Ansel Adams: The Black-and-White Master, in Color

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Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams was the poet of the gray spectrum, the man who dipped the American sublime into the inkpot of black-and-white photography and by that means made it new again. So persuasive were his methods that because of him we tend to think of the national parks the way we think of the Great Depression, as something we can barely conceive of in color. He almost made us believe that the whole of creation comes in the palette of a cinder block — and to be glad about it.

Adams is so identified with black and white that most people would be surprised to learn that he started to shoot in color soon after Kodachrome was invented in the mid-1930s and that by the time of his death in 1984 he had produced nearly 3,500 color images. Though he allowed some of those pictures to be published in his lifetime, he never printed them himself, or at least not for the public. He didn't believe that the color processes of his day could produce results to compare with the rich visual deliberation, the fine-grained luxuriance of his work in black and white. To put it bluntly, he didn't think he could control the outcome with color, and for Adams control over the artistic process meant everything. But he valued the richness of color transparencies, looked forward to the day when it would be possible to print them to his own high standards, and came close to producing a book about color theory and practice that would include some of his own work.

There would be no book of exactly the kind Adams had in mind. But nine years after his death, a good number of his color pictures were published for the first time in Ansel Adams in Color, in a selection chosen by another great photographer, Harry Callahan. This year the book is being reissued with 20 additional pictures that have never been published before.

So what kind of artist was he in color? The same kind as he was in black and white: a man attuned to nuance, rustling surfaces and gentle modulation, even when he was working in the most muscular natural settings. In the same way that he was turned off by harsh contrast in black-and-white pictures, he disliked strident color. What he was after were tones, colors you can't put a name to, indeterminate registers that shift in the retina and brain. Even his sunsets were powder-puff pink.

Digital color correction now allows us to make fine adjustments in Adams' pictures to produce prints with subtleties that weren't possible in his lifetime. But can we be sure that pictures printed after his death give us just the colors he would have wanted? Of course not. He was an exacting man, and there's no way of knowing precisely what shade of gray-green or yellow-beige would have worked best for him or whether he was sure of what it should be until he saw it. He was smart enough to know that pictures are just fictions that point us back to realities with a fresh eye and that an artist is someone who adjusts the fictions to match his instincts. We value his pictures as much as we do because his instincts were first-rate, but all we can hope to do is approximate his intentions.

Adams once wrote that "I have yet to see — much less produce — a color photograph that fulfills my concepts of the objectives of art." Actually, he produced quite a few. He just never got to see them as he wanted to. Can we? Maybe we can get pretty close. It's worth a try.