Landscape essay, I will be talking about Carleton

 

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.

 

During the
late 1800s when photography wasn’t established as it was during Ansel Adams
career times, Carleton Watkins was adapted to a technique where he used
wet-plate colloidal which yields images of tremendous precision. This meant the
plates have to be prepared on the spot and developed immediately after they are
exposed. Watkins had a make-shift darkroom (tent) that he had to carry around
with him as well as the camera and the mammoth glass plates. To accommodate his
2,000 pounds of equipment, it was loaded on a wagon and pulled by 12 mules. This
process meant that unlike Adams, Watkins first exposure would become the
photograph that he went home with and printed. By looking at his photographs we see
the true structure of nature; its orderly scaffolding and superb textures
merely disclosed – creating an aesthetic that we know as ‘the picturesque’.

 

The darkroom process was a critical part of what helped Ansel Adams
transform the overall representation of his landscapes photographs into
something almighty. Although Adams mastered the science behind photography, he
spent a lot of time in the darkroom. For example, the photograph ‘Moonrise over
Hernandez’ (See figure 5) was taken by Adams in 1941, but it was not until the
1970’s that he achieved a print equal to the original visualization and that he
vividly recalled. As technology and the chemistry of the darkroom evolved, Adams mastered his technique after years of developing
and printing in the darkroom. By using manipulation techniques (dodging and
burning) it allowed Adams to experiment and convey unique feelings and representations
of the landscapes that he experienced while being present at those scenes. In
other words, Adams see photography as creating and reinforcing semiotics of
place. For example, enhancing the flickering shadows and making the clouds more
dramatic by manipulating the tones and contrast

The
findings of this study revealed although two great landscape photographers
photographed (Watkins and Adams) in the same place, there are certainly aspects
in their photographs that differentiate the aesthetic ideals of their work.
Although some might argue that they both produce photographs that associate
with the sublime. Some may argue that both Ansel Adams work and Carleton
Watkins work show aspects of the sublime. For example, Watkins said “…very
roughly speaking mountains are associated with the sublime, hills with the
picturesque; sea with the sublime, rivers and canals with the picturesque.”
However, I think that it is the way the photographers subjectively chose to
photograph the landscape that made it either ‘sublime’ or ‘picturesque’.

 

A way of looking
at Ansel Adam’s photograph is that you can say he attempts to preserve the
landscape through his photography as documentation of the wild, this human
observation displays the relationship between the wild and humanity; constantly
reminding us that we are a speck of dust in a world surrounded by the awe-inspiring
nature. Whereas, Carleton’s intentions were to show his love of wilderness and
nature to the world, intending to shape Americans sensibilities towards Yosemite
Park, thus powering the revelation of the uniqueness of the American
Republic.