Ansel Adams Photos
The Zone System

Ansel Adams photos relied on the Zone System which he developed in 1941, with photographer Fred Archer, a system which gave them control over the gradations of tone in their photographs, thus achieving a truly modern, yet painterly, means of expression.

Zone I is the maximum black tone that can be reproduced on paper. The system progresses through to Zone VIII, which is the lightest possible tone distinguishable from white paper and finally Zone IV, white itself. 

Based on the relativity of gray tones, the Zone System allows a photographer to control light uniformly over the photograph as a whole. When one object is "set" to match any single Zone within the system, the rest of the photograph follows with relative values over every other black/white gradation in the photograph.

famous photograph of Canyon de Chelly by ansel adams

Above: Canyon de Chelly by Ansel Adams

Although the Zone System was based on film cameras, the theory can be observed today with high-end digital cameras which display a histogram of the tonal distribution of the image. This histogram is useful in determining whether a full tonal range has been captured. If not, the photographer can change exposure, aperture or ISO speed to increase the tonal distribution.

1944 saw the publication of Ansel Adams photographs in the book Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese Americans. Both Adams and American photographer Dorothea Lange (1895-1965), as well as other photographers of the time, chronicled in photographs and in text the conditions of Americans born of Japanese ancestry who had been become prisoners of their own country.

photo by ansel adams made in yosemite

Above: Yosemite by Ansel Adams

Adams, unlike Lange who had never considered herself an artist, begins the text of his book with long descriptions of the landscape at Manzanar. Adams, himself, was a passionate advocate for the freedom of the Japanese-Americans; yet his portraits seem impersonal and random when compared with his portraits of the land.

Lange, by contrast, establishes an intimacy with those who inhabit her photographs. Almost always 'depressing' by Adams' standards, Lange's photographs are more often than not titled with cruel irony that gets to the crux of the picture.

Portrait of Tom Kobayashi at Manzanar, 1943 by ansel adams

Above: Portrait of Tom Kobayashi at Manzanar, 1943 by Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams' Quotes

Here's a small selection of my favourite Ansel Adams quotes (I particularly like the last one):

  • There are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.
  • You don't take a photograph, you make it.
  • There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.
  • A good photograph is knowing where to stand.

Recommended Reading

Read Part 1 of Ansel Adams Photos

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