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In praise of wild places
March 28, 2003

Dear Artist,

In 1934, Ansel Adams took a break from his work on the effects of the Great Depression on humanity and visited King's Canyon, near Yosemite. This event, and the photography that followed were to result in a refreshed commitment to parks and reserves. He took power from the land. There's something about the large-format appreciation of wild places--particularly mountains and unspoiled sites that are destined to bring out an aspiring nature. The air, skies, rocks and waters resulted in a series of publications that were to influence governments throughout the world. As Peter Barr has noted: "Adams hoped that his sharp-focused black-and-white photographs would help persuade Americans to value creativity as well as to conserve and expand American freedoms and wilderness preserves." I've included some of Ansel Adams photos from this period in today's responses. Click here.

Trained as a classical pianist, Adams began to see wild places as an unwritten symphony to be developed and nuanced with the help of creative hands. He wanted his photography to be "a statement that goes beyond its subject." His work became more than just being in the right place at the right time--it was also endless trial-and-error in the darkroom in order to bring out the potential of the images he had collected. The results were increased tonal values, varied gray scales and the triumph of natural drama.

Something that you may have noticed in these letters is the idea that painters and artists of all stripes can learn a great deal from the processes of photographers. While "place" is the inspiration, darkroom "dodging" is just as vital. The wild places are not to be tamed, but to be understood, then adjusted, developed and fixed. Photographers have to get out into the field in order to trigger imaginative responses and induce passion. When the wild places are calling, do not resist--there may come a time when it becomes difficult. Adams gave into the call of the wild and monumentalized great tracts of America. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a recipient of a copy of the Sierra Club publications that resulted, and by his signature, King's Canyon became a National Park in 1941. Such is the power of art.

Best regards,


"You must have certain noble areas of the world left in as close-to-primal condition as possible. You must have quietness and a certain amount of solitude. You must be able to touch the living rock, drink the pure waters, scan the great vistas, sleep under the stars and awaken to the cool dawn wind. You do not play ping-pong in a cathedral." (Ansel Adams, 1902-1984)

Hiking tips for artists: Move slowly and look for "second generation" opportunities. In enriched areas cover as many angles as possible--there's no such thing as too much reference. Stop when your intuition tells you that "there's something going on here." "Burn in" valuable images. Pay particular attention to foregrounds. Inhale the privilege. Be not afraid to bring up the rear.

If you would like to see selected correspondence relating to the last letter "In praise of crazy," please go to http://www.painterskeys.com/clickbacks/crazy.html

The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing

The "Zone System"

Bruce Meisterman, Germantown, Tennessee, USA

Ansel Adams developed (no pun intended) a process of previsualization for photography called the Zone System. It was based on the lowest common denominator in black & white photography: printing paper. The human eye can discern somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 different hues. Black & white film can reproduce around 100 different tonalities from those 10,000. Black & white photographic paper can reproduce only 10. Do you see the problem?

Adams was able to determine that one could ascribe a value/tonality (1 to 10, due to the limitations of the paper) to a subject by altering exposure and development of the film. Obviously, a predetermined ascription of a particular value to the subject would result in a shift of values elsewhere. This is where previsualization came in. Adams would determine what he wanted the picture to look like before he photographed it. He, (and other proponents of this system,) would assign the values he wanted and where and was able to achieve beautiful and luminous tones while also getting wonderful, inky blacks.

By realizing the limits of the medium, Adams was able to maximize its potential. And because of those limits, he was in a sense practicing a very effective and reductionist way of seeing that liberated his work. The results show this. By working with a very limited palette, he expanded his vision. By the very limitations of the medium, less became more. A good lesson well-learned.

A rest in the grace of the world

Ann McGinty, Houston, TX, USA

I could not read today's letter without thinking of one of my favorite poets and his thoughts on being in the wild. You may already be familiar with Wendell Berry's work; but, if not, I invite you to his poetry and writings about our lives and the ways we see/live and care and do not care for our earth.

by Wendell Berry

When despair grows in me and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting for their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world,
and am free.

Nature is the artist

Eva Kosinski, Louisville, CO, USA

One of the problems (and it's in the eye of the beholder whether or not you think it's a problem) I find with painting is in the rendition of natural wild places. Our "modern" sensibilities (a la Martha Stewart) have a tendency to want to "clean up" nature. I'm not talking here about moving an ugly tree or changing the color of a flower; I'm talking about our tendency to "regularize" nature -- to make things more "cookie cutter" because it is easier. Nature puts leaves on trees and they are, none of them, exactly alike; like people, endless variations on a theme. In that sense, nature does the art thing better than we do.

(RG note) Homeostasis is a generally unpleasant tendency that infects a lot of art. This is a condition where items in a subject are made more regular than they might be in real life. The human mind likes order--so it comes naturally. Nature tends to be random and more chaotic. A typical example of homeostasis is where a row of trees are painted equidistant from one another.

In praise of plein air

Jacqueline Baldini, NY, USA

Though I have my Masters degree in photography, it is not photography that draws me 'into the wilds'. I've been a plein air painter for close to 30 years and the opposite is probably true, my plein air painting has influenced my photography. I'm sure in some ways, the two mediums find a way to blend in my creativity but, they remain separate. To photograph, I can be in a studio - to paint, I need the full range plein air experience you referred to. In painting, I am drawn to powerful, mysterious places - the ancient romanticism of Monhegan Island, the primal undertones of St. Lucia, West Indies and the thundering forces of Niagara. The 'creative haunting' of these locations has been imprinted on my spirit.

Protect wild places

Keena Friedrichsmeier Payne, Bella Coola, BC, Canada

Nature--the wildlife and wild places have always been my reason for art. It is an unceasing source of inspiration. When I am not painting nature, I am a zoologist--a career which allows me to partake in scientific "expeditions" which I would otherwise not be a party to. Most recently I have been involved in a survey for the rare and elusive woodland caribou and I had the privilege of seeing remote reaches of the boreal forest of Northern Ontario. It saddens me to think that I may well be one of the last people to fly over a landscape that has been untouched by humans. It saddens me to think that my children may never know a truly wild place.

Ansel Adams and all artists who take their inspiration from nature may well be recording for posterity. My hope is that all who see our art be moved as we are to see the beauty, and to be moved to protect it, just as FDR was.

Needs to exhibit work

Gayatri Manchanda

I paint more or less in isolation and your letters are a source of comfort and knowledge as I am curious to know how others perceive the artistic process, though I may not always empathize with it. I have been in Canada for eight months now and will live here for another two years or so. I exhibited frequently in New Delhi, India, from where I come, but have not found a way to do so here.

(RG note) One of the best ways to get noticed by dealers is to have a carefully designed website. We talked about how this can be done in a recent letter and responses which can be found at "The Dealer Friendly Website" http://www.painterskeys.com/clickbacks/dealerfriend.html When you have an effective website another good idea is to list it on our links page. Even though we often have a thousand visitors a day coming to that page, this service is free. We will list your current site there. It's at http://www.painterskeys.com/links.asp

Where's the common sense?

Lida Van Bers, Vancouver Island, Canada

Coming to this island some time ago, I have learned a lot about preservation and it taught me how to look and to listen in silence. The poetic gift that I did not know I had, sprang out of it. It also made me aware of the greed for more space to build bigger living-spaces and the total ignorance of what it is doing to our living species, land etc. Where is our common sense? Do we not know that we are busy ruining our own gift? Are we that insensitive? I hope we all have a chance to take the time and listen to the quietness in our beautiful nature and reflect what we are doing to it.

Incorporating sponsor's logos

Dave Louis, Coventry, UK

I've completed 15 autobiographical paintings for a forthcoming debut-selling exhibition. At this time I'm in the process of getting a grant. If I accept this grant I have to incorporate the funding body's logo on all publicity material. Do you think there are any drawbacks to this? I don't have a lot of personal funds but I could finance the publicity myself at a squeeze.

(RG note) Generally speaking, endorsement by a funding organization or commercial interest does not hurt an artist. The synergy created for both sponsor and sponsored can be valuable. Try to get them to keep logos and other graphics discrete and tasteful. If your sponsor is a charitable organization, as I suspect it is, it's an opportunity to support and be a benefactor in your community. We are hand-in-hand with others in this game. The more friends you can make the better. The more you give the more you get.

Philosophical and technical approaches

Alex Nodopaka

It was a pleasure to be reminded of Ansel Adams photographic artwork to which my own photography has been compared. I was fortunate to have had a centerfold spread devoted to my photographic work in the San Jose Mercury, in California (1976), a special weekend insert devoted to notable artists. Ansel Adams had his the previous few months and I was proud and elated at my good fortune for having been selected to be featured.

My photographs of Yosemite Valley were done in color in the heydays of color photography at the popular level. It was a contrast to Ansel Adams' black and white photography as well as our different philosophical and technical approaches. Ansel Adams' from a technical and mine from simply an end-result point of view.

Ansel Adams, besides having a great eye for composition was also a photography research scientist on all technical levels. On the other hand, I was strictly into the finished image irrespective of technological steps necessary to achieve my end product. My philosophy was somewhat similar to Henri Cartier Bresson's. In Adams' case it is purely aesthetics appeal through darkroom printing techniques, lens and film resolution and Zone Systems. In the case of Henri Cartier Bresson as well as mine it is strictly the visual and emotional impact.

No talent

Roberta Rich

I have a question for you. I have absolutely no talent. I'm sure a number of people have said the same thing to you, and you have said something tactful about it's just a matter of applying yourself and anyone can learn to draw, etc. In my case it's true. I've taken a number of classes, including Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Intro to Acrylics, and Life Drawing. In each class I was far and away the worst. I can't draw and I can't paint. I do, however, have a decent sense of composition and colour. I also have a strong desire to create. I'm now making early American type stencil paintings for kids. They're pretty good and colourful and people like them. What else can I do that requires no talent?

(RG note) I've been walking around all weekend, bumping into walls, tripping on the edge of carpets, and I can't think how to answer this one. Perhaps some of our readership do. Thanks if you do.

Me and My Art
Serwan Baran
Serwan Baran, Baghdad, Iraq

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Watercolor painting by artist Angus McEwan, Scotland
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Last modified: March 18th, 2003
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