Beauty, Purpose. Adams versus Lange

Watched the Ric Burns documentary on Ansel Adams, which places great emphasis on the photographer’s concern over environmental issues. No surprise, given that the documentary was co-produced by the Sierra Club. Adams, generally, eschewed "social responsibility" in photography, instead favoring "beauty and expression," according to Drew Heath Johnson. Johnson quotes a letter from Adams to his friend Dorothea Lange, characterizing the disagreement between photographers such as those in Group f64 and documentary photographers like Lange and Walker Evans.

Dear Dorothea, Photography when it tells the truth, is magnificent, but it can be twisted, deformed, restricted and compromised more than any other art. Because what is before the lens always has the illusion of reality; but what is selected and put before the lens can be as false as any totalitarian lie. . . . The connotations of much of documentary photography are — to me — quite rigid. . . .

I resent being told that certain things have significance. . . . I resent being manipulated into a politico-social formula of thought and existence. I resent the implications that unless photography has a politico-social function it is not of value to people at large. I resent the the very obvious dislike of elements of beauty. . . . I think it is just as important to bring to people the evidence of the beauty of the world of nature and of man as it is to give them a document of ugliness, squalor and despair. . . .

You happen to be one of the very few who has brought enough deeply human emotion into your work to make it bearable for me. I wish you would try and think of yourself as a fine artist — which you are; that is a damn sight more important to the world than being merely an extension of a sociological movement. Love, Ansel

Henri Cartier-Bresson, taking into account the turbulence of the Great Depression and World War II, was critical of this approach, noting: "The world is going to pieces, and people like Adams and [Edward] Weston are photographing rocks!" Johnson argues that Adams was unapologetic, saying in another letter to Lange: "I am not afraid of the term ‘beauty.’ By it, I do not mean prettiness. I mean intensity and clarity. I cannot see how the omission of beauty achieves anything."

Oddly, the Burns documentary, does not mention Adams’ work covering the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Moreover, while it notes Adams’ friendship with Weston, it does not make any mention of his friendship with Lange, who was just as unapologetic in her stance about purpose in art.

Everything is propaganda for what you believe in actually. I don’t see that it could be otherwise. The harder and the more deeply you believe in anything, the more in a sense you’re a propagandist. Conviction, propaganda, faith, I don’t know, I never have been able to come to the conclusion that’s a bad word.

Technorati Tag(s) – photography.

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