Lembert Dome, Yosemite
A few weeks ago some old friends came to Raleigh to visit for a while. I had a really good time seeing them again because they brought a lot of memories with them. These old friends were the “Ansel Adams: Masterworks, 48 photographs by Adams, a selection he made late in his life to serve as a succinct representation of what he deemed the best work of his career,” or at least that's what the advertising says. For those of us that started photography in the 70’s Ansel was the main source of knowledge and inspiration for both the technical and aesthetic approach to photography. It was great to see his photographs hanging on the wall instead of in a book.
There were a couple of immediate observations I made as I went through the show. Contemporary photographers would be shocked at the small size of the images. I did not have my tape measure handy, but I do not think there was a photograph there larger than 16 x 20. The dimensions for those numbers is inches, not feet. Of course, there was not a color photograph in the room; all gelatin silver black and white prints. What a radical change from the current fascination with large color prints.
Here’s the odd thing about it. My vision is now so attuned to seeing digitally printed images that these gorgeous silver gelatin prints were not as wonderful as I remember them. They are great silver gelatin photographs and are beautiful examples of a technically obsolete printing process. (Uh-oh. Where is this going?) As I walked through the exhibit I kept thinking to myself. “Man, I would love to scan those negatives and see how much better these would look as digital prints. I know I could make them sharper, get deeper blacks and better contrast.”
Double Gasp! Apostasy! Heresy! Blasphemy! (Quick; Bring Aunt Pitty Pat her smelling salts.)
I know what good silver gelatin printing looks like and Ansel’s prints will always be the gold standard. But, they are very different than digital prints contemporary photographers make. I was amazed at how quickly my eye for looking at photographs has adapted to the new realities of digital photographic printing. What of the young photographers that never made silver gelatin prints? Will they look at these images and wonder why all us old guys were excited about these prints?
I do love Ansel's images and continue to inspired by the composition and sheer volume of his life's work, but I couldn't help but feeling that this was an exercise in nostalgia for a past photographic world. This exhibit shows the world the previous generation of photographic technology and it reminds me of how we used to create photographs. Upon leaving I couldn't help but think the silver gelatin print is the newest alternative photographic process.