Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Online Lecture by Rebecca Senf: "Even Ansel Adams Had to Earn a Living"

Earlier today, I "attended" a lecture called "Even Ansel Adams Had to Earn a Living" which was about Adams's lesser-known commercial work. It was meant to be held as a traditional lecture held last month in the SW US, but it was moved online because of all of the social distancing we're doing. Here's a bit about the event:

Info after registering for the lecture:

About the book:
Making a Photographer: The Early Work of Ansel Adams
Rebecca A. Senf; with a foreword by Anne Breckenridge Barrett
An unprecedented and eye-opening examination of the early career of one of America’s most celebrated photographers
Purchase Book Here.

One of the most influential photographers of his generation, Ansel Adams (1902–1984) is famous for his dramatic photographs of the American West. Although many of Adams’s images are now iconic, his early work has remained largely unknown. In this first monograph dedicated to the beginnings of Adams’s career, Rebecca A. Senf argues that these early photographs are crucial to understanding Adams’s artistic development and offer new insights into many aspects of the artist’s mature oeuvre.

Drawing on copious archival research, Senf traces the first three decades of Adams’s photographic practice - beginning with an amateur album made during his childhood and culminating with his Guggenheim-supported National Parks photography of the 1940s. Highlighting the artist’s persistence in forging a career path and his remarkable ability to learn from experience as he sharpened his image-making skills, this beautifully illustrated volume also looks at the significance of the artist’s environmentalism, including his involvement with the Sierra Club.

About the author:
Dr. Rebecca A. Senf is Chief Curator at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. Her B.A. in Art History is from the University of Arizona; her M.A. and Ph.D. were awarded by Boston University. In 2012, her book Reconstructing the View: The Grand Canyon Photographs of Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe was released by University of California Press; in 2017, her book To Be Thirteen, showcasing the work of Betsy Schneider, was published by Radius Press and Phoenix Art Museum. Senf is an Ansel Adams scholar, and recently published a book on Ansel Adams’s early years, called Making a Photographer, co-published by the CCP and Yale University Press.

When the time came, I jumped into the lecture:

There were immediately 200+ people there, and there were about 300 people there throughout the lecture.

Senf talked about Adams's early client-based work, and how that helped him to be able to understand his audience and to create work specifically for that client.

Senf speaking from the top of the screen, with her presentation below her.

Some work for the Sierra Club.

Senf talked about Adams realizing that he could use his style to "invest us as viewers" by showing us the power of the natural landscape. He worked to "create drama and invoke awe in the viewers." Senf made the argument that (because of his exposure and darkroom skills) his images showed how he FELT, not what he SAW.

"Moonrise over Hernandez New Mexico" - a much talked-about image
of his - comparing his final image and the more "raw" positive.

Adams was very upfront about the commercial work he did and how it supported his fine art career. He didn't shy away from talking about it. But he didn't connect them - he saw his commercial work and his fine art work as 2 very separate entities. One of Senf's points is that they were actually quite connected. I'd be curious to read more about that in her book.

According to Senf, early in his career, Adams was "coached" by his employer to make his images to promote Yosemite: he was only told to shoot winter scenes with deep, dramatic snow. He photographed people in front of large redwoods to make it more dramatic. This coaching seemed to directly affect how he would approach his own personal work.

Early work for Yosemite: deep snow and people dwarfed by large trees.

Adams struck a deal where the National Park would pay him just half of what they had agreed upon as long as he could retain the negatives. He seemed to understand they'd have a sellability, so he leveraged the commercial opportunity of the images. "There was less of an identity schism" back then between being a commercial vs fine art photographer Senf argued, so he just did what he could as a photographer (without being worried how the public would view his endeavors).

On that note, a postcard image is the cover of Senf's book. Adams would have printed these himself in large quantity:

Check out the book from Yale University Press here.


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