Until 1927, the photographs that Ansel Adams had taken were not very good: documentary records of an afternoon with friends, a tree that he admired, a sunset worth remembering. They were placeholders for meaning, but not particularly meaningful themselves.
Of course, this wasn’t that Adams didn’t consider photography art. Rather, he hadn’t figured out yet how to make photography work, how to render with light and luck and dark the deep and powerful truths that he felt when in the mountains. As Adams will write toward the end of his life, “When I am ready to make a photograph, I think what I see in my mind’s eye is something that is not literally there. What I am interested in expressing is something that is built up from within, rather than something extracted from without.”
When I am ready to make a photograph.
Not just “take” one. Not just capture through hope and a lens whatever it is that the world might provide. As one critic has written about Adams’ work, it is this acknowledgment of the difference between receiving information and actively making art that allows Adams eventually “to voice the moods of light, to use textures like different instruments, to make clouds float, waterfalls flash, snow reveal its hidden life, and grasses bend in infinite delicacy under dew.”
It is April. And once again Adams is in Yosemite National Park, halfway up the granite face of a structure called Half Dome. He’s on his way to a popular spot among hikers called the Diving Board, a long and narrow projection of rock from which you can look up and see the sharp sheer face of the Half Dome’s cliff rising up before you. Along the way, Adams stops to take some shots—his girlfriend, his buddies, a bird, his shoes—until he realizes upon reaching the Diving Board that he has only two pictures left. He positions the camera to face Half Dome, that great and monstrous cliff face that looks as if it has punctured the earth from the inside out.
Wow, Adams thinks, then clicks.
Immediately, however, he knows that the picture he has taken is not going to work, will not relay to viewers the true experience of the Half Dome. So with only one picture left, Adams takes a risk. He allows himself to “revisualize” the scene. (His word.) He places over his lens a heavy red filter that immediately darkens the sky, transforms it even darker than the cliff face itself, so that an abyss opens up on the left side of the cliff, as if the brooding shelf of Half Dome has torn straight through it like a cleaver made of light, terrifying and bright, a threat to everything that is not there.
As he himself later put it, this is the first time in Adams’ career that he has managed to make a mountain look like how it feels. To do this however, he has deeply manipulated the mountain he loves, he has wrangled the reality of the world around him into what he has needed it to be. “Photography is really perception,” he wrote. “As with all art, the objective of photography is not the duplication of visual reality, but an investigation of the outer world and its influence on the inner world . . . . All of my photographs are photographs of myself.”
John D'Agata is the author of On Knowing & Not, a collaboration with Belgian painter Jean-Baptiste Bernadet. He teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa, where he directs the Nonfiction Writing Program.