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Ansel Adams - Early Morning, Merced River

Ansel Adams, b. 1902, was important to photography through history and through his works helped contribute to the respect photography is now given as a fine art. He first discovered photography when he received a Kodak #1 Box Brownie in 1916 from his father as a birthday present. At the time he aspired to be a concert pianist as he was an amazing musician, however, when aged 14 on a family vacation to Yosemite National Park, he discovered the Sierra Nevada mountains and returned there at least once every year of his life, thus inspiring his style of photography and subject matter. Photography in its early stages was not considered by critics as a true form of art, but photography was seen as an art form in itself, the art of creating the ‘perfect’ photograph. A flawless print, shot using pure, straight photography and produced using impeccable development techniques. Adams was not at all against this philosophy. He actually embraced it. He himself was a perfectionist and his folio of works reflects this trait, focusing on the unspoiled natural world, ‘I am always visualizing image possibilities in the world around me…’ He did this using top-quality printing, capturing every possible detail using apertures as high as f64. He even established a school of photographers with similar techniques called ‘the f64 club’. In his lifetime, Ansel Adams has produced 10 000 signed fine prints and has held over 500 exhibitions worldwide.

In 1950, During one of his many routine trips to Yosemite National Park, Adams passed a serene landscape and prospective subject just along the highway on the way to the park. He had always passed this subject before and noticed it, but the lighting was never strong enough to capture the image at it’s fullest potential. On this day the lighting was just right for a photo to be taken, as it was sunrise. He noticed this as he was driving along the road and he stopped the car to set up and take the picture. This is how Early Morning, Merced River, Autumn, was shot.

The photograph is black and white with a high contrast. It is of a horizontal landscape format. There is a large, twisting tree with lots of small foliage growing on the smaller branches on its ends. The trunk is short with two thick branches and one thinner one protruding from it. The roots above the ground are unseen due to the small surrounding rocks but they appear to begin about one third of the way up the trunk. The tree is slightly left of center, in the front part of the middle ground. The foreground consists of larger rocks or boulders, there appears to be just two of them, they are darker than the small rocks and dotted with lichen. On the right side of the picture and further back into the middle ground is a thin, spindly tree, so pale in shade that it appears to be white. The small tree, unlike the large tree is very symmetrical and triangular in form. The background consists of the river rapids, blurred with the length of exposure time. They add an extra softness to the subject. Behind this is the opposite riverbank, very dark although still highly detailed, covered in small shrubs and foliage. Behind the banks the trees become taller and taller until we see tall, straight trunks of trees, showing evidence of forest. Not even the darkest areas of the image lack detail due to such an infinite aperture.

The main focal point is the romanticism of the elegant, twisting tree. The branches are separated asymmetrically. The two smaller branches extend to the left and their foliage takes up most of the space on this side of the image. The larger right branch forks into three other thick branches once more and is higher than the other two branches, with less visible foliage, leaving empty space. But there is very much a sense of balance created by the ‘white’ tree to the right and the higher placed rock, on the right and in the foreground. The river’s elegant flow generates a rhythm that seems to connect the whole image together, creating a sense of unity. The light source appears to be coming directly from the left side of the subject, as there is a high shadowing contrast between the left sides of objects and the right sides.

Early Morning, Merced River, Autumn, was created using a Kodak metal 8X10 view camera and a tripod, with a Kodak Wide-Field Ektar lens. Adams had trouble setting up the tripod in this area, as the land was rocky and unstable. No filter was used, which shows the rarity of the scene, as we know now that the contrast was naturally this diffused. The film was an ASA 125 speed setting. Film had become more easily exposed in 1950 than what it was in Adams’ early days as a photographer, meaning that shutters did not have to be open for as long, making it easier for photographers. There is such a high quality of detail in the subject matter because Adams has used an aperture of f45, and was taken at a shutter speed of Ѕ a second, thus explaining the misty blur of the breaking water in the background river.

In light of his perfectionism and quest for the perfect photograph, Adams made two exposures of this image. He was not happy with the development of the first negative and decided to use a different process to develop the second negative, called the ‘water-bath process’, in order to increase the shadow values.

Ansel Adams produced Early Morning, Merced River, Autumn, to express an area of nature, which he saw as beautiful. On this rare day he saw an opportunity capture an exceptional version of this subject and he took it. The romantic mood of the image was no accident as he was trying to portray the landscape using his own personal expression. This image is very much like another image taken two years earlier, Tenaya Creek, Dogwood, Rain, in 1948 at Yosemite National Park. The subject matter, format and romantic mood is very similar to Early Morning, Merced River, Autumn. They both express the intricate beauty of the untouched natural world and resemble each other in form. Creating the ‘perfect’ photograph is clearly his inspiration for both of these images. Adams’ unique style of subject matter, composition and detail that makes his work unique and identifiable is completely evident. His style exudes the beauty and grace of nature itself as though you were standing in the actual image and staring at the landscape in real life. His images allow you to connect with the subject and capture the beauty you may have either previously overlooked or have longed to keep forever.




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