Landscape tonal range of the scene, giving it a

Landscape photographers focus on an
aesthetic style throughout their career. Examples of these styles are the picturesque,
the sublime and the beautiful. These aesthetic ideals are achieved by using different
camera, post production and manipulation techniques which allows photographers
to create a specific representation of the scene in their photographs. Aesthetic
ideals were influenced by traditional painters such as Claude Lorrain who’s
work and name became synonymous with the picturesque aesthetic and Frederic
Edwin Church who pioneered ‘the sublime’ aesthetic in landscape painting. In
this essay, I will be talking about Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams; focusing
on their approaches in terms of the picturesque and the sublime.


Firstly, the picturesque was derived
from the Italian picttoresco, “from a picture”, the term defines an object or a
scene that is worthy in being in a picture. This means that it will “please the
eye in their natural state; and those, which please from some quality, are capable
of being illustrated by painting.” (William
Gilpin, Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty, 1794). Some people may go
further and say that the land is transformed into a picture by the very act of
looking, this lead to the invention of the Claude glass. The Claude glass (or
black mirror) was a small mirror, slightly convex in shape and tinted a dark
colour and it was named after Claude Lorrain. The Claude glass had the effect
of changing the subject that is reflected in from the surroundings. The glass muted
the colours and tonal range of the scene, giving it a painterly feel; literally
turning the scene into a painting. It was carried and used by artists,
travellers and connoisseur of landscapes.

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The concept of the sublime did
not enter mainstream European thoughts until the 1700s. It was a concept that
was to invoke discord and a sense of threat. British philosopher Edmund Burke differentiated
the sublime from the beautiful for its capacity to evoke intense emotions and
inspire awe through experiences of nature’s vastness. However, emotional
responses to paintings or photographs which have the aesthetic of the sublime
can vary between different people. According to Freud these emotional responses
cannot be changed or identified as they are a result our unique repressed
negative memories from the past. “Astonishment
is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree… No passion so effectually
robs the mind of all its power of acting and reasoning as terror; and whatever
is terrible with regard to sight, is sublime.” (Edmund Burke, A Philosophical
Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, 175) Burke
said although the sublime may inspire horror, there is a pleasure in knowing
that the perception is fiction and harmless, almost like the viewer is being
conditioned to face their fear or phobia.


Ansel Adams was an American photographer and environmentalist, who also
photographed Yosemite Valley during his photographic career. Adams work often consists
of dramatic clouds, leading river or lakes and breath-taking mountains. “A good photograph is knowing where to stand.” –
Ansel Adams. By looking at Adams’s work I can see that he composes the
frame ‘perfectly’ before pressing the shutter. By looking at Ansel Adams’
photographs we can see that the camera is a small part in the world (or scene) compared
to the rich details, textures and the sun beams that Adams captures. Although
the camera is small, it has ‘the power to give the whole frame meaning’. Adams
said in a documentary (Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film, 2002) “If I feel
something strongly, I would make a photograph of what I saw.” – Ansel Adams. By
this, Adams means that he captures and recreate the feeling he experiences
while standing in the wild majesty of the wilderness of Yosemite Valley.

Ansel Adams was part of a group called f/64 (including Edward Weston,
Imogen Cunningham and others), they worked very hard to change people’s
perspective of photography and get the majority to accept photography as an art
form. By doing this Ansel Adams and his group borrowed technique from painting
and fine art and incorporated them into photography (composition and printing
technique). “Dodging and burning are the steps to take care of mistakes God
made in establishing tonal relationships.” – Ansel Adams. This means that Adams
abandoned the picturesque aesthetic early in his career, approaching the
environment subjectively by using various manipulation techniques. He adapted
to a technique called Zone System which guided Adams into printing images full
of detail, depth and contrast. For example, in the photograph of the Half Dome’s
cliff face (See figure 1). This photograph reflects the inhospitable slopes of
the cliff, but also making me feel the omnipotence of nature. The composition
in this photograph induce the conscious alertness of the immense magnitude of
what nature can create. Adams used a deep red filter that helped darken the
sky, this emphasized the snow on the Half Dome; creating a terrifying
representation of the cliff face. The sublimity of this photograph implies an
impossible object (a way we can’t see using our naked eyes), inspiring awe and
greatness of nature. The portrait orientation of this photograph enhances the
height of the Half Dome cliff; capturing the soaring emotions that Adams must’ve
felt looking up at the Cliff while making this photograph. It makes me as the
viewer feel small.

Carleton Watkins (American,
1829-1916) was one of the most highly acclaimed of early western photographers,
his photographs of Yosemite brought him worldwide acclaim as it influenced congress
and helped President Lincoln in the preservation of Yosemite Valley during the
time of the civil war. Yosemite Valley was Watkins favourite subject to
photograph, these photographs had made Carleton a legacy and a pioneering
environmental photographer. Watkins is regarded as ‘America’s greatest
landscape photographer of the nineteenth century’ (Weber, 2002, p.67).


Although Carleton Watkins also photographed
mountains in Yosemite Valley, his views of the mountains were not as
monumentalist and sublimatory as Adams’ were. Firstly, this is because during the
time of his first significant project, Watkins used glass-plate (mammoth
plates) negatives (21 x 18inch); allowing him to produce natural looking
contrast and clear tones in his Landscape photographs, conveying the
picturesque. The whole process of creating a photograph from glass-plate
negatives were much longer and complex than Ansel Adams. This is because
Watkins had to sensitise the glass plates on the spot and exposed them while
they were still wet. This means that with less manipulation tools and known techniques,
Watkins produced much more natural looking photographs than Adams, that almost
mirrored reality. Whereas Adams used much smaller black and white negatives (plates)
during his career, where he then learnt to master the manipulation techniques of
the negatives and prints.


Watkins created ‘picturesque’
photographs by choosing angle, location and composition; capturing the beauty
of the untouched wilderness that Watkins experienced at the time he was alive. Watkins
instinctively avoided dramatic clouds, fog, mist and wind; capturing the clear
essence and giving a clear acuity of the Landscape. The soft tones in Watkins landscapes
photograph connotes a welcoming environment hence why   He used
a framing device and often included reflections, water movement and trees in
the frame; creating a natural representation of the landscape that he
photographed. An example of the picturesque aesthetic is seen from the
photograph Tasayac, or the
Half Dome, 5000 feet, Yosemite Valley (see figure 2). Firstly, the soft and
calm flowing water in Merced river seen in the foreground draws the viewers
eyes into the photograph, inspiring us as the viewer to the exquisite pleasure
of ‘active seeing’. Watkins showed an interest in trees; trees lend themselves more
to be picturesque than sublime – this reminds me of Claude Lorrain’s (pioneer
of ‘the picturesque’ in Landscape painting) paintings. (see figure 3) Although Lorrain’s
painting is in colour, Watkins photograph is similar because they both consists
of a river in the fore ground, trees on both sides and a mountain almost fading
away in the distance. The picturesque quality comes from the composition of
each individual subject (tree, river and mountain) in the frame that all come
together. The creation of these pure scenery, literally ‘transforms Watkins
photograph into painting’ and conveys a moment in time.


In 1938, almost 70 years after Watkin’s photograph from
the Merced River, Ansel Adams produced a photograph similar photograph (See
Figure 4). Although both Watkins and Adams photographed from almost the same
view point (composition), there are certainly more ‘sublime’ elements in Adams
photograph. Firstly, Adams photograph was captured in the winter; instantly as
a viewer, we can identify the cold temperature of the location at that time. The
almost leafless trees and plants with an illuminance of ‘metallic splendour’
connotes a dark and dangerous wildness. Whereas the blossomed trees in Watkins
photograph connotes a sense of warmth. There is greater tonal range in Adams
photograph as we can see from the arrows of light that cuts through the glacier
enhancing the roughness of the mountains against the untouched reflection of
the river. Whereas in Watkins photograph you can’t see the textures of the
mountain, creating a more delicate silhouette rather than showing the magnitude
of the mountain. The clear clouds that float across the horizon creates a serene
beauty. I think that all these components in Adams photograph come together to
create a ‘poetry of the real’- Ansel Adams – making the mountain look how it
feels like in reality; a huge monumental object of nature. On the other hand,
the representation of the scene in Watkins photograph connotes the natural
beauty within the American wilderness, hence why Abraham Lincoln decided to
sign the Yosemite Grant Act to protect the glacial valley as a national park after
looking at Watkins photographs.


The darkroom
was a critical part of what helped Ansel Adams transform the overall
representation of his landscapes photographs into something almighty. 


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