Photography has a tense problem. Past, present, future: which of these is engaged when the shutter blinks? When a print is made?
In "Camera Lucida" (1980), the philosopher Roland Barthes, looking at a photograph of a condemned man about to be put to death, wrote about the strangely mixed "anterior future" tense of photographs, the morbid idea embedded in all of them: "This will be and this has been. The photograph tells me death in the future."
The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson tried to dissolve the tense problem years before. In 1952 he wrote of "the decisive moment," which he defined as "the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression." Great photographs, he suggested, depend on finding those instants.
In the traveling exhibition "Ansel Adams at 100" and its catalog, written by the curator and photo historian John Szarkowski, photography's tense problem appears all over again in virulent form. Adams's shockingly radiant landscapes — where trees glow white, skies are deep black, and mountains are step tones of gray — appear not as perfectly pure, transparent and instantaneous records of nature itself but rather as a record of his restless attempts to locate his memories and projections.
Adams, traditionally known as a straight photographer, a manic technocrat who knew what he called the "capacities of the craft" and could squeeze 11 tones of gray from a negative, turns out to be more like a Romantic. He was struggling to evoke not what Edward Weston called "the thing itself" but rather subjective memory. Adams was disturbed by the temporal conundrum involved in what Henry Fox Talbot, one of the earliest photographers, described as "fixing a shadow."
As Geoffrey Batchen writes in "Burning with Desire: The Conception of Photography," long before photography actually existed, people were anxiously thinking about the difficulty of capturing a moment. Coleridge said, "I seem to have annihilated the present Tense with regard to place — you can never say, where is he? but only where was he? where will he be?"
Adams had, it seems, an unusual relationship to time. His memory
was bad, as he admitted. In his book "Examples: The Making of 40
Photographs" he wrote of his "notorious inability to remember"
exactly when he took pictures. He had to be reminded by his friend Beaumont Newhall, a photo historian.
At age 42 Adams asked his father to fill in the details of his childhood "as though he were researching some ancient ancestor," Mr. Szarkowski writes. And Adams's memory was connected from the very start to his camera. When he was 14, his family took him to Yosemite. He took 30 photographs with his Kodak Brownie. "The snaps were memory aids; it was the memory that was the essential thing," Mr. Szarkowski writes.
What kind of memories was Adams concerned with? Mr. Szarkowski compares Adams to "one of William James's ecstatic mystics." In 1923 Adams noted his feelings during a trip to the mountains: "I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light. The moment I paused, the full impact of the mood was upon me. I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute details of the grasses, the cluster of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks. There are no words to convey the moods of those moments."
But there were pictures. Adams set out to convey the mood, the memory of a feeling.
"A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense," Adams wrote in "A Personal Credo" in 1943. And the feeling he was trying to capture was a moment sometime before the shutter snapped. "A photograph is not an accident," he wrote. "It exists at, or before, the moment of exposure of the negative."
Adams believed in what he called "pre-visualization." Before
clicked the shutter, he tried to visualize the scene that would
later become a memory.
"My basic approach to photography depends on the visualization of the final print before the exposure is made," Adams said. "It is not only a matter of seeing it in the mind's eye, but it's also and primarily a matter of feeling it — feeling the various qualities that you wish to obtain in the final print. The shutter is opened and then the negative is developed.
"The negative can now be compared to a musical score. It's ready for its performance — the print. If the negative is properly composed, technically and aesthetically, it can be performed so as to recreate the original visualized intention. So that finally I can say that I visualize the essence of the photograph to be."
In other words Adams was looking forward to a time when he would be looking backward. There appears to be no present instant, no decisive moment, in Adams's conception of photography. So what is Adams really capturing?
Consider the pictures that Adams took of Mount Robson from Mount
Resplendent during a Sierra Club outing in the Canadian Rockies in
1928. There are four shots of the same mountain from almost the
same vantage point but taken at different focal lengths. Were these
four different memories that Adams pre-visualized and captured? Or four attempts
at the same memory? He chose the best composition.
And what about Adams's famous 1940 surf sequence, five shots of
the surf at the San Mateo County Coast, in California, rolling in
and rolling out, shot from above. Was this his attempt to capture
the perfect wave, the visualization of the wave he would one day
look back on? Or was he trying to resolve the Romantic paradox of
the flow of time and the stillness of photography? Although Adams
intended to pick one instant out of the bunch, he ended up
accepting five instants that together produce a sense of flow.
If Adams was trying to recall in his prints something about the nature of his moods at the time when he took the pictures, it is telling that late in life he began reprinting photographs he had made years before, sometimes in rather bizarre ways.
"Toward the end of his career this reinterpretation seemed at
times to amount almost to parody," Mr. Szarkowski writes. "The
lyrical precision and perfect balance of his earlier work he
reworked in his old age, too often replacing the elegance with
melodrama, and the reverence with something approaching bombast." For example he reprinted "Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake" in such a
way that the radiant peak was "transformed into a dirty snowdrift."
How does this square with Adams's ideas about pre-visualization and memory? Adams, who was a pianist before he became a photographer, said over and over again that a print was the performance of the negative, an interpretation of the musical score.
In his new bombastic prints, maybe he was trying to find in his
old score a different song. Or maybe he was committing a more
radical musical act, realizing that if you took the idea of
performance far enough, you could actually end up changing the score itself, shifting all the old harmonies.
It is worth noting that Adams was fond of ending his piano
performances for friends by getting up from the bench, turning
around and sitting on the keyboard. He solves the temporal problem
— with a bang.