Reythan Harmanci wrote a fascinating piece in the November 10, 2010 New York Times (Art Section) about the ongoing controversy over a set of photographs that a Rick Norsigian is trying to sell or license. These photos have been valued (overvalued, I'd say) at $200 million if they are the work of Ansel Adams. Adams' authorship of these photos is in dispute. (I won’t get into the details of the dispute here.) What's interesting for the moment, is that the article lets us compare an actual Adams photo to two similar ones, by another photographer, Arthur C. Pillsbury, and by either Adams or a certain Earl Brooks, a photo from the disputed Norsigian collection. (The photos are easier to compare in the actual paper edition of the Times. If you're following this story on an iPad, too bad for you.)
Examine these three photos and look at the art. The Pillsbury and Norsigian photos concentrate on the brooding image of a windswept tree. The tree itself is darkened to grab all our attention. It is almost devoid of detail. Land is visible in these two pictures. The slope of the land adds nothing to the drama of the tree. If anything, the land detail in these two photos detracts from the more simplistic tree. (If you’re sympathetic, you might say ‘contrast’ rather than ‘detract’.
In the Pillsbury picture, lots of clouds are visible. They do not echo or frame the shape of the tree. A curving line sweeps across the picture, created by the cloud-bottoms, adding disharmony.
The Norsigian photo is also full of clouds. The white clouds add a happiness that contradicts the tree. Faint black shapes at the top of the picture include figures so regular, they seem out of place. (These shapes are much easier to see online, not in the paper.)
Ansel Adams was an artist who created extraordinary art from landscape. A discerning eye and genius in the darkroom begins where the other two photos leave off, and soars into the realm of great art. There are almost no clouds in the Ansel photo. Probably there were clouds, but he blocked them out because they looked wrong. The remaining cloud highlights a sort of ‘offset’, a branch leaning the wrong way that cleverly sets off the tree, producing a cantilevered effect that is much more interesting than a ‘lean.’ Ansel’s tree is not darkened to the point where it carries the total impact of the photo. It has detail, detail echoed by groundshapes and shadows. A great artist, in my opinion, made only one of these photographs.