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Stand in Ansel's Shoes and Make the Same Pic? (Sure)

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

On a magical day in Venice last winter I made a picture from the middle of the Rialto Bridge.

As Venetian vantage points go, this one hardly was unique. On any given day you can count on dozens of other camera-toting people pointing their lenses down the Grand Canal from this very spot. But I will wager dollars to Doges that the picture I made that day was different, if not better, than any made by anyone else at that time.

Why? For one (mundane) thing, I was shooting in black and white and on film. Judging from all the digital cameras around me, I easily could have been the only monochrome shooter that day – and surely one of only a small minority photographing on film.

The other thing that made my image special that day was the simply mind-blowing sky. What you are looking at here is the sky as it actually appeared – not after major darkroom or Photoshop tweaking. [In fairness, I did bring the sky down slightly in the darkroom, but only to match what I actually saw.]

This was one time, by the way, when the picture likely would have worked either in color or black and white. This amazing sky was a bizarre copper-gold and it cast the same warm tone over the buildings and the water. In other words, monochrome either way.

I suppose others may have made snaps that day that captured the sky. But I think I may be forgiven for thinking I was the only one to get a black and white, beautifully exposed picture that accurately rendered the sky – while also having a gondola in silhouette at precisely the right moment to, among other things, create the look of a 19th century etching.

I am going on like this to make a point, prompted by a spectacularly silly headline on the cover of a recent magazine.

The current issue of AAA World, the magazine of the American Automobile Association, features an otherwise excellent article by travel writer Jeff Rennicke about the photography of Ansel Adams, specifically about how the legendary landscape shooter made four of his most famous images. Rennicke talks fairly knowledgably about the four photographs, including one of my favorites, Clearing Winter Storm. (The other photographs he describes, classics all, are: The Tetons and Snake River, Mt. McKinley and Wonder Lake, as well as the less well-known but equally magical The Atlantic, Schoodic Point.)

What got to me about all this was the headline on the cover of the magazine, touting the article inside.

"Discovering the Parks of Ansel Adams," the headline read. "The story behind four of his most famous photos, PLUS: How to stand where he stood and capture the same magic images." (emphasis added)

Got that? All you have to do, photo grasshopper, is park your butt where a great landscape photographer stood, point your little snapshooter in the same direction and make the same picture he did.

Piece of cake. In fact next time I am in New Mexico, I think I'll set aside ten or fifteen minutes to duplicate Moonrise, Hernandez, then get something to eat.

In fairness to Jack Rennicke, he obviously has great respect for Adams – and his article does not claim readers actually can clone this master's work merely by standing in his shoes. More important, I am sure he had absolutely nothing to do with the dumb headline for his piece. Writers almost never compose the headlines for their copy, though I have to say one of the many joys of writing my column here is that I do, in fact, write the headline for it every week. But that's very rare. [Years ago, when my column appeared in the Washington Post's print edition, I would submit my copy and hope for the best, just as I suspect Rennicke did with his.]

In this case, it's only when you have been drawn into the magazine that the headline type become less florid and more realistic. "Thanks to the National Park status of many of the places Ansel Adams photographed," the interior subhead says, "you can set up your camera on some of the very same spots where the master stood."

Big difference: very same spot versus very same picture. But the suggested point is obvious. Go where he went; shoot what he shot.

Would that it were that easy.

This really is but another case of the "if only's."

That is: "If only I had a better camera, I'd be a great photographer, too."

Or: "If only I had access to a bunch of leggy, sexy models, I'd make the same pix that Helmut Newton did."

This time, however, the "if only's" apply to real estate: "If only I could set up my camera in the same places Ansel Adams did, I could make those great landscape photos too."

In fact, what this article more likely will do – if readers take the advice the author gives and follow the route to Adams' vantage points – is reveal how bloody hard it really is to make pictures like these.

Any landscape shooter worth his or her hypo will tell you the same thing: great landscape pictures most often are the product of interminable waiting for the precise and right conditions, rather than being a function of the right camera or film. [Of course, these help. Despite all the advances in 35mm technology, and quantum leaps in film quality, nothing can match the detail or visual information contained on a huge 4x5, 5x7 or 8x10-inch view camera negative. And nowhere in the AAA piece is there any mention of this fairly important requirement.]

A key element of Adams' genius, as he often was keen to say, was knowing when NOT to make a photograph. In other words, if four out of five elements of a potential landscape are perfect, the fifth imperfect element will be the one that prevents the image from being great and cause it merely to be good.

While there is something to be said for photographers trying to ape the work of previous masters (much as weekend painters set up easels in museums to copy the work on the walls) I think a more rewarding exercise for photographers might be to try to produce their own interpretations of similar, if not identical subjects. [Note: See "Photographing an Icon," Talking Photography, p. 54]

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but interpretation, combined with a thorough grounding in technique, is how to make better photographs.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

©Frank Van Riper
When I saw this sky one magical day in Venice, I knew I had to make a picture. But I still had to wait for the right conditions – which is why I held off until that gondola came into position exactly where I wanted it. Could anyone else have made the same picture at another time by standing where I stood? Not very likely, but the AAA magazine seems to think it's a piece of cake to recreate Ansel Adams' work by doing just that.

The name of the game is to attract readers. I suspect an overzealous, and non-photographer, editor figured it was OK to hype an otherwise fine piece on Ansel Adams by saying, in effect, that anyone could duplicate his work merely by standing in his shoes.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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