Steichen across the salt marshes
Across the salt marshes
© Edward Steichen

First of all I must underline that having prints with deep blacks and bright whites is not a need a priori. I would willingly call this rule malediction ofAnsel Adams. Probably an unintentional malediction, as Ansel Adams repeatedly sustained the interpretative freedom of each photographer towards its own expressive research inside the dark room.

La previsualizzazione è più precisamente vista come un’attitudine nei confronti della fotografia, piuttosto che come un dogma. Si assume che il fotografo abbia una totale libertà di espressione, in nessun modo ristretta dalla mia idea, o da quella di chiunque l’altro, di cosa sia l’arte.

Ansel Adams

Steichen Balzac, silouette 4am
Balzac, silouette 4am
© Edward Steichen

Despite this clear position, there’s no doubt that the invention of the zonal system and the print habits of Ansel Adams extremely influenced generations of photographers. Ansel Adams states that this is his way to take pictures and he only wants to give his apprentices the technical knowledge to express their own sensibility, not orthodoxy on how to print. And yet his never-ending researches on how to obtain the deepest blacks, the clearest whites, the maximum details inside shadows and lights, produced and still produce multitudes of emulous. His personal aesthetic and expressive research has been translated into assumed doctrine as absolute truth.

Steichen Gordon Craig
Gordon Craig
© Edward Steichen

Evolved amateur photographers seem to be infected by the Ansel Adams malediction, in such a way that they loose sight of the image content as well, sacrificed for the extreme rendering of black and white. Ansel Adams malediction is one of that bewitching that created as much troubles as anything else in photography history, tying expressive creativity and freedom in a formal and standard research of the “best print”. Disciples of Ansel Adams school take pictures that are identical to each other; often they look equal also in the thematic more than the printing characteristics. Photographers of a higher level seem to better exorcise the malediction, at least talking about the excessive details at the end of the tonal range, or the renounce to one of the two extremes, in the lowkey and highkey images. But Steichen prints, where blacks and whites are contemporaneously missing, obtaining flat, gray and less contrasted images, are nowadays the most rare.

Steichen The big white cloud
The big white cloud
© Edward Steichen

Still the research of black and white shouldn’t be an assumption a priori. Photography rules have been invented only for a didactic purpose; it would be appropriate to remember that they should be interpreted as a vade-mecum of causes and effects. Composing the image with a centered subject gives the idea of immobility. Clean whites give the idea of purity. The contrast augments the image drama, pushing its limits means obtaining pure graphical effects. A portrait cut at the neck gives the idea of a decapitated head. And so on; but none of these “expedients” is “wrong”. The first Steichen’s pictures, delicate platinum prints that play on soft gray tones, subtle nuances, almost readable and velvety shadows, all have a particularly sweet and touching atmosphere.

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