Our discussion of large format analogue photography vs. digital photography had led me to muse about the clinical pathology that may be referred to as “Ansel Adams envy.” All photographers suffer from this to some extent. And I suspect that this includes practitioners of large format photography.
When I first encountered the photographs of Adams, I was amazed, envied, their wonderful sharpness – the fineness of the detail. This, of course, was the unobtainable ideal, unless I was prepared to purchase and lug an 8″ x 10″ or larger view camera around the Sierras. The Sierras part is required and, as I was a New Yorker then and didn’t drive, seriously outside my reach. What to do about that?
Well the answer is not much. The sharpness of film is on the order of 50 to 10 lp/mm and the best lenses 100 to 200 lp/mm. But an 8″ x 10″ contact print is going to be five or six times sharper than an enlargement from a 35 mm camera. It’s simple physics and geometry.
Then I started to realize that while sharpness was one factor, the other was dynamic range as well as the artistry that Adams used as a master print maker. So I studied all of Adams’ books on photography, learning as much as I could about the zone system The problem then was two fold. First, 35 mm photography does not easily lend itself to the kind of one off negative development that the zone system requires. Second, it was all very costly. Photographic chemicals and paper were quite expensive and the arduous, albeit quite worthwhile, experimenting that is required of fine analogue printing burned through a lot of photographic paper and chemicals. Some of my best work in this analogue world still hang on my walls, and I continue to love them.
Being environmentally aware, and who isn’t who secretively believes that he should be wandering around the Sierra’s in quest of natures beauty, I was starting to get concerned about the ill effects of my darkroom materials. I was toning with selenium, leaving me with both that and nasty silver waste to deal with and I was using massive amounts of water to achieve the ideal “archival quality.”
It is in this regard that digital photography has been liberating for me. Using raw 14 to 16 bit file format and good metering the zone system can be applied frame by frame. ISO can also be changed frame by frame. You can even switch between color and black and white frame by frame. You start off with a linear look up table and then can mimic the response of any film, real or imagined that you like. You can dodge and burn at a level of detail that would be maddening in analogue photography.
So I am free at last to be Ansel Adams. One problem remains. Only Ansel Adams was Ansel Adams and he was a photographic genius!