Would Ansel Adams Shoot Digital?

There has been a lot of talk on the Internet lately about whether Ansel Adams would have embraced digital photography if he were alive today. From what I can tell, most everyone seems to think that he would be enjoying both “shooting digital” and HDR. Having been his full time photo assistant in Carmel from 1974 to 1979 with continued close association for the next five years until his death in 1984, I think I’d like to take this opportunity to weigh in with my own thoughts.

Let’s imagine that it is in the early 1980’s and that today’s digital technology was available then. To ponder to what degree he might have “gone digital” it should be useful to consider his nature, and his interests in technology and photography.

Ansel Adams, Ansel Adams Autobiography

Even from his very early years, Ansel was fascinated by science and technology in general. But rather than being a modernist, he was very much a classicist. He never had any interest in anything that was “the rage.” He had no interest in the craze or technology of motion pictures – except when Polaroid brought out their short-lived Polavision, and that was only because it was a Polaroid product. Upon its demise he had no interest in VCRs.

He was just about 80 years old when he bought his first television, but his personal involvement with the computer age began in the early 1980’s when he began writing his autobiography on an IBM word processor. Even in his own work in photography, he never had the newest-best of anything – except when Hasselblad set him up with a new 500C camera and a few lenses. Even most of his large-format gear was a mix of old and used, but it served his purpose.

By the 1980’s, digital technology was just starting to wend its way from research labs into practical use, and he was very enthusiastic about the quality the new scanning technology was giving to the reproductions in his new books. I have no doubt that he would have marveled at what Photoshop could offer – but I also think that this excitement would have been mostly directed at making repairs to damage or defects in his film archive. He had images from Alaska where mosquitoes had gotten into his 8×10 and were neatly silhouetted by having landed on the film before exposure! And then there were all the films damaged in his 1937 darkroom fire.

Color work didn’t really interest him – most of his color imagery was either on assignment for Kodak or testing films for Polaroid. So he would have likely passed up on the pixel passion in that regard.

I think he would also very likely regard current capture technology to still fall something short of what he could do with film. I’m sure he would have a digital camera of some sort but regard it as an intriguing work-in-progress. I can easily see him using it for some portrait work but think it would be left neglected in the car if he encountered a Moonrise, Hernandez, or Clearing Winter Storm.

A single exposure on a piece of BW negative film can record a hugely greater dynamic range than current digital devices, and while HDR techniques can certainly make up for this, it requires an extra bit of techno-tinkering and doesn’t offer the tangible gratification of holding a freshly developed sheet of 8×10 or 4×5 film. There is also nothing intrinsically permanent about a digital image.

In summary, I think Ansel would love scanning and Photoshop. He would have a fairly current digital camera and enjoy the immediacy and other advantages of pixel pictures. I think he would still prefer the look of a silver print over inkjet (as I still do), and that means film. He would keep a close eye on advances and have no qualms about working in the digital world if the technology fully met his own creative standards.


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21 Responses to “Would Ansel Adams Shoot Digital?”

  1. Chris Summers says:

    Not sure if I agree that he would have been happy with the ease of duplicating digital images. Rumor has it that he ran all of his original negative through a check cancelling machine and destroyed them.

  2. Alan Ross says:

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t think I made any reference to duplicating images. As for preservation of his work, he was thrilled at the idea of all his negatives going to the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, where they would be forever available for research and possible printing/interpretation by others. As for the cancelled negatives – those were ONLY the negatives used in Portfolios V, VI and VII. With considerable reluctance he did punch the word “cancelled” in those – it was part of the agreement with the publisher of the portfolios.

  3. Michael Frye says:

    Great post Alan – thanks for sharing your insights about this. I think your last sentence sums it up well: “He would keep a close eye on advances and have no qualms about working in the digital world if the technology fully met his own creative standards.”

    People like Charlie Cramer have switched from 4×5 film to high-resolution medium-format backs. But then Charlie works primarily in color, and, as you point out, Ansel preferred black and white. And I think it’s one thing to contemplate whether an elderly man, used to working with certain equipment and materials, would want to change his tools, but I wonder what his attitudes might have been if digital photography had reached its current level of sophistication when he was a younger man. We’ll never know, of course.

  4. Alan Ross says:

    Thanks for the feedback! If he were 30 now, do you think he’d be listening to rap? :>p I agree absolutely with your points. Warmest regards to you and Claudia. Speaking of warm – Tioga is still open????!!!! Was about 50 in Santa Fe (7000′) today. Global warming? nah…..???? Cheers!

  5. Thanks for this article, and this insight.

    To me, Ansel was an intriguing crossroads of classical and visionary. I grew up in the chemical darkroom, but am glad to be free of the chemicals and confinement for a more liberating lightroom. The chemicals of the solutions and papers were the best of their time, and ever changing. Ansel seemed to keep one leg firmly in the world he could trust, while ever open to what lay ahead.

    I don’t think of which technology he would adopt at any particular time of his life, but rather his vision of seeing and artistry. The rapidly ongoing evolution of digital is merely the performance. He seemed to strive for both the score and performance as best he could, and we ride on his (and others’) shoulders.

  6. Alan Ross says:

    Well said, Stephen

  7. Wray Post says:

    Question if i may, could you explain to a printing layman what “silver print” is/was?

  8. Alan Ross says:

    Silver is the foundation for nearly every traditional photograph. Virtually every film image – BW or color – is based on silver as the compound sensitive to light. My reference to “silver” was that every print Ansel made after his very formative years was on gelatin-silver paper. The silver-halide emulsion is embedded in a gelatin matrix and has a depth of tonality I have not yet seen in any inkjet, giclee, or pigment print.

  9. Andel Adams loved the technical aspects of film as well as his wonderful landscapes. I think he would have loved the opportunities that digital would have opened up to him.

  10. Jeff Harper says:

    Great post. Very thoughtful! I was great to get a behind the scenes insight into this. I used to have a darkroom in the house and I have been thinking about starting it back up again. There is something vey powerful and permanent with film – something that cannot be replicated with digital cameras, regardless of the resolution. Larry Towell once said “I just don’t shoot digital. I won’t. I like film. Photographers today have to compete. If a picture is six hours old, it’s too old to use.”.

  11. Alan Ross says:

    I personally applaud the digital age. If I still had my commercial studio or were a photojournalist I’d HAVE to be working digital because of the professional advantages. For my personal work, however, I still prefer silver for IT’S advantages – in spite of the fact that I have made a few very lovely digital images when I did not, could not have a film camera with me. I had negatives made from the digital files and made silver prints from those!

  12. Thanks for the wonderful post. I think there is a different point-of-view on this subject between someone who has shot film and then moved to digital and those who only know digital photography. For those of who did shoot film, we know that the advantage film still has over digital is its non-linear reaction to light. It may be that current digital cameras are very good and have a greater dynamic range than film, yet it still cannot hold the highs and shadows the way that film can (even with HDR). My interpretation of Ansel Adams work was that it was all about highlights and shadows and I think he still would work primarily in film.

    To me the real question is whether he would still work out of the darkroom or be converted to a printing his images. Even in this medium, as good as digital printers have become, I don’t think they can match the rich blacks that Ansel Adams would demand from an original print.

  13. Alan Ross says:

    Thanks for your comments – I agree!

  14. Gary Cameron says:

    Thanks so much for your kind words on my Reuters blog (my first, probably my last) on the Kodak Tragedy. I’m currently covering the Joe Paterno story, and after three days of trying to make good, solid images and deadlines, thank goodness for digital in its current form.
    I was trained in a black and white darkroom by a fantastic photographer and man, Fran Ortiz of the SF Examiner. He taught me how to see, he taught me how to print, and along with my other photographic hero, O. Winston Link, black and white film will always be with me. But, I need a paycheck, and have done well with my career. You go with what you have to do.
    Short story: I’m just sorry to see US icons fall by the wayside…I really am.
    Thanks again-
    Gary Cameron

  15. I have wondered about this; I find your comments thoughtful and agreeable. Digital capture presents its own technical challenges wholly different from film. What I gathered from his life is his openness to photographers and their work. Especially knowing that he would welcome perfect strangers to his place, reviewing their work if he could, I wonder if the questions they would bring today about digital photography would cause him to dive more deeply into the subject.

  16. Alan Ross says:

    I grew up in Sausalito, so I had a lot of years to admire Fran’s work. If I still had my studio I’d have to be working digital, with good reason. But I still like film for my own work. Also, when I had the studio, it didn’t matter a whit if I made a photograph with a 20 year old camera and 35 year old lens!

  17. Alan Ross says:

    I think he would be fascinated by the digital technology and be very aware of its advantages – as well as its limitations!

  18. Speculating that he would explore digital more deeply, I would be eager to read how he would interpret the digital process, much as he had interpreted the silver process. Who knows what he would have found to simplify the complicated and cumbersome digital workflow and thus make it more accessible to us. His point of view and his teaching are the foundation stones I have stood upon for more than 40 years.

  19. Its like you learn my mind! You appear to understand so much approximately this, like you wrote the e-book in it or something. I believe that you could do with a few percent to power the message house a bit, however instead of that, this is fantastic blog. An excellent read. I’ll definitely be back.

  20. I’m so glad to hear you say this Alan, (although I didn’t have any doubt). The delicate light can not be revealed with pixels – then you have the artist’s touch in the darkroom. Photoshop can be used to to many amazing things, but like you said, there is a real satisfaction from making that negative – then transposing that into a print in the darkroom.

    Thanks for a great read Alan.

  21. Alan Ross says:

    A pleasure! I love the darkroom, but there is nothing evil about digital!

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