Interesting quote from Ansel Adams

I posted this to another (off-PIXLS) forum but thought it might be interesting to some here in the Lounge.

I bought a used copy of Examples – The Making of 40 Photographs (1983, by Ansel Adams) which arrived just today. It initially looked like an interesting book and sure enough, not even one full page into Adams’ introduction (never mind the images just yet) did he say something that resonates strongly with me.

That resonance may seem a little strange if I mention my university degree was in Fine Arts. Admittedly – Graphic design was my emphasis, not photography, but I took a couple of photo courses among others more than forty years ago. It was a general arts degree, not just graphic design. The school isn’t a prestigious art institute but rather a smaller public liberal arts university in northeast Louisiana. Later, after working in graphic design for sixteen years, I made a hard turn into IT at age 38 where I spent the balance of my forty-year career. (That change was a very practical one, by the way.)

But still, I identify with the arts in general and I get it. Although I do tend to be a bit analytical at times (to the bemusement of many of my fellow students and faculty – “An analytical artist??”), being analytical doesn’t preclude feelings nor sensitivity. I understand and value artistic expression.

But I digress. :upside_down_face:

Anyway… here’s the quote:

    Absent from these pages are statements of what the photographs "mean". I cannot, and will not, attempt to describe, analyze, or define the creative-emotional motivation of my work, or the work of others. Description of the inspiration or the meaning of a work of photography, or of any other medium of art, lies in the work itself. The endless discussions of creativity appear to me to be pointless intellectual carousels; their purpose seems more the presenting of burnt offerings and worshiping of modish identifications than the achieving of mutual enlightenment. I hope that my creative and technical standards are supported in this book more through my images than through my dissertations.

I have to say I can particularly identify with Adams’ reaction to the discussions of creativity and meaning in art, even if I honestly can’t identify with his artistic capabilities – If indeed that even needs to be pointed out.

Just thought it was interesting.


It really is that straightforward and obvious.

If your idea could be expressed in it’s entirety with a explanatory paragraph or by means of discussion then the piece itself has no reason for being. You make an image, whether it be with paint or a camera, or music, or anything else to express something that cannot be expressed any other way.

By extension of course, not all images are art.


Back when I used to actually consider submitting art to competitions (photography, paintings or otherwise) it used to bug me no end when they asked for accompanying paragraphs to detail the meaning of the work. The work should speak for itself, I thought. It should not be judged on its accompanying spiel, but on the quality of art. Sadly, too often, that did not seem to be the case.

When walking through the Tate modern art gallery in London I was quite impressed by the number of artists who could make a plain coloured canvas sound like the most meaningful thing in the world, and really thought they’d missed their true calling - creative writing.


I have always been inspired by the work of Ansel Adams. As you work your way through his book you will come to see he has photographed some very ordinary scenes, but through his vision and technical skills to print the image with significant manipulation he creates a piece of inspiring art. Albeit, the manipulation was mainly dodging and burning to draw the viewers attention to the points of interest.

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As have I, which is why I got the book. It’s also interesting how he shot people / portraits – They’re almost like “human landscapes”, typically with great DOF, sharp focus, lots of detail and often non-spontaneous.

How can you/we know?

Whatever we may mean by “art” (and I think there are several facets of the term that we need to discern between), there is also a fundamental question whether it springs out of the creator’s intentions, some more objectivised evaluation of what is presented how, or from the experience elicited within the viewer which is again quite dependent on context.

If the viewer somehow plays a part, is there then anything we can state about what is art with certainty/generality?

EDIT: @lphilpot: Thanks for the quote! I shall add it to my collection of photo quotes. :slight_smile:

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“Art is whatever you can get away with.”

I think Abraham Lincoln said that. (Tip of the hat to Bob Dylan.)

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Well, it is not listed among quotes on art by AL, but a search on the net finds it attributed to Marshall McLuhan, John Cage, as well as Andy Warhole …

If I remember even slightly correctly from 45+ years ago, the definition we were given in college was, “Art is a form of expression giving order to one’s reaction to his or her environment.

Probably not too far off, if maybe less than cool. :slight_smile:

Your point reminds me of when I entered a national photo competition last year. I didn’t win anything, but did get an interview/critique session afterwards.

When I entered online, there was a space for a text waffle about each shot. I left it blank, thinking ‘I’m no good at words - why would I want to speak for the photos?’
In the feedback session he mentioned that some context and description would have helped the judges, and that it’s always good to have.

I dunno…

When Duchamp can submit a urinal to an art exhibition, the meaning of the word art becomes very broad indeed…


well I’m not really trying to say it’s necessary or even possible to classify things as art or otherwise in a general sense, because as you say the viewer is an important part of the equation.

if we were going to start excluding things however I think Soupy has identified a decent enough place to start with this great comment:

You and OP are on a hiding to nothing with art competitions, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms I don’t know what is.

The art world is probably even worse than the film industry, gatekeepers with bizarre agendas around every corner.


Yep… that was my first and probably last!

My art education was a BFA from a small university, specializing in graphic design. I.e., nothing special. But I very quickly lost (whatever little) interest in the local “art scene”. It seemed to consist mostly of two types:

  • Unemployed self-important name-dropper tortured artistes who saw far more value in their work than virtually anyone else.

  • Middle-aged Junior Leaguers with too much free time on their hands, who hung around the local museum, drank coffee and wine spritzers, discussed “Art”, planned their next social event and probably needed – more than anything else – an actual job.

Despite the semi-snarky sound of that, I have no problem with art expression that’s outside the norm, etc. (as long as it’s not truly off the rails in a societal / moral sense). I’m not tied to literal realism, “proper” art and so forth. For example, using @Soupy’s example upthread, I have no problem with Duchamp’s “Fountain”, but I also have little interest in it. If someone else came along and did the same, it would be worthlessly derivative, but at least Duchamp can say he was the first. If someone else likes it, fine (really). Kind of the “You call that art? My six year old could’ve done that!!” criticism to which the answer is, “Yeah but he didn’t”… I get that, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it all. Kinda like Vasarely’s op art – Initially interesting to a degree but not what I’d want to ingest on a continual basis.

Anyway, what I got primarily tired of in the local scene was the thin veneer of Art covering boredom, immaturity and lack of creativity. Bob Ross was far more honest. If you wanna paint ducks tipping in over a lake, then by all means enjoy yourself. They may even be very good, beautiful paintings. Just don’t try to pass them off as groundbreaking major works if / when they’re not.

Then again after 16 years in “creative” work (more or less), I took a hard turn into IT for the next 24. So much for art, eh? :smiley: It appears I’ve kinda settled on some level of photography as my creative avenue. Trying to play guitar with (in any musical context) nearly non-existent pitch recognition pretty much ruled out music, my best choice.

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That’s so relatable, although I’m very wary of talking much about this sort of thing.

I have zero formal artistic education, unless you count growing up in a household filled with books, pictures, music and so on. My mum loved all those…

But the local art scene around here, (small town Australia) somehow to me has a very strong flavour of something I can’t quite define. Somehow a certain kind of small mindedness to it.

Anyway, as I said I don’t feel qualified to comment, but I have always found it off-putting to the point that I have no involvement at all with the local galleries, shows, etc.

I may just be eccentric and unsociable. :sweat_smile:

I’ve just turned into a Crotchety Old Fart. Get off my grass… :stuck_out_tongue:


Yeah, I know that feeling. But just the same there can also be a condescending “big mindedness” as well. I guess my solution is to be self-aware that I’m small brained and not too bright. LOL Maybe then I can grow a little bit, now and then. I think I’m sort of a practical, pragmatic person who nonetheless likes creativity and (in some small manner) occasionally surprising others by interrupting my dull stream-of-usefulness with something from left field.

Or not. :smiley:

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Exactly! I would hate to be smug or condescending, especially as I’m well aware that I’d just look daft. :laughing:
(It’s not too hard to imagine that, with my mild social anxiety and slightly introverted nature)

Yea, I was just joking. I always believed it was Andy Warhol.

Talkin’ World War III Blues
Bob Dylan

“Half the people can be part right all of the time and
Some of the people can be all right part of the time but
All the people can’t be all alright all of the time
I think Abraham Lincoln said that
“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”, I said that.”