“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.
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?