Exhibit of rarely seen Ansel Adams photos of UC-Berkeley closes this week

Mar 7, 2013

Ansel Adams is best known for his iconic photos of Yosemite National Park, and other areas of the West. But even this fabled photographer had to do commercial work to make ends meet. One such project took place in 1967 – documenting the UC-Berkeley campus. Original prints from this commission, titled “Fiat Lux,” are on view at Cal’s Bancroft Library, ending March 8, 2013.

In the 1980s, Ansel Adams, the man, was as well known as his work – and it was very well known. Adams developed The Zone System, a standardized system of getting the best film exposure, in the 1930s. This was long before point-and-shoot photography, of course.

He credits his father with giving him the freedom to think creatively. Adams says he was free to do pretty much what he wanted, so long as he was able to demonstrate that his studies were actually leading him somewhere.

In an excerpt from an oral history interview in the exhibit, Adams admits that it would be extremely difficult today to have such academic freedom “because of your school regulations and the conventions of education. This tends to worry me a little bit … a lot of things seem to be a great waste of time.”

There were no photography schools at the time Adams got into the field in the1930s. The only way to learn was to apprentice to an established photographer. And they were often stingy with sharing their “trade secrets.” One aspect of photography, sometimes called “having a good eye,” is considered to be innate. It can’t be taught. Adams always said he had this visual sense, which is why he liked working with photography.

“It's all intuitive,” he said. But that means the photographer must always stay in practice.  “If I don't go out with the camera for quite a while, I find myself very, very clumsy.”

Adams, who died in 1984, might be baffled by the current American culture of photographing everything, all the time – and he might also be saddened that while the equipment is greatly improved, so little thought goes into the final image.