­er­the­less sug­gests improv­ing tweaks for the next one. (Col­or film’s rel­a­tive lack of flex­i­bil­i­ty in this part of the process kept black-and-white Adams’ pho­to­graph­ic form of choice.) “Once Adams has achieved the print he wants,” the nar­ra­tor tells us, “he is able, sim­ply by con­trol­ling expo­sure and pro­cess­ing, to make from one neg­a­tive hun­dreds of fine prints in a day. By this tech­nique, he can pro­duce port­fo­lios of orig­i­nal prints which are in them­selves works of art.”

Much has changed about pho­tog­ra­phy since Adams did it, of course, though most­ly in the tech­ni­cal sense. As the process of sim­ply mak­ing a pho­to­graph becomes ever faster and eas­i­er, the dis­ci­pline, con­cen­tra­tion, and appetite for rig­or of a pho­tog­ra­ph­er like Adams, whose “stan­dards are as high as those of an archi­tect or an engi­neer,” become ever rar­er and more valu­able. Like all of the most impor­tant artists, his process in com­bi­na­tion with his very nature tran­scend­ed the lim­i­ta­tions of his time, result­ing in images of Amer­i­ca that, to this day, still look not just as if we could step right into them, but real­er, some­how, than real­i­ty itself.

Ansel Adams, Pho­tog­ra­ph­er has been added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er Ansel Adams’ 226 Pho­tos of U.S. Nation­al Parks (and Anoth­er Side of the Leg­endary Pho­tog­ra­ph­er)

How to Take Pho­tographs Like Ansel Adams: The Mas­ter Explains The Art of “Visu­al­iza­tion”

200 Ansel Adams Pho­tographs Expose the Rig­ors of Life in Japan­ese Intern­ment Camps Dur­ing WW II

Alfred Stieglitz: The Elo­quent Eye, a Reveal­ing Look at “The Father of Mod­ern Pho­tog­ra­phy”

1972 Diane Arbus Doc­u­men­tary Inter­views Those Who Knew the Amer­i­can Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Best

Hen­ri Carti­er-Bres­son and the Deci­sive Moment

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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