Landscape photographers focus on anaesthetic style throughout their career. Examples of these styles are the picturesque,the sublime and the beautiful. These aesthetic ideals are achieved by using differentcamera, post production and manipulation techniques which allows photographersto create a specific representation of the scene in their photographs. Aestheticideals were influenced by traditional painters such as Claude Lorrain who’swork and name became synonymous with the picturesque aesthetic and FredericEdwin Church who pioneered ‘the sublime’ aesthetic in landscape painting. Inthis essay, I will be talking about Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams; focusingon their approaches in terms of the picturesque and the sublime. Firstly, the picturesque was derivedfrom the Italian picttoresco, “from a picture”, the term defines an object or ascene that is worthy in being in a picture. This means that it will “please theeye in their natural state; and those, which please from some quality, are capableof being illustrated by painting.
” (WilliamGilpin, Three Essays on Picturesque Beauty, 1794). Some people may gofurther and say that the land is transformed into a picture by the very act oflooking, this lead to the invention of the Claude glass. The Claude glass (orblack mirror) was a small mirror, slightly convex in shape and tinted a darkcolour and it was named after Claude Lorrain. The Claude glass had the effectof changing the subject that is reflected in from the surroundings.
The glass mutedthe colours and tonal range of the scene, giving it a painterly feel; literallyturning the scene into a painting. It was carried and used by artists,travellers and connoisseur of landscapes. The concept of the sublime didnot enter mainstream European thoughts until the 1700s. It was a concept thatwas to invoke discord and a sense of threat. British philosopher Edmund Burke differentiatedthe sublime from the beautiful for its capacity to evoke intense emotions andinspire awe through experiences of nature’s vastness. However, emotionalresponses to paintings or photographs which have the aesthetic of the sublimecan vary between different people.
According to Freud these emotional responsescannot be changed or identified as they are a result our unique repressednegative memories from the past. “Astonishmentis the effect of the sublime in its highest degree… No passion so effectuallyrobs the mind of all its power of acting and reasoning as terror; and whateveris terrible with regard to sight, is sublime.” (Edmund Burke, A PhilosophicalInquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, 175) Burkesaid although the sublime may inspire horror, there is a pleasure in knowingthat the perception is fiction and harmless, almost like the viewer is beingconditioned to face their fear or phobia. Ansel Adams was an American photographer and environmentalist, who alsophotographed Yosemite Valley during his photographic career. Adams work often consistsof 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 theframe ‘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) comparedto the rich details, textures and the sun beams that Adams captures. Althoughthe camera is small, it has ‘the power to give the whole frame meaning’. Adamssaid in a documentary (Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film, 2002) “If I feelsomething strongly, I would make a photograph of what I saw.” – Ansel Adams.
Bythis, Adams means that he captures and recreate the feeling he experienceswhile 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’sperspective of photography and get the majority to accept photography as an artform. By doing this Ansel Adams and his group borrowed technique from paintingand fine art and incorporated them into photography (composition and printingtechnique). “Dodging and burning are the steps to take care of mistakes Godmade in establishing tonal relationships.” – Ansel Adams.
This means that Adamsabandoned the picturesque aesthetic early in his career, approaching theenvironment subjectively by using various manipulation techniques. He adaptedto a technique called Zone System which guided Adams into printing images fullof detail, depth and contrast. For example, in the photograph of the Half Dome’scliff face (See figure 1).
This photograph reflects the inhospitable slopes ofthe cliff, but also making me feel the omnipotence of nature. The compositionin this photograph induce the conscious alertness of the immense magnitude ofwhat nature can create. Adams used a deep red filter that helped darken thesky, this emphasized the snow on the Half Dome; creating a terrifyingrepresentation of the cliff face.
The sublimity of this photograph implies animpossible object (a way we can’t see using our naked eyes), inspiring awe andgreatness of nature. The portrait orientation of this photograph enhances theheight of the Half Dome cliff; capturing the soaring emotions that Adams must’vefelt looking up at the Cliff while making this photograph. It makes me as theviewer 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 congressand helped President Lincoln in the preservation of Yosemite Valley during thetime of the civil war. Yosemite Valley was Watkins favourite subject tophotograph, these photographs had made Carleton a legacy and a pioneeringenvironmental photographer. Watkins is regarded as ‘America’s greatestlandscape photographer of the nineteenth century’ (Weber, 2002, p.67).
Although Carleton Watkins also photographedmountains in Yosemite Valley, his views of the mountains were not asmonumentalist and sublimatory as Adams’ were. Firstly, this is because during thetime of his first significant project, Watkins used glass-plate (mammothplates) negatives (21 x 18inch); allowing him to produce natural lookingcontrast and clear tones in his Landscape photographs, conveying thepicturesque. The whole process of creating a photograph from glass-platenegatives were much longer and complex than Ansel Adams. This is becauseWatkins had to sensitise the glass plates on the spot and exposed them whilethey were still wet. This means that with less manipulation tools and known techniques,Watkins produced much more natural looking photographs than Adams, that almostmirrored reality. Whereas Adams used much smaller black and white negatives (plates)during his career, where he then learnt to master the manipulation techniques ofthe negatives and prints. Watkins created ‘picturesque’photographs by choosing angle, location and composition; capturing the beautyof the untouched wilderness that Watkins experienced at the time he was alive.
Watkinsinstinctively avoided dramatic clouds, fog, mist and wind; capturing the clearessence and giving a clear acuity of the Landscape. The soft tones in Watkins landscapesphotograph connotes a welcoming environment hence why He useda framing device and often included reflections, water movement and trees inthe frame; creating a natural representation of the landscape that hephotographed. An example of the picturesque aesthetic is seen from thephotograph Tasayac, or theHalf Dome, 5000 feet, Yosemite Valley (see figure 2). Firstly, the soft andcalm flowing water in Merced river seen in the foreground draws the viewerseyes into the photograph, inspiring us as the viewer to the exquisite pleasureof ‘active seeing’. Watkins showed an interest in trees; trees lend themselves moreto be picturesque than sublime – this reminds me of Claude Lorrain’s (pioneerof ‘the picturesque’ in Landscape painting) paintings.
(see figure 3) Although Lorrain’spainting is in colour, Watkins photograph is similar because they both consistsof a river in the fore ground, trees on both sides and a mountain almost fadingaway in the distance. The picturesque quality comes from the composition ofeach individual subject (tree, river and mountain) in the frame that all cometogether. The creation of these pure scenery, literally ‘transforms Watkinsphotograph into painting’ and conveys a moment in time. In 1938, almost 70 years after Watkin’s photograph fromthe Merced River, Ansel Adams produced a photograph similar photograph (SeeFigure 4). Although both Watkins and Adams photographed from almost the sameview point (composition), there are certainly more ‘sublime’ elements in Adamsphotograph. Firstly, Adams photograph was captured in the winter; instantly asa viewer, we can identify the cold temperature of the location at that time. Thealmost leafless trees and plants with an illuminance of ‘metallic splendour’connotes a dark and dangerous wildness. Whereas the blossomed trees in Watkinsphotograph connotes a sense of warmth.
There is greater tonal range in Adamsphotograph as we can see from the arrows of light that cuts through the glacierenhancing the roughness of the mountains against the untouched reflection ofthe river. Whereas in Watkins photograph you can’t see the textures of themountain, creating a more delicate silhouette rather than showing the magnitudeof the mountain. The clear clouds that float across the horizon creates a serenebeauty. I think that all these components in Adams photograph come together tocreate a ‘poetry of the real’- Ansel Adams – making the mountain look how itfeels like in reality; a huge monumental object of nature. On the other hand,the representation of the scene in Watkins photograph connotes the naturalbeauty within the American wilderness, hence why Abraham Lincoln decided tosign the Yosemite Grant Act to protect the glacial valley as a national park afterlooking at Watkins photographs. The darkroomwas a critical part of what helped Ansel Adams transform the overallrepresentation of his landscapes photographs into something almighty.