1940 Camera Craft, Vol. 47, pp. 43-44.
From ‘A Personal Credo’ American Annual of Photography 1944
Article by Ansel Adams, Creative Camera magazine.
I have been asked many times. ‘What is a great photograph?’ I can answer best by showing a great photograph, not by talking or writing about one. However, as word definitions are required more often than not, I would say this: A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense, and is, thereby, a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety. And the expression of what one feels should be set forth in terms of simple devotion to the medium––a statement of the utmost clarity and perfection possible under the conditions of creation and production. That will explain why I have no patience with unnecessary complications of technique or presentation.
I prefer a fine lens because it gives me the best possible optical image, a fine camera because it complements the function of the lens, fine materials because they convey the qualities of the image to the highest degree.
I use smooth papers because I know they reveal the utmost of image clarity and brilliance, and I mount my prints on simple cards because I believe any ‘fussiness’ only distracts from and weakens the print.
I do not retouch or manipulate my prints because I believe in the importance of the direct optical and chemical image.
I use the legitimate controls of the medium only to augment the photographic effect. Purism, in the sense of rigid abstention from any control, is ridiculous; the logical controls of exposure, development and printing are essential in the revelation of photographic qualities. The correction of tonal deficiences by dodging, and the elimination of obvious defects by spotting, are perfectly legitimate elements of the craft. As long as the final result of the procedure is photographic, it is entirely justified. But when a photograph has the ‘feel’ of an etching or a lithograph, or any other graphic medium, it is questionable––just as questionable as a painting that is photographic in character. The incredibly beautiful revelation of the lens is worthy of the most sympathetic treatment in every respect.
Simplicity is a prime requisite. The equipment of Alfred Stieglitz or Edward Weston represents less in cost and variety than many an amateur ‘can barely get along with.’ Their magnificent photographs were made with intelligence and sympathy––not with merely the machines. Many fields of photography demand specific equipment of a high order of complexity and precision; yet economy and simplicity are relative, and the more complex a man’s work becomes, the more efficient his equipment and methods must be.
A photograph is not an accident––it is a concept.
Precision and patience, and devotion to the capacities of the craft, are of supreme importance. The sheer perfection of the lens-image implies an attitude of perfection in every phase of the process and every aspect of the result. The relative importance of the craft and its expressive aspects must be clarified; we would not go to concert to’ hear scales performed––even with consummate skill––nor would we enjoy the sloppy rendition of great music.
In photography, technique is frequently exalted for its own sake; the unfortunate complement of this is when a serious a potentially important statement is rendered impotent by inferior mechanics of production. Of course, ‘seeing,’ or visualization, is the fundamentally important element.
A photograph is not an accident––it is a concept. It exists at, or before, the moment of exposure of the negative. From that moment on to the final print, the process is chiefly one of craft; the pre-visualized photograph is rendered in terms of the final print by a series of processes peculiar to the medium. True, changes and augmentations can be effected during these processes, but the fundamental thing which was ‘seen’ is not altered in basic concept.
The ‘machine-gun’ approach to photography by which many negatives are made with the hope that one will be good––is fatal to serious results. However, it should be realized that the element of ‘seeing’ is not limited to the classic stand-camera technique. The phases of photography which are concerned with immediate and rapid perception of the world––news, reportage, forms of documentary work (which may not admit contemplation of each picture made) are nevertheless, dependent upon a basic attitude and experience. The instant awareness of what is significant in a rapidly changing elusive subject presupposes an adequate visualization more general in type than that required for carefully considered static subjects such as landscape and architecture.
The accidental contact with the subject and the required immediacy of exposure in no way refutes the principles of the basic
photographic concept. Truly ‘accidental’ photography is practically non-existent; with preconditioned attitudes we recognize and are arrested by the significant moment. The awareness of the right moment is as vital as the perception of values, form, and other qualities. There is no fundamental difference in the great landscapes and quiet portraits of Edward Weston and the profoundly revealing pictures of children by Helen Levitt. Both are photographic perceptions of the highest order, expressed through different, but entirely appropriate, techniques.