Ansel Adams’ Darkroom

Like many who came to photography in the last century, I learnt to make fine black and white prints from Ansel Adams. Not in person, but from his ‘Basic Photo Series’, in my case the ‘New Edition’ published in 1968, a series of five slim but information-packed volumes of which I bought two, Volumes 3 and 4, The Print and Natural Light Photography. Somewhat surprisingly I’d come across the first two volumes (Camera & Lens and The Negative) in my local library, where they comprised almost the whole of the photography section, or I might have saved up for at least the second of these, and I bought both in the early 1980s when they came out in a rather less pithy form in ‘The New Ansel Adams Photography Series’.

I was never a huge fan of Ansel’s photography, and never more than dabbled in large format photography – I can count the number of exposures I made personally on 10×8 on the fingers of one hand (and wouldn’t show them even to you), though I acted as an unpaid assistant for rather more. I still own two 4×5 cameras, though they’ve long been gathering dust, a monorail I think only ever used for copy work and similar, and an MPP folder that I perhaps made a few hundred exposures with, particularly when I had an interest in alternative processes that require contact printing. But I’d been very impressed by the quality of Ansel’s prints when I saw them exhibited in London, something at a quite different level to the work at other exhibitions I’d seen here in the UK, both in the tonalities and presentation.

When I joined a camera club and decided to put work into their monthly competitions, I printed following his precepts and also presented my work following him as guide, working with large white (or slightly off-white) archival board window mounts. It was probably this departure from the then accepted norms rather than my different subject and approach that caused more derision from many established club members and some club judges, though it also gained me some friends and a few others who began to follow my lead.

I certainly would not make a video of my darkroom, cramped and lacking in facilities, though a good example of how much you can pack into a very limited space, but you can see Ansel Adams’ darkroom – and some brief glimpses of the man himself at work on line at PDN Pulse. Of course it’s nowadays a historic record – rather like an exhibit at the Science Museum – than of any practical use.

Some photographers continue to use film, and if you are happily doing so, then that’s fine. But those who are evangelistic about it are I think in the main deluded – there really are no good reasons for doing so. Technically digital wins in every way, and even if you want the kind of incorrect colour rendition we had to put up with on film, or the excessive grain when pushed in low light, or any of the other defects that some film aficionados seem to prize, you can more easily produce them on digital files. Of course digital isn’t limited to this, it can also do much that film never could.

While I’m sure that were Ansel still around and still sprightly despite being 114 he would still be in that incredible darkroom, I’m also sure he would be relishing the possibilities of digital imaging and particularly digital printing and of software such as Photoshop that would give him even greater control over his images than he ever managed in the darkroom. I’m still making use of what I learnt from him in front of the computer, even though my darkroom has long been gathering dust.

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