In Adams's photographs the West is an abstract notion more appropriately understood in its transformation as photograph than in its actuality. Expression is more important than reality, idea more important than fact, the print more important than its subject. For it is only in the print that such magnificence can be unfailingly orchestrated. "Twelve photographs that matter in a year is a good crop for any photographer," Adams once said. An infinite number of visual confrontations with the landscape produces only twelve epiphanies.
For the early Western photographers the transformation from reality to print happened naturally and without premeditation. The nature of the photographic process determined the print's intrinsic color, range of contrast, and tonalities. When the early printing processes changed from calotype to albumen and then to chloride and chloro-bromide, the surface and tonal qualities of the printed image shifted as well. These changes were made not for aesthetic or idealistic reasons but because of the availability, technical expediency, and relative permanence of each process. While some photographers had one or two technical tricks up their sleeves that helped give their prints a distinctive tonal character, it was not until Stieglitz began to champion photography as a fine art that photographers became conscious of the print as an aesthetic and controllable object. Stieglitz's abiding concern with "print quality" was passed on to Strand and Weston. Walker Evans looked with disdain on their concern with control and finish. "As in typography and printing," he said, "technique shouldn't arrest you." But for Adams, as for Stieglitz, "every print ... is a new experience" requiring a special procedure to bring out its essential meaning.
The sense of the presence of the eternal world in Adams's photographs is achieved not only by his constant choice of sublime moments and viewpoints, but also by his legendary technical brilliance, which transforms an ordinary scene into a luminescent, fully realized, precious object.
To effect the formal purity and the transformations he desired, Adams developed the most careful, rigorously thought-out system of photographic control known to the field photographer: the Zone System. Adams wanted to go beyond conventional photographic recording, which, in his own words, is at best "acceptable though perhaps uninspired" and create a statement "acute and creatively expressive." In the Zone System, he engineered a technique by which the photographer could manipulate the photograph's internal tones without distorting essential photographic description. By means of filtration, development, and print controls, contrast could be heightened or softened and the placement of object values along the tonal scale could be predetermined by the photographer before the shutter was released. Thus a sand dune seen at sunrise could be transformed into an almost abstract composition of hard-edged black-and-white forms, a lone tree branch on the shore of Mono Lake could be made to stand out as if spotlit against a luminescent, floating background, and the north sky beyond Yosemite's Half Dome could be rendered a rich, velvet black. By using the Zone System, the photographer can darken those areas that in actuality provide an overabundance of distracting detail, lighten areas deep within natural shade, and intensify, simplify, or almost utterly obliterate the relationships between land, clouds, sea, rocks, foliage, and sky. Adams found in this system the answer that pictorialists in photography had long been seeking: a means of controlling the optical, mechanical medium with the same finesse the painter managed with the brush and palette.
In Adams's work, then, the American vision of the spirituality of the West is realized through careful and conscious use of advanced technology. This union of technology, nature, and spirit derives from the nineteenth-century's belief that technology could be a means of achieving America's spiritual destiny. Art, technology, and religion joined in the common cause of controlling, defining, and recording nature in order to gain both economic advantage and spiritual truth. Adams's photographs derive their power by restating those grand aspects of the landscape that were already a part of American consciousness. Unlike Stieglitz, Strand, or Minor White, who would follow him, Adams does not use the new technology to search into the motives or forces behind the obvious. He seems oblivious to the exploitation, plunder, and technological destruction that made the West accessible to the white man. Rather, the grand and obvious are generalized to the point where they become the ideal.
The formalism that pervades Adams's work relates directly to his belief in technology. For Adams, technology is redemptive. He can even sell automobiles on television with a straight face and a clear conscience. Indeed, it seems at times that Adams relies more on technology than on vision. Of all the major American photographers, he is the most inconsistent. When his work succeeds it is breathtaking. When it fails it becomes mere finger exercises in the Zone System, work that is decorative and cloying.
Adams's work is in the Puritan grain: straight and rigorously conservative. His obsession with technological control also displays another fundamental American trait-a trait we have also seen in Stieglitz's work and will see in Steichen's-an aggressive, acquisitive, inventive preoccupation with engineering and the practical uses of new technology. As de Tocqueville pointed out in a chapter of Democracy in America entitled "Why Americans Prefer the Practice Rather than the Theory of Science," the emphasis in the United States has always been on "useful knowledge." In the nineteenth century, America imported almost all of the major scientific ideas from Europe, but the widest applications of these ideas to common life were made here. This was especially true in photography. At the birth of photography American daguerreotypists quickly became the most inventive practitioners of the new medium. Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor and portrait painter, played a significant role in the introduction of photography into this country, and other major American inventors - Thomas Edison, George Eastman, and Edwin Land - made significant contributions to photography's capability and popularity. Today there is an unparalleled exploration by younger photographers into the image-generating possibilities of a variety of electronic, electrostatic, and mechanical reproduction methods.
Adams's concern with craft, technique, and reproduction quality helped initiate wide participation in expressive photography. He has shared his insights in numerous books and articles. His first technical manual, Making a Photograph (1935), contained the most accurate photographic reproductions since Stieglitz's Camera Work. And the Basic Photo Series (1948-1956) dispelled the atmosphere of alchemy surrounding photographic technique, allowing any photographer to produce a fine print.
Yet Adams's standardization of photography as a set of scientifically explainable and repeatable processes has also been strongly challenged. Much of the aesthetic ferment in the sixties can be seen as a response to Adams's teaching, particularly his notion of previsualization. For some photographers the use of the Zone System has been a badge of honor; others have questioned the whole idea. Jerry Uelsmann introduced the concept of postvisualization, in which the final photograph is synthesized in the darkroom from many negatives. And Garry Winogrand has cantankerously announced on many occasions, "I don't have anything to say in any picture. My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions."
In our gallery of archetypal heroes, Adams fits well into the role of the American nineteenth-century engineer. Like the great builders of that age, he uses his knowledge of science for the aesthetic and spiritual welfare of man.