Today was probably the best day I’ve had in close to a year and a half. I quit my job this morning and had the first Saturday off since February of 2016. Since then, I’ve worked every Saturday and Sunday with the exception of one week I went to Mexico. I didn’t quit on a whim mind you, I have another job starting Monday, but today I officially resigned.
I’d forgotten how much I absolutely love Saturdays. There’s a whole different feel in the air. It’s as though there’s a collective energy among everyone enjoying a day off after a long week of work. You just don’t get that feeling when you’re off on Thursdays. I’d become antisocial, withdrawn and really had become depressed. I didn’t realize how bad until today.
This morning I got up early, grabbed my camera and decided to go downtown and just spend the morning shooting “whatever”. I walked through the city, camera in hand and absorbed the energy. I stopped and had brunch and a Bloody Mary. Heading home, I realized what a great time I had.
Yes, today was a good day. Once again, I feel alive.
“Even as a child, she had preferred night to day, had enjoyed sitting out in the yard after sunset, under the star-speckled sky listening to frogs and crickets. Darkness soothed. It softened the sharp edges of the world, toned down the too-harsh colors. With the coming of twilight, the sky seemed to recede; the universe expanded. The night was bigger than the day, and in its realm, life seemed to have more possibilities.” ― Dean Koontz, Midnight
In June 2016, it was estimated that one-third of the world’s population could no longer see the Milky Way, including 80% of Americans and 60% of Europeans.
Let that just sink in a moment.
If the words weren’t powerful enough, here are 2 images of the Earth at night. One was taken in 1994, the other in 2012.
The consequences of Light Pollution are for more than not being able to see the Milky Way at night- Effects on human health, migratory birds, ecosystems and energy waste are just a few.
The International Dark Sky Association or IDA works to “protect the night skies for present and future generations.” Founded in 1988 they are “dedicated to protecting the night skies for present and future generations.”
One of the features of the website is this approx. 6 minute video called “Losing the Dark” and was created to raise awareness of the effects of light pollution and what actions you can take to mitigate it.
Here is some of IDA’s work, as listed on their website:
International Dark Sky Places »
Our award-winning flagship conservation program recognizes and promotes excellent stewardship of the night sky. We’ve certified more than 65 Dark Sky Places worldwide across six continents, comprising more than 58,000 square km (21,200 square miles).
Fixture Seal of Approval »
Our FSA program certifies outdoor lighting fixtures that minimize glare, reduce light trespass and protect the night sky. Thousands of products and more than one hundred manufacturers have already been approved under the FSA program.
Parks and Protected Areas »
We help parks, nature reserves and similar sites with lighting management plans and provide eco-friendly lighting options for free or at substantially discounted prices.
Education and Outreach »
We educate communities and public officials about light pollution and provide solutions and resources through our public outreach programs and 50-plus chapters on five continents.
Sea Turtle Conservation »
Currently, we are working with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to protect endangered sea turtles in the Florida Panhandle. We are also in the process of creating a sea turtle friendly product certification program.
Public Policy »
Working with public officials and concerned citizens, we advocate for smart lighting laws and policies and provide recommendations and model lighting legislation.
Consulting Projects »
We consult with government entities and private businesses to conduct night sky brightness monitoring, lighting surveys and retrofits, sea turtle friendly lighting and lighting ordinance drafting and adoption.
IDA Awards and Recognition Program »
Our annual awards program recognizes the outstanding contributions of our members, volunteers and like-minded organizations in dark sky protection and light pollution mitigation.
If you have some time, please visit their website and learn more about IDA and what you can do to stop light pollution and raise awareness of this issue. Having always lived in or near big cities, I’ve always been routinely aware of light pollution. I knew if I wanted to see a sky full of stars or view a meteor shower, I’d need to go “out to the country”. It was something I just accepted, never giving it anymore thought. Up until a couple of days ago, I was totally unaware of the consequences of light pollution. I was just upset that I couldn’t see the Milky Way. I felt obligated to write this post.
Hopefully this has raised your awareness and inspires you to share this with others as well. The effects of light pollution are reversable, awareness is key. I want to thank the IDA for all they do, it’s comforting to know we have “Guardians of the Night Sky”.
Yesterday, as you may recall, our hero (that would be me), began his quest to photograph the night sky. Gathering the proper equipment, his journey of a 1000 steps ended after about 8. Thwarted not only by the rain, but the realization that living in the city, a dark sky would be difficult if not impossible to find. The Quest for the Milky Way begins.
The night is even more richly coloured than the day… . If only one pays attention to it, one sees that certain stars are citron yellow, while others have a pink glow or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance. And without my expiating on this theme, it should be clear that putting little white dots on a blue-black surface is not enough.
— Vincent van Gogh, letter to sister, September 1888.
Drying myself off, I felt a little dismayed. My quest to photograph the night sky was proving to be more challenging than I originally anticipated. Having the proper equipment was only part of the equation, finding a location was a little more problematic. It had been a while since I’ve seen the Milky Way. Living in the city, only the brightest of stars make their appearance. I need total darkness. I need to be able to look up at the heavens and be overwhelmed. Armed with a keyboard, mouse and favorite glass of wine, I began my search.
IDA works to protect the night skies for present and future generations.
Advocate for the protection of the night sky
Educate the public and policymakers about night sky conservation
Promote environmentally responsible outdoor lighting
Empower the public with the tools and resources to help bring back the night
Not only did I find exactly what I was looking for, I believe I found a new cause that I can stand behind and support. I don’t want the importance of this organization to get lost within the context of this article so I will dedicate it to it’s own daily page which I will post tomorrow. Today I’d like to focus attention specifically to the International Dark Sky Places program started by the IDA in 2001. Their goal is “to encourage communities around the world to preserve and protect dark sites through responsible lighting polices and public education.”
The Dark Sky Places program offers five types of designations:
International Dark Sky Communities
Communities are legally organized cities and towns that adopt quality outdoor lighting ordinances and undertake efforts to educate residents about the importance of dark skies. International Dark Sky Parks
Parks are publicly or privately owned spaces protected for natural conservation that implement good outdoor lighting and provide dark sky programs for visitors. International Dark Sky Reserves
Reserves consist of a dark “core” zone surrounded by a populated periphery where policy controls are enacted to protect the darkness of the core. International Dark Sky Sanctuaries
Sanctuaries are the most remote (and often darkest) places in the world whose conservation state is most fragile. Dark Sky Developments of Distinction
Developments of Distinction recognize subdivisions, master planned communities, and unincorporated neighborhoods and townships whose planning actively promotes a more natural night sky but does not qualify them for the International Dark Sky Community designation.
Dark Sky Parks! Yes! I was finally onto something. With a couple of well placed mouse clicks I found myself on the ‘Search for a Find Dark Sky Place’ page. Using the search bar, I was able to instantly find Dark Sky Reserves, Sanctuaries , Parks and Communities around the World. As I held my breath, I typed ‘Texas’ in the search box and hit ‘enter’.
My query produced four Dark Sky Parks in the State of Texas, three within a 4 hour drive and one that is at least an 8 hour trek. As happy as I was that I finally found a place to photograph the night sky, I also found myself a little unsettled by the fact that in the entire State of Texas there are only four Dark Sky Parks, and dismayed at how few existed in the entire U.S.
I’ve decided that I will journey to Coppers Break State Park near the Panhandle of Texas. Having already made plans to visit nearby Palo Duro Canyon State Park just a few miles Northwest, I can incorporate a stop to Coppers Break. Sadly, my Astrophotography project is now on hold.
Although I am disappointed that I will not be shooting photos of the night sky in the near future, I’ve now become acutely aware of light pollution and its multiple effects on our environment. Have we become so accustomed to not seeing the night sky that we’ve never given it a second thought? How many kids now living in the city have never seen the Milky Way in the night sky? Will we one day lose our night sky where future generations will never see a black sky sparkling with a billion stars?
Food for thought.
I am not a hard-core environmentalist by any means. I do my best to recycle, I keep my car running clean, etc. This has been a very enlightening lesson for me and I hope you come away with a little more awareness yourself.
Tomorrow I will go against ‘all things photography’ tradition and write a bit about the International Dark Sky Association as a show of support.
“Before we invented civilization our ancestors lived mainly in the open out under the sky. Before we devised artificial lights and atmospheric pollution and modern forms of nocturnal entertainment we watched the stars. There were practical calendar reasons of course but there was more to it than that. Even today the most jaded city dweller can be unexpectedly moved upon encountering a clear night sky studded with thousands of twinkling stars. When it happens to me after all these years it still takes my breath away.” ― Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
I’ve decided to expand my horizons (pun fully intended) and explore the world of Astrophotography. While doing research on another topic, I happened to come across an astrophotography website and became enamored with the photos.
One website led to another, and then another, and another. Soon I was watching YouTube tutorials and ended up going down that long vortex before finally declaring, “You know what?? I can do that!” With that, I began to make a list of what I need to begin my journey.
The first thing on that need list is, obviously, a camera. The cameras I have are more than adequate to do the job. For the sake of anyone that might be interested, you’ll want a camera that will let you manually adjust all settings (ISO, Shutter Speed, aperture, etc), with the ability to snap the shutter remotely. In addition to the camera, spare batteries are a very good idea, long shutter times will drain batteries rather quickly.
Second on the list, and probably just as important as the camera- A good sturdy tripod. The cheapy Wal-Mart/Wolf camera/Best Buy special is not going to fly here. You want zero vibration. The camera should feel cemented on the tripod with no movement whatsoever. So far I’m feeling pretty good as I check the first two items off the list.
Continuing down, we come to item #3. The lens. I read a lot of differences of opinion regarding the best lens to use when shooting the night sky. Ranges from 10-20 mm seem to be the recommended lens with a preferred aperture of f/2.8. I’ve read many articles that stated if you don’t have a f/2.8 lens, an f/4 should suffice. Either way I was good. There is no need for a new lens in my future. Well, there’s always a need for a better lens, I just can’t justify it this time around.
So, with my list successfully checked off, the excitement begins! I begin to pack my camera bag. I choose the perfect camera, pack in a couple of batteries, grab my Bogen tripod, and take a 10-20 Nikon wide-angle lens and carefully place it next to the camera. The adrenaline is rushing as I shut off the lights inside the house as I walk out the front door. The horn blasts twice as I press the remote to unlock the Toyota as I approached.
Then, two things hit me. One quite literally, the other figuratively. A: It’s raining. and B: I have no earthly idea where I am going. I live in the middle of the city. Another thought occurred to me while I stood there, dejected, getting soaked in the rain, looking up at the sky. “When was the last time I actually saw the Milky Way??” I could not recall the last time I saw a black night sky.
Hello Zensters and new readers. Today I’d like to share an essay I read about 7 years ago titled “The Myth of Talent” by Craig M. Tanner. It is a little a lengthy read but it contains some great insights that everyone can appreciate.
The Myth of Talent By Craig M. Tanner
“Often people attempt to live their lives backwards; they try to have more things, or more
money, in order to do more of what they want, so they will be happier. The way it
actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then do what you need
to do, in order to have what you want.” – Margaret Young
“Genuine beginnings begin within us, even when they are brought to our attention by
external opportunities.” – William Bridges
“Talent is long patience.” – Gustav Flaubert
I can still remember the looks of incredulity when I left the hospital and made the
declaration that I was quitting my job in order to become a nature photographer. I am
sure, to the people closest to me, my dream did seem to come way out of left field. Like
millions of people, I owned a camera. But I had never done anything except take
snapshots. I couldn’t even particularly claim photography as a hobby. But there was a
connection. I had lived with an overwhelming passion for the natural world for as far
back as I could remember. I loved to hike and to backpack. I felt completely alive
surrounded by wilderness. So I made a decision in intensive care. I was not going back
to an empty life lived half-awake. I was going to arrange my life, as much as possible
around what I loved. And I believed that becoming a nature photographer would allow
me to share my most passionate connection with the world in the most direct way
In 1988 I was 27 years old and living in someone else’s dreams. Up until that point I had
not found the courage to truly confront the conditions of my life. I did know enough
about myself to know that I was burnt out in my job. When you work at things that do not
renew your spirit burn out is what happens. I felt trapped and depressed.
Later in that same year, during a surgery to correct a congenital deformity of my face, the
procedure did not go as planned. I was supposed to wake up in a recovery room. Instead I
woke up in intensive care with a breathing tube down my throat and with a fear I had
never experienced. Life had called my hand.
When it comes down to it, I believe we all know what the next step is to free ourselves.
But so much of the time taking that step is seemingly so scary that we do everything we
can to avoid even thinking about it. What if we find out we don’t have what it takes?
What if we fail at the one thing that we believe could be our salvation. What if we fail
trying to attain our biggest dreams. Then what?
Conventional wisdom says that it is not enough to dream. You need talent. And definition
of talent lifted straight from the dictionary describes talent as “a natural ability of a
superior quality”. In other words, you either have it or you don’t. I call this cultural flaw
in our self-awareness the Myth of Talent. And buying into this dead end myth about
ourselves is where it goes wrong for many people – particularly people who have a dream
of becoming an artist. We look behind ourselves at what we have been and we see a
person defined by everyone else’s expectations and declarations. And since the
definitions of the people we have allowed to define us did not include artist, we see
everything but. We look ahead to see the artist we could become and we get easily the
universal voice of our own self doubt that says – “Who are we kidding – without the
physical evidence of any natural ability, how could we ever possibly attain our dreams?”
In intensive care I did not have time to worry about the past and I felt, for the first time in
my life, painfully aware that my time in the future was limited. It was the real life version
of the hypothetical game – “What would you do if you only had short time to live?”.
External events forced me to be here now and that changed my life. It changed my life
because what we all need is the presence to practice being the person now that we want to
We need this presence because the truth about talent is this – talent is a set of skills you
develop over time through desire.
People disagree and the old nature vs. nurture argument rears its ugly head. They say
“surely you aren’t denying that gift and natural ability exist?” I do believe in gift. Every
encounter you have with another person is a sacred encounter with a gifted human being.
But the gift of natural ability, without the awareness of it, or without passion attached to
it, is either an unknown or unfulfilled potential. Even when natural ability is discovered
and nurtured, it is only good for one thing – altering the trajectory of your learning curve.
Your one true gift is love and the desires of your heart because love can do what natural
ability never will – conquer all of your fears – the fear of being a beginner, the fear of
looking stupid, the fear of failing, and the fear of the unknown. Love can do this because
love alone is limitless. When we enter the realm of our most passionate desires and
remain there, the recreation of ourselves is not only possible – it is inevitable.
The summer after my surgery and 5 months after I put in notice at my old job, my love of
nature carried me all over the American west. You see I had a plan. I was going to jumpstart
my career as a nature photographer by photographing landscapes in national parks
for six straight months. So I left Atlanta, Ga. in May of 1988 in a pickup truck which was
loaded with camping gear, lots of canned tuna, two 35mm camera bodies, three lenses
and a couple of hundred rolls of Kodachrome 25 slide film. I also had a plan for
processing my film. I figured there would be very few photo labs in the places I planned
to visit. But I knew there would be a post office in every national park. So in addition to
the film, I bought Kodak processing mailers. I would just pop the unprocessed film in the
mail as I went and all of my processed slides would be waiting for me in Atlanta when I
returned from my career-launching trip.
That summer and early fall were pure heaven. I went to just about every mainline
national park west of the Mississippi. And I didn’t just go to the overlooks. I hiked
hundreds of miles. I immersed myself in each and every location. It seemed I fell in love
with a new place almost every day. And yes, I took thousands and thousands of pictures.
And then a funny thing happened. In early October while I was photographing in
Olympic National Park, I realized I was homesick and unable to process anymore
grandeur. I made a beeline cross-country from Seattle and arrived in Atlanta three days
And there waiting for me in Atlanta, mailed from the Kodachrome processing plant, was
a national monument sized stack of little cardboard, slide filled boxes with all of the
photography from my trip…… And when you look up the word disappointment in the
dictionary there ought to be at least one picture of me going through each box, slide by
slide, desperately looking for, but never seeing – not even once – anything on film that
even remotely approached the awe inspiring beauty of my experience. At the time it was
the most devastating let down of my life. I had never felt so foolish. The written journal I
kept was a better record of what I saw than my photography.
The truth about the images from my trip in 1988 is that not one image from that body of
work has ever been included in any of my portfolios. Not one image from that trip has
ever been published. I did sell a few awful prints to people who must have felt sorry for
me. But the bottom line is that I had laid an absolute photographic egg. I had visited some
of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet and in over 7000 clicks of the shutter had
not even gotten lucky.
Conventional wisdom would say I had seriously failed the ultimate photography aptitude
test. Conventional wisdom would also say I should give up on what looked like a dead
ringer for a pipe dream and move on to something else. I clearly was lacking a “natural
ability of a superior quality”. In fact my trip was almost proof that when it came to
photography, I had something closer to a natural ability of an inferior quality. But true
wisdom would say that as a beginner I had done the only thing I was capable of doing.
And in intensive care, that same inner voice of wisdom had spoken to me and I had
listened. And I knew that I absolutely would not, under any circumstance, go back to
trading my life away for a paycheck.
After a couple of weeks of recovery from the let down, the ultimate truth about my trip
began to settle in – I had the best time of my life creating all of those horrible pictures.
The process of being a photographer had allowed me to have the most heightened six
months of experience in my life. My whole thought process started to revolve around
figuring out a way to do it again. My dream of being a full time photographer was as
solid as ever.
I continued to be a beginning photographer for quite a while. Instead of taking horrible
pictures all across the west, I did the same thing much closer to home. Because my skill
level remained low, I could not earn a living as a photographer. I had to get another job to
support myself. But this job was chosen for the flexibility that it allowed me to pursue
my dream. I also seriously simplified my lifestyle so that I did not need a lot of money to
survive and that gave me more time and money to practice photography. And like
anyone who practices what they love, my skill level increased. Slowly but surely for the
last fifteen years I have continued to improve my skill level and improve the quality of
Long term, committed, practice powered by the purpose of love leads to amazing
transformations. The bumbling beginner becomes the exalted expert. The trapped and
depressed become the liberated and empowered. So why do we so easily buy into the
limiting mythical idea about talent being nothing but a birthright?
To me there are two big reasons and the first has to do with our most basic fear – the fear
of being rejected. The first word most of us learn is no. And from an early age we are
programmed to get our rewards by performing as close to flawlessly as possible all of the
time. Our outcomes become everything. We will go to extraordinary lengths, like giving
our lives away to meaningless jobs that we could do in our sleep after a day of training,
just to get a yes and a paternal pat on the back from an external source. So to avoid
rejection we absolve ourselves of being responsible for our own creativity by agreeing
with the myth.
And I believe the other reason we are frozen by the myth of talent is the talented people
themselves. The highly talented do not get our attention until their skill level is so high
that no trace can be found of the bewildered beginner they surely have been. Their highly
evolved skills do seem to come out of nowhere like a magical byproduct of the magical
birthright we have been told about.
Over the last few years I have heard myself being labeled as a talented photographer.
Knowing what that means to most people, my impulse is to offer some kind of a
clarification because I know better than anyone about the truth of my humble
photographic beginnings and the national park sized “failures” those beginnings
contained. I can only laugh at myself because I am in on the unintentional joke contained
within the myth. Being labeled talented only means we have survived being untalented.
A question I get quite often is what was the one big external break that led to the launch
of my career. And you can imagine the looks of incredulity I get when I say the biggest
break in my career as a photographer was actually given to me before I was a
photographer in an intensive care unit in February of 1988. Ultimately, on that day, I
didn’t even come close to dying. But I thought I might. And finally facing the ultimate
fear was what it took for me to truly wake up and start to live. On the only level that
matters – on the inside – I became a photographer because I entered the realm of my most
closely held and passionate desires and I was committed to remain there – in that perfect
place where anything is possible. Seven Ways to Create Your Own Space for Artistic Growth 1) Breathe – Fear needs a timeline to exist. When we are afraid we are worried about our
past actions or possible future outcomes. Worrying about time we do not control robs us
of the power we have in the present to transform ourselves. When the fear of being a
beginner (or any other fear creeps into our minds) we can respond by simply paying
attention to our breathing. Just a few seconds of observing our breathing can dissolve our
fears by bringing us back to now and to the presence we need to be the artist we desire to
become. 2) Set Goals – Create goals and share them with the universe. Setting goals maximizes
our power of choice and our power of attraction. If we have goals we can have a
benchmark for the question “Is the choice I am about to make going to bring me any
closer to where I want to be as a photographer?” By sharing our goals we are literally
saying here are the desires of my heart. Assistance pours in when others know exactly
what to do to help us, and when we are clearly open to, and ready for the help. 3) Model on others – Only you can walk your path. But you can help to make it more of
a straight line from where you are now to where you want to be. Pay attention to the
actions of those who are further along on the road – or enlist the help of a guide. 4) Reflect – Each day create the space for a quiet time of inner reflection. Observe how
you are feeling and make choices based on your observations. 5) Recharge – Play or rest … but definitely recharge yourself each week by taking a day
off. 6) Create an artist support group – Surrounding ourselves with people who share in
our desires helps to keep us on track by adding accountability to our space. 7) Be your own biggest supporter – Most of us have become our own biggest critic.
Here are five ways to be self-supportive. • Be kind… to yourself – Compassion starts with how we treat ourselves. We all
have an inner critic that can do a lot of damage if left unchecked. To bring your
inner critic under control, practice balancing all self-criticisms with an immediate,
legitimate, self-compliment. • Suspend Judgment – Quit equating yourself with your artwork. “Am I making
progress?” is a much better question to ask than ” Is this artwork any good?” The
story of greatness is a story that includes many actions that look like failures when
judged out of the context of the whole story. “Am I making progress?” is a
question that always allows you to see the potential value of all of your efforts.
You are much more than any work or body of work. • Practice, Practice, Practice!!! – Disconnect from the outcome. Creativity equals
conscious productivity. But we often think to be creative we have to make art that
exhibits greatness every time. That kind of expectation leads to artist block
because it encourages us to wait for the perfect conditions for greatness instead of
creating greatness through passionate practice. To be more creative – be more
productive. • Embrace uncertainty – There is no artist Shangri –La. So let go and quit looking
for it. Your vision of who you can be is always ahead of where you are. Embrace
the uncertainty that comes with following your vision. • Be thankful and generous – Be in gratitude for what is and share what you have
to offer. To often we curse what we have and focus on our needs. Turn it around! The Myth of Talent: A Short Reading List The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle The Work by Byron Katie Art and Fear by Ted Orland and David Bayles The Artist Way by Julia Cameron Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch
Yesterday we uncovered Ansel Adams’ life from his childhood to approx. 1930. In part 2 of our interview, we’ll discuss his success in the decades that followed.
Photography Zen: Welcome back Ansel, are you ready to continue?
Ansel Adams: (smiles) Sure, Fire away!
PZ: So, it’s 1930, you’ve decided to pursue a career in photography as opposed to the piano, your first portfolio was a success, what happens next?
AA: Between 1929 and 1942, I’d say my work matured and I became more established. In the course of my 60-year career, the 1930s were a particularly productive and experimental time. I expanded my works, focusing on detailed close-ups as well as large forms from mountains to factories. My first book Taos Pueblo was published in 1930 with text by writer Mary Hunter Austin. In New Mexico, I was introduced to notables such as painter Georgia O’Keeffe, artist John Marin, and photographer Paul Strand. It was my talkative, high-spirited nature combined with my excellent piano playing made me a hit within this circle of artist friends. Strand especially proved influential, sharing secrets of his technique with me, and finally convincing me to pursue photography with all my talent and energy. One of Strand’s suggestions which I adopted was to use glossy paper to intensify tonal values.
PZ: So it appears your career really started taking off at this point.
AA: Very much so. I was able to put on my first solo museum exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in 1931 through a friend who had connections in Washington, featuring 60 prints taken in the High Sierra. I received an excellent review from the Washington Post that wrote my “photographs are like portraits of the giant peaks, which seem to be inhabited by mythical gods.” Despite my success,I felt that I was not yet up to the standards of Strand. I decided to broaden my subject matter to include still life and close-up photos, and to achieve higher quality by “visualizing” each image before taking it. I emphasized the use of small apertures and long exposures in natural light, which created sharp details with a wide range of focus, as demonstrated in Rose and Driftwood, I think, one of my finest still-life photographs.
PZ: I agree, visually stunning.
AA: I opened my own art and photography gallery in San Francisco in 1933 and I also began to publish essays in photography magazines and wrote my first instructional book Making a Photograph in 1935. During the summers, I often participated in Sierra Club High Trips outings, as a paid photographer for the group, and the rest of the year a core group of the Club members socialized regularly in San Francisco and Berkeley.
PZ: Please, tell us more about your involvement with the Sierra Club.
AA: I began to deploy my photographs in the cause of wilderness preservation. In part, I was inspired by the increasing desecration of Yosemite Valley by commercial development, including a pool hall, bowling alley, golf course, shops, and auto-mobile traffic. I created a limited-edition book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail in 1938, as part of the Sierra Club’s efforts to secure the designation of Sequoia and Kings Canyon as national parks. This book and my testimony before Congress played a vital role in the success of the effort, and Congress designated the area as a National Park in 1940.
PZ: Generations of people Thank You and will be able to love Yosemite just as you did.
AA: Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space. I know of no sculpture, painting or music that exceeds the compelling spiritual command of the soaring shape of granite cliff and dome, of patina of light on rock and forest, and of the thunder and whispering of the falling, flowing waters. At first the colossal aspect may dominate; then we perceive and respond to the delicate and persuasive complex of nature.
PZ: We’re almost finished with the 1930’s, take us up to 1940.
AA: During the balance of the 1930s, I took on many commercial assignments to supplement the income from the struggling Best’s Studio. Really, until the 1970’s, I was financially dependent on commercial projects. Some of my clients included Kodak, Fortune magazine, Pacific Gas and Electric, AT&T, and the American Trust Company. I photographed Timothy L. Pflueger’s new Patent Leather Bar for the St. Francis hotel in 1939. The same year, I was named an editor of U.S. Camera & Travel, the most popular photography magazine at that time.
PZ: Now that we’re in the 1940’s, please tell us what happened in 1941, more specifically, the story about Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.
AA: On a trip in New Mexico in 1941, I shot a scene of the Moon rising above a modest village with snow-covered mountains in the background, under a dominating black sky. The photograph is one of my most famous and is named Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. My description in my later books of how it was made probably enhanced the photograph’s fame. The light on the crosses in the foreground was rapidly fading, and I could not find my exposure meter; however, I remembered the luminance of the Moon, and used it to calculate the proper exposure. My earlier account was less dramatic, stating simply that the photograph was made after sunset, with exposure determined using my Weston Master meter. In reality, the foreground was underexposed, the highlights in the clouds were quite dense, and the negative proved difficult to print. The initial publication of Moonrise was in U.S. Camera 1943 annual, after being selected by the “photo judge” for U.S. Camera, Edward Steichen. This gave Moonrise an audience before its first formal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1944.
(Sidenote: Over nearly 40 years, Adams re-interpreted the image, his most popular by far, using the latest darkroom equipment at his disposal, making over 1,300 unique prints, most in 16″ by 20″ format.Many of the prints were made in the 1970s, finally giving Adams financial independence from commercial projects. The total value of these original prints exceeds $25,000,000 the highest price paid for a single print of Moonrise reached $609,600 at Sotheby’s New York auction in 2006.)
PZ: There’s more to the Moonrise story.
AA: Yes. In September 1941, I contracted with the Department of the Interior to make photographs of National Parks, Indian reservations, and other locations for use as mural-sized prints for decoration of the Department’s new building. Part of my understanding with the Department was that I might also make photographs for my own use, using my own film and processing. Although I kept meticulous records of my travel and expenses, I was less disciplined about recording the dates of my images, and neglected to note the date of Moonrise, so it was not clear whether it belonged to me or to the U.S. Government. But the position of the moon allowed the image to eventually be dated from astronomical calculations, and it was determined that Moonrise was made on November 1, 1941, a day for which I had not billed the Department, so the image belonged to me. The same was not true for many of my other negatives, including The Tetons and the Snake River, which, having been made for the Mural Project, became the property of the U.S. Government.
PZ: Incredible. We could probably spend an hour just discussing that. Anything else in the 1940’s you’d like to mention?
AA: Yes. In 1945, I was asked to form the first fine art photography department at the San Francisco Art Institute. I invited Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston to be guest lecturers and Minor White to be lead instructor. The photography department produced numerous notable photographers, including Philip Hyde, Benjamen Chinn, Bill Heick, and C. Cameron Macauley.
PZ: So take us through the 1950’s. Your success shows no signs of slowing down.
AA: In 1952 I was one of the founders of the magazine Aperture, which was intended as a serious journal of photography showcasing its best practitioners and newest innovations. I was also a contributor to Arizona Highways, a photo-rich travel magazine. My article on Mission San Xavier del Bac, with text by my longtime friend Nancy Newhall, was enlarged into a book published in 1954. This was the first of many collaborations with her. In June 1955, I also began my annual workshops, teaching thousands of students until 1981. I continued with commercial assignments for another twenty years, and became a consultant on a monthly retainer for Polaroid Corporation, which was founded by good friend Edwin Land. I made thousands of photographs with Polaroid products, El Capitan, Winter, Sunrise being the one he considered my most memorable.
PZ: What was in store for you during the 60’s and 70’s?
AA: In the 1960s, a few mainstream art galleries which originally would have considered photos unworthy of exhibit alongside fine paintings decided to show my images, particularly the former Kenmore Gallery in Philadelphia. In March 1963, Nancy Newhall and I accepted a commission from Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California, to produce a series of photographs of the University’s campuses to commemorate its centennial celebration. The collection, titled Fiat Lux after the University’s motto, was published in 1967 and now resides in the Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside. In 1974, I had a major retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Much of my time during the 1970s was spent curating and reprinting negatives from my vault, in part to satisfy the great demand of art museums which had finally created departments of photography and desired my works. I also devoted my considerable writing skills and prestige to the cause of environmentalism, focusing particularly on the Big Sur coastline of California and the protection of Yosemite from overuse. President Jimmy Carter commissioned me to make the first official portrait of a president made by a photograph. That year I also cofounded the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.
(I begin to see Mr Adams getting tired, I decide to finish the interview)
PZ: Ansel, you’ve live quite a remarkable life. Your influence in photography and your contributions to environmentalism will be appreciated for generations to come. I want to Thank You for your time and sharing your story with us.
AA: It was my pleasure. I am always happy to chat.
Good Day Zensters and new readers! On this very special edition of Photography Zen, we’d like to welcome, arguably one of the most famous photographers of our time, Mr. Ansel Adams.
Photography Zen: Mr. Adams, it’s a great pleasure to have you here, I know your time is valuable so I won’t keep you long. We can proceed when you’re ready.
Ansel Adams: Please, call me Ansel. Don’t worry, I have all the time in the world.
PZ: Thank you Ansel. I know a lot of the readers are familiar with your work but know very little about you. Let’s begin with your childhood. Where were you born?
AA: I was born in 1902 in the Western Addition neighborhood of San Francisco. When I was 5 we moved to Seacliff, which is just south of the Presidio Army Base. We had a splendid view of the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands.
PZ: Sounds beautiful. So, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, you were there.
AA: *chuckles* Yes, I was. One of my earliest memories was watching the smoke from the ensuing fire that destroyed much of the city a few miles to the east. I was uninjured in the initial shaking, but was tossed face-first into a garden wall during an aftershock three hours later, breaking and scarring my nose. A doctor recommended that my nose be reset once he reached maturity, but as you can see, it still remains crooked.
PZ: Wow, incredible! Tell us more about your childhood. Did you play sports? Did you have many friends??
AA: I was a hyperactive child and prone to frequent sickness and I really had few friends. Our family home and surroundings on the heights facing the Golden Gate provided ample childhood activities. I actually had no patience for games or sports, but I took to the beauty of nature at an early age, collecting bugs and exploring Lobos Creek all the way to Baker Beach and the sea cliffs leading to Lands End. I remember my father bought a three-inch telescope and we enthusiastically shared the hobby of amateur astronomy, visiting the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton together. My father went on to serve as the paid secretary-treasurer of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific from 1925 to 1950.
PZ: How about school? Were you a good student?
AA: *chuckles again* I was dismissed from several private schools for being restless and inattentive, so my father decided to pull me out of school in 1915 at the age of 12. I was then educated by private tutors, my Aunt Mary, and my father.
PZ: So, at age 12, did you already know you wanted to be a photographer?
AA: Actually, I became interested in piano at age 12, and music became the main focus of my later youth. For the next twelve years, the piano was my primary occupation and, by 1920, my intended profession. Although I ultimately gave up music for photography, the piano brought substance, discipline, and structure to my frustrating and erratic youth. The careful training and exacting craft required of a musician profoundly informed my visual artistry, as well as my writings and teachings on photography.
PZ: When did you get your first camera?
AA: I first visited Yosemite National Park in 1916 with my family. The splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious. One wonder after another descended upon us. There was light everywhere. A new era began for me. My father gave me my first camera during that stay, a Kodak Brownie box camera, and I took my first photographs with my “usual hyperactive enthusiasm”.
PZ: What happened after that?
AA: I returned to Yosemite on my own the following year with better cameras and a tripod. In the winter, I learned basic darkroom technique working part-time for a San Francisco photo finisher. I avidly read photography magazines, attended camera club meetings, and went to photography and art exhibits. I explored the High Sierra in summer and winter with retired geologist and amateur ornithologist Francis Holman, whom I called “Uncle Frank,” developing the stamina and skill needed to photograph at high elevation and under difficult weather conditions.
PZ: That takes us to 1917. You were still considering piano as a career choice at this point?
AA: Very much so. While in Yosemite, I had frequent contact with the Best family, owners of Best’s Studio, who allowed me to practice on their old square piano. In summer, I would enjoy a life of hiking, camping, and photographing, and the rest of the year I worked to improve my piano playing, expanding my piano technique and musical expression. I also gave piano lessons for extra income, finally affording a grand piano suitable to my musical ambitions.
PZ: At what point did you know photography would be your future??
AA: My first photographs were published in 1921, and Best’s Studio began selling my Yosemite prints the following year. At this point, however, I was still planning a career in music, even though I felt that my small hands limited my repertoire. It took seven more years for me to conclude that, at best, I might only become a concert pianist of limited range, an accompanist, or a piano teacher.
PZ: It seems you were pretty confident you’d be successful as a photographer.
AA: In 1927, I produced my first portfolio in my new style Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, which included my now famous image, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, taken with my Korona view camera using glass plates and a dark red filter, to heighten the tonal contrasts. On that excursion, I had only one plate left and I visualized the effect of the blackened sky before risking the last shot. I had been able to realize a desired image- not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print. My photographs had now reached a stage when they were worthy of the world’s critical examination. I had suddenly come upon a new style which I believed would place my work equal to anything of its kind.
PZ: And that they did Mr Ada…I mean Ansel, That they did. So your first portfolio was a success??
AA: My first portfolio was a success, earning nearly $3,900 with the sponsorship and promotion of Albert Bender, an arts-connected businessman. Soon I received commercial assignments to photograph the wealthy patrons who bought my portfolio. I also came to understand how important it was that my carefully crafted photos were reproduced to best effect. At Bender’s invitation, I joined the Roxburghe Club, an association devoted to fine printing and high standards in book arts. I learned much about printing techniques, inks, design, and layout which I later applied to other projects. Unfortunately, at that time most of my darkroom work was still being done in the basement of my parents’ home, and I was limited by barely adequate equipment.
PZ: So that brings us to about 1930. This seems like a good place to take a break. Would you like to have some lunch?
Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled #96” fetched a cool $3.89 million back in May of 2011. Later that year, Andreas Gursky’s “Rhein II” received a record $4.3 million at a Christie’s auction. Not to be out-done, in 2014, Peter Lik’s “Phantom” sold for an amazing $6.5 millionsmackers, making it Officially the Most Expensive Photo Ever.
I originally intended the subject of today’s blog to be solely about the Rhein II photo. I remember reading about it when it made news back in 2011 and thought I’d share my opinion of that photo. I’ll save that harangue for a later date.
Out of the three million dollar + photos shown, Phantom is the only one that appeals to me, while the other two, well, not so much. In my opinion, none of the three are worth the price tag they fetched at auction. But hey, that’s Art. Sometimes there’s no accounting for taste.
The Rhein II photo reminds me of an Art exhibit I attended a few years ago with a dear friend. The artist’s name is Wolfgang Laib. I’m going to refer to Wikipedia for an explanation, it seems they even have a hard time explaining Laib.
“Laib’s work is challenging to classify. It may be grouped with Land Art or Process Art, and he shows influences of Minimalism. Informed by the purity and simplicity of Eastern philosophies, he employs natural materials, most notably milk, pollen, beeswax, rice and marble. His works are more complex than being just about nature and the natural world. They involve ritual, repetition, process, and a demand for contemplation….”
They go on-
“Laib is most well known for his use of large quantities of intense, yellow pollen. A slow and deliberate process, the artist collects the pollen from around his home in southern Germany during the spring and summer months. Working with the natural sequence of the seasons, he harvests the pollen on each tree or flower when it is in bloom, beginning with hazelnut, moving on to dandelion and other flowers, and finally ending with pine. Each type of pollen is unique in color and size. Laib exhibits the pollen in a variety of ways, most famously sifted on a stone or concrete floor, creating a field of brilliantly hued pollen. Final sizes are determined by the abundance of the pollen itself; with pine being more plentiful, therefore creating larger sifted areas. The pollen is also exhibited in glass jars or small piles. In addition, the pollen is sold to collectors and institutions in glass jars, without any stipulations as to how it should be exhibited. For Laib, the pollen is the artwork, not the process of collecting it or presenting it sifted on the floor or in jars.”
I think I have a pretty good appreciation for Art. I realize that sometimes I will not understand it. I get that. We left the Laib exhibition almost in tears as we were laughing so hard. Years later when we talk, we still laugh about that day.
Is there a point to all of this? Well, yes there is. Actually there are two:
Don’t delete your photos. There are a few good reasons for this and it’s a subject on an upcoming blog. For now, trust me on this and don’t delete your photos that you don’t think are “good enough.”
Show off your work. Got an image you’re proud of? Show it to anyone that’ll look. Maybe you’ve got a couple you’re just not sure about. Especially show it. Get input. Ask friends, show it on Facebook or online message boards. Get constructive criticism. You’ll be surprised at how many times people will favor the one that’s not even your favorite. Just think of the $4.3 million Rhein II photo. A photo I would have just tossed away, somebody paid millions for it. Like I said, sometimes, I just don’t get it. You never know when an image will captivate someone. It’s such a great feeling when it does. The next blog will elaborate more on this subject and the tragedy of keeping your work to yourself and not showing it to anyone.