When I was in school at RIT I had a class which required us to visit the photography archives in the library, where I discovered the little broadcast fact that we had easy access to 16 original Ansel Adam’s prints.
Frankly this class was a little hippy dippy for my taste. Imagine my surprise when I was expecting our professor to pull out a piece of flamboyant high brow concept art, and instead was greeted by an archivist in white gloves holding this beautiful photograph:
Ansel Adams - Tenaya Creek, Spring Rain, 1948
In my textbooks, I learned density was the relationship between the amount of light coming to the film plane and the amount of light recorded on the film plane. Or:
Density = log(Opacity)
So long story short, if you record a lot of light, you’ve achieved good density. Of course there are more ways to break this down - the more artfully you capture a subtle range of tones, the more control you have, and the deeper your photo becomes. This makes sense and is a very straightforward explanation. But it certainly doesn’t leave me breathlessly wanting to make more photographs; density is just a measurement.
Looking at that photograph took my breath away. I knew the equation for density but this photo made me feel density like an emotion in my chest. It felt so well exposed, was such a well weighted image I could imagine dipping a hand in and pulling out a pool of dark ink… with still enough tonal range left on the page to create a landscape.
That is what good photography can do. It captures such a range of light, it leaves room for a viewer to pull a pool out, fall in, and still enough tones remains for the rest of the world to take a dip. An endlessly generous document.
That was three years ago this month. I’m still lost in that photograph.