Ansel Adams in Color

As a new book shows, not everything in the photographer’s philosophy was black and white

Ansel Adams wrote of an "inevitable conflict" between the accuracy of color film and people's subjective reaction to colors. (Excerpted from the book Ansel Adams in Color. Copyright © 1993, 2009 by Trustees of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company)
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Adams thought enough of some of his color photographs to exhibit a selection of prints from his transparencies at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1950. The fifth volume in his magisterial series on photographic techniques was to be devoted to color, but he died before getting to it.

Critical acclaim for the color photographers who came of age in the 1970s baffled Adams (and, to be fair, many others). He thought it was outrageous that the Museum of Modern Art gave William Eggleston a solo exhibition in 1976. Eggleston's generation certainly benefited from advances in film sensitivity, but younger photographers also composed in color with an ease unknown to Adams. The subjects they gravitated toward—suburban anomie, roadside trash—were equally foreign to him.

"I can get—for me—a far greater sense of ‘color' through a well-planned and executed black-and-white image than I have ever achieved with color photography," he wrote in 1967. For Adams, who could translate sunlight's blinding spectrum into binary code perhaps more acutely than anyone before or since, there was an "infinite scale of values" in monochrome. Color was mere reality, the lumpy world given for everyone to look at, before artists began the difficult and honorable job of trying to perfect it in shades of gray.

Richard B. Woodward is a New York City-based arts critic.


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