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Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) — A Media Book by Brooks Jensen

Each Thursday Brooks records another commentary and we post it here at LensWork Online. The audio versions are found here. There is also a text version for each commentary for those who prefer to read rather than listen.

From the Author's Preface:

"I started writing this book about 7 years ago. After considerable thought, instead of publishing this content as traditional book, Those Who Inspire Me (and Why) will be published here, as a series of downloadable audios and text. Consider it a small token of my immense gratitude to all those who have pioneered this way of life that I love, and a passing-on of the invaluable contributions they've made to our creative lives." Brooks Jensen, Anacortes, Washington, 2019

An Explorer from the Past

Ansel Adams —Dedication and Lucky Timing

It's perhaps appropriate that we begin with Ansel Adams not because of his extraordinary influence in my career — in truth, he hasn't been that influential in my artistic thinking — but rather because he is the only photographer who would pass what I call the "airport test."  Ask 100 random people at the airport (people who have enough means to travel and therefore represent a reasonable cross-section of middle America) to identify all the novelists they can think of, and they will give you a lengthy list. Ask them for a list of musicians, and the list might be even longer. Ask them for a list of all the fine art photographers they can think of, and you'll probably hear only one name — Ansel Adams. Very few non-photographers (I jokingly refer to them as civilians) will have ever heard of Edward Weston, let alone Paul Strand, Minor White, Eugène Atget, or Henri Cartier Bresson. Ansel Adams, however, has become such an iconic figure for fine art photography in popular culture that he is universally known and singularly identified with fine art photography. It's too bad, in some regards, because such popularity tends to automatically create a backlash. In photographic circles Ansel Adams is both revered and reviled. But, as the Buddhists say, whether you are bound by chains of iron or bound by chains of gold, in either case you are bound. There are many lessons to be learned from Ansel Adams, and he can provide inspiration in a variety of ways — but unfortunately he's best known for two areas of inspiration: his technical expertise, and his stunning images of the natural landscape. Neither of these are the reason he makes my list of those who have inspired me the most.

There are two aspects of Adams' career that I find particularly inspirational. The first is simply that he worked for decades in relative obscurity, pursuing his craft with small reward, following his passion for both photography and the landscape — which he loved long before he had any external motivations to do so. One of his most famous images, Monolith Face of Half Dome was photographed in 1928 when he was still a young man. His universal fame didn't manifest itself for some four decades. In fact, the way I tend to think of it is that his fame was accidental and beyond his control. My admittedly tongue-in-cheek way of expressing this is that the environmental movement created two great pop stars: John Denver and Ansel Adams. Adams was the right photographer at the right time with the right images to be thrust into the fame not as a result of a carefully orchestrated lifelong marketing plan, but rather as a twist of fate. Sure, he had considerable help along the way with his business manager, Bill Turnage, and the foresight to understand the democratic nature of photography. But his superstardom was not a result of those things nearly as much as it was the confluence of his vision and the cultural zeitgeist that found each other in perfect harmony at the exact peak of his career. The lesson from Adams is not how to become famous, but rather the importance of pursuing one's vision with integrity, dedication, passionate focus, commitment, and longevity. Doing so may not propel each of us to fame and fortune — in fact, it probably won't. But, it will lead us down a creative path that produces a body of work that will proudly represent our passion with integrity. Ansel Adams demonstrated conclusively that mastery of photography is not something that happens in a 60th of a second, or as the result of random luck. His photographs, his workshops, his technical books, indeed every aspect of his career demonstrates the importance of hard work and committed perseverance. As a young photographer, I found that lesson incredibly valuable in light of photography's naturally seductive nature as the instantly-accessible, instant art. Like so many photographers, I picked up the camera because I couldn't draw. The truth is, I probably can draw if I were willing to dedicate myself to the necessary practice and learning required. Photography was seductive because it provided the illusion of an easily-mastered medium that I could be successful at, but without the dedication. Two decades into my pursuit of photography, when I first began to make photographs that had any merit whatsoever, did I realize the lesson I had learned from Ansel Adams after it had snuck up on me during the previous 20 years of seduction.

A second and equally valuable lesson from Adams is one that didn't take root in me until fairly late in my mid-career. There is no other photographer who has so successfully plumbed the depths of marketing of fine art photographs to the general public. His commercial success is legendary. There is more to this story, however, that is generally assumed. For years I've said that if Ansel Adams taught us anything about marketing artwork, he taught us that image familiarity is what breeds collectability. More than any photographer before or since, Adams understood the democratic nature of photography and image reproduction. Along with Bill Turnage (his business manager) and David Gardner (his superb commercial offset printer) Adams brought his work into people's lives in a pioneering way that opened the door to the universal appreciation of photography as an art form. Stieglitz had tried to do this some 50 years earlier through Camera Work and his New York gallery. But it was Adams and his posters, appointment books, calendars, and monographs that really pioneered the widespread appreciation of fine art photography beyond the miniscule confines of the fine art photographic community. Ansel Adams does not pass the "airport test" because of his original prints, but rather because of the reproductions of his work that have continued to be so popular for decades after he stopped making original prints. Adams embraced reproductions of his artwork with such enthusiasm and such success that it is downright foolish for any of us to undervalue the importance of that most important democratic aspect of photography: its ability to be reproduced so readily and, especially today, with such fidelity.

There is, of course, no commandment in fine art photography that says we must pursue distribution of our work. Many photographers have no interest whatsoever in sending their artwork out into the world; producing it provides enough reward in and of itself. However, for any of us who are interested in sharing our work with others, Adams provides a roadmap that we should not ignore. I'll go so far as to say that any photographer who is interested in distribution of their images to a wider audience needs to have a component that includes low-cost reproductions— or they are simply not serious about distribution. Adams not only made his images available to the masses in the form of posters, et al., but he also introduced many of us to the idea of "Special Edition Prints" — in his case in the form of a small number of images printed by accomplished technicians (Alan Ross) and sold as reproduction prints at very affordable prices. The so-called Ansel Adams Special Edition Prints available in Yosemite Valley have outsold his original collectible artwork by tens of thousands of copies. Not surprising, considering the price differential. Most importantly, what he demonstrated is that there is an audience for people who connect with the image but for whom the collectability of original art is unimportant. Adams proved that affordable reproductions via commercially printed posters or special printed reproduction prints provide an important product for a portion of the market that does not diminish the valuable or desirability of collectible individual prints.

Ansel Adams was both a fabulous and famous photographer, but for me the most inspiring lessons from his career have nothing to do with his wonderful prints nor his masterful techniques.