Ansel Adams or Edward Weston: who is the better photographer?

Two of the most famous photographers during the 20th century were Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.  The two were friends, but their styles were distinctly different, although they often shared a similar approach when working.

Adams was obsessed with the technical minutia of his craft, going so far as to devise & catalog a system of tonal quality inherent in a photograph:  Adams’s technical mastery was the stuff of legend. More than any creative photographer, before or since, he reveled in the theory and practice of the medium. Weston and Strand frequently consulted him for technical advice. He served as principal photographic consultant to Polaroid and Hasselblad and, informally, to many other photographic concerns. Adams developed the famous and highly complex “zone system” of controlling and relating exposure and development, enabling photographers to creatively visualize an image and produce a photograph that matched and expressed that visualization. He produced ten volumes of technical manuals on photography, which are the most influential books ever written on the subject.

His “Zone System” delineated a range of tones between white and black, each zone separated by an f-stop, or the amount of light exposed to film determined by the aperture, or opening at the moment the shutter is released.  When I was a photography student in the mid 1980’s we were all using manual cameras and processing our own film and developing our own pictures.  The way I learned the craft was to break each procedure down to its component steps and repeat the steps over and over. This was an arduous process that was far removed from creativity, the stuff that got you into art school in the first place. I soon found myself taking short cuts, and you know what? The short cuts didn’t really matter.  I still cranked out decent images that were sometimes even really good. My friends that swore oaths to repetition and its glory just made me feel as though I was getting over on them.  And who knows?  Maybe I was only getting over on myself. Shortcuts can be their own end, I suppose.

I think that in any creative situation there will always be the Ansel Adams types who rely heavily on technique to achieve their ends, and the opposite type, those who rely on instinct to get the image they seek.  I think Edward Weston was the opposite of Ansel Adams.  Adams has written:

“Weston is, in the real sense, one of the few creative artists of today. He has recreated the matter-forms and forces of nature; he has made these forms eloquent of the fundamental unity of the world. His work illuminates man’s inner journey toward perfection of the spirit.”

I’m not really certain what Adams meant when he said that, but I think that the statement itself is indicative of Adams’ style. There is a lot of extraneous information here.  His work is gorgeous, look at that tree, it is beauty itself.  Could Adams have made that image without the vast catalog of the zone system?  I think so, but maybe he needed the extra intellectual boost that his theory gave him. Nothing as beautiful as art should be so easy.

Weston, on the other hand, could look at a green pepper and find its essence in a flash:  “To clearly express my feeling for life with photographic beauty, present objectively the texture, rhythm, form in nature, without subterfuge or evasion in technique or spirit, to record the quintessence of the object or element before my lens, rather than an interpretation, a superficial phase, or passing mood–this is my way in photography. It is not an easy way.”–Edward Weston

Or consider the chambered nautilus beside a humble artichoke.

Weston had extraordinary vision. Just like the deceptively simple line drawing, if you were to try to draw it yourself, you would realize just how difficult it could be to express such simplicity of form. Weston’s focus was enmeshed in the folds of his subjects.

Can you tell the difference between these two photographs?  They each have the same elements: smooth  sand, black shadows and patterned sand.  I’d have to actually see these pictures in person, but off hand I think I like the one on top the best.  The Adams photograph. The vantage point is from a distance, and each element is given a distinct amount of space within the frame.  You could ruminate more about this image & what it suggests;  the footsteps at the center of the picture, where did they come from and why do they end?  The Weston image places your eye directly into the frame.  You are the sand here.

The same can be said of this next sand dune photograph.  Again, you’re right in the frame.  There is no relief, so to speak.  You are the dune and the dune is you.

And the perspective on this smaller Adams image is, again, from a distance.  Ansel Adams’ work seems much more contemplative and distant, or removed from the essence of his subject. Ultimately it’s just a way of seeing and understanding something. Or, if I can borrow from someone much wiser than me, “Now, the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum, what might be right for you, may not be right for some. Because it takes, Diff’rent Strokes to move the world. Yes it does. It takes, Diff’rent Strokes to move the world.  Cue the song. Fade to black.


10 Responses to “Ansel Adams or Edward Weston: who is the better photographer?”

  1. I absolutely do not think it’s a case of who’s “better”. That’s a hugely subjective thing. It’s really “which photographer do you prefer?”

  2. Really good food for thought… excellent analysis. I always forget how gorgeous analog is compared to digital.

  3. Very interestng analysis of 2 really inspiring yet different bodies of work! Regarding the long lasting debate between analog vs digital, I would say that it deserves a full post !

    • Thanks Kalamir. I have been wondering about this difference between digital and analog for a long time. That the ease of achieving the imagery somehow cheapens the end result. Any thoughts on it? One of the previous comments mentions the difference, but I am not certain I know what the differences are. To me it’s all about the end results.

  4. this is very interesting it really helped me out with my homework 🙂

  5. What I find interesting is that both photographers were castigated by the larger photographic community during ww2 as neither of them chose to make any commentary images about the destruction or devastation this event created. Instead both chose to continue to create “beauty” in their photographs as they felt that this beauty would serve to nourish the soul in the face of such mass wanton destruction…this to me is dedication to their vision . As for who is the better…apples and oranges. Thanks for the blog.

    • Hi Gavin, thanks for your comment. I had no idea about the men, or their choices about supporting the war or not. That’s fascinating information, especially considering the two wars the US has been involved in these last 10 years. Hard to find any beauty, or nobility of any kind there. But then maybe it’s a generational reaction. I’ve thought a lot about Iraq & Afghanistan & wondered how the families who lost someone to these wars would feel. Not good, I’m guessing. It’s not at all like WWII, where there really was evil & terror, and those men and women (like my dad) saved us, saved the world.

      As for Adams & Weston, they are representative of two classic approaches to artistic creation. I am more attuned to Weston’s style. How about you?

      Thanks again for writing.

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