April 10, 2012

Monolith, The Face of Half Dome by Ansel Adams

Monolith, The Face of Half Dome
Yosemite National Park, California
Photography by Ansel Adams
April 10, 1927
©2012 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust


Exactly eighty-five years ago today a group of five close friends left Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley on an eventful climbing and photography journey. The group consisted of Ansel Adams and his fiancé Virginia Best, along with friends Charlie Michael, Arnold Williams, and Cedric Wright. I wonder if any of those individuals realized the significance that day would have on the vision and eventual career of the young photographer Ansel Adams when they began their trip early on that chilly spring morning.

Ansel was carrying his 6-1/2 x 8-1/2-inch Korona view camera, two lenses, two filters, his wooden tripod, and twelve heavy Wratten panchromatic glass plates. Their destination was an outcrop nearly 3,500 feet above the Valley floor known as the Diving Board. The group started up LeConte Gully under the north face of Grizzly Peak. Even today there is no trail as such. Ansel had chosen to carry glass plates for his view camera because that was the only way he could access the relatively recent introduction of panchromatic emulsions for his 6-1/2 x 8-1/2 camera. At that point films were available in that format, but they were only available with orthochromatic sensitivity. I find it interesting that the youthful and enthusiastic Ansel Adams was working with the latest photographic technology at the time. Little did he know that his recently acquired filters and this new type of emulsion technology would give him the tools to change his photographic vision forever.

The group arrived at their destination just before noon while the face of Half Dome was still in shade. According to Ansel, “The sun moved onto the face in early afternoon.” At that point Ansel had just two glass plates remaining - all of the others had already been exposed. He set up his view camera with his Tessar lens and exposed the first glass plate, using a Wratten No. 8 (K2) yellow filter. This produced a fairly literal interpretation of the scene with a middle gray sky. For the first time ever Ansel realized that this was not going to be the equivalent of what he saw, and even more importantly what he felt, the massive face of Half Dome. Ansel replaced the yellow filter with his only other filter, a deep red Wratten No.29 (F) filter that dramatically darkened the sky and created an image of simple austere abstract beauty. Ansel wrote about this experience in his Autobiography: “I felt I had accomplished something, but did not realize its significance until I developed the plate that evening. I had achieved my first true visualization!” In other words, he imagined the final print in his mind’s eye and then took the necessary steps to achieve that image.

The result is one of my favorite Ansel Adams photographs - Monolith, The Face of Half Dome. This image along with two others made earlier that day was included in his first portfolio: Parmelian Prints of the High Sierra. So, not only did he make an image that remained important to Ansel throughout his entire life, on that same day he made three meaningful photographs starting with only twelve glass plates!

Ansel himself was deeply attached to the Monolith image and said in his book Examples, “I can still recall the excitement of seeing the visualization “come true” when I removed the plate from the fixing bath for examination. The desired values were all there in their beautiful negative interpretation. This was one of the most exciting moments of my photographic career.”

Though Ansel was asked countless times what his favorite photograph was, he never answered the question directly. In the years that I knew and worked with him, his repeated reply was a simple statement that he borrowed from his long-time friend Imogen Cunningham, (always giving her credit): “The one I’m going to make tomorrow.” I believe that April 10, 1927 was a benchmark for Ansel and it led to many successful images, as the tomorrows unfolded into a rich and productive photographic career.

I am certain that none of those intrepid adventurers could have imagined the impact that one of the images made that day would have on the world of photography, art, and the general public. Monolith, Ansel’s first visualization, is as effective and contemporary today as it was when Ansel made the image eighty-five years ago.

–John Sexton
April 10, 2012




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