The World Doesn’t Need Another Ansel Adams

«Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.» – Oscar Wilde

We all have our heroes. We all have our role models. Be it in arts or in other aspects of life. And that is all fine. The hardest part, though, is to break ties with those heroes. Particularly in arts. To find our own voice takes courage and determination. It takes consciousness and willingness to do those first stumbling steps on our own. Finding your own voice may take some time to develop. But there is no way around it if your want to become true to your own vocation, if you want to become a true artist. It’s just like the child breaking ties with its parents to become a grown-up himself – or herself.

As artists we have all copied others at some point in our creative training. That’s but natural. We learn by copying. One of the great artists may have been the inspiration for our own pursuit of artistic development. And we may have gained momentum by this artist’s vision. But there comes a time to break away. There comes a time to stand on our own, because we don’t want to remain copycats the rest of our lives. That is when your artistic vision starts to develop, and that’s when you start to develop your own artistic style. If you don’t make this initial break, you will always stay in the shadow of your heroes – and nobody will ever care about your arts. No success of any other artist will help you become successful yourself, no matter how good you are at copying their way of seeing, their way of doing and their way of expressing. If you are as good as Ansel Adams doing what he did, no one will ever see anything but his influence on your work – if at all they will cast a glance on your work.

In his book «The Accidental Creative – How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice», the writer and creative consultant Todd Henry opens the last chapter with the title «Cover Bands Don’t Change the World». The same could be said about any arts – our arts. If we don’t free ourselves from our heroes, we will never be able to impact anyone with our arts; in fact it will hardly be worth the term art at all.

Henry continues: «It’s my desire to continue to strive to find my own voice and to weed out all the places where I’m being “cover-bandish”. This can be very tricky because it often means turning down more work than I accept, but my hope is that the original value that I bring to the clients I chose to work with will create raving “fans” who want to continue to work with me and trust me when I develop new products or ideas.»

Back when I started out pursuing a photographic career one of my heroes was Ansel Adams. I thought his black and white landscape pictures spoke directly to my heart. I was very impressed with his way of bringing out details and tones in all parts of the landscape and his dramatic visual language. He inspired me to learn about the Zone System – and needless to say, my pictures started to look very much like his – if far from as good. In my case breaking loose happened by itself, simply because I lost interest in landscape pictures and moved on to other fields. Of course I found other role models, but then I was already more conscious about my own vocation and my own way of seeing.

Be yourself. I much prefer seeing something, even if it’s clumsy, that doesn’t look like somebody else’s work. – William Klein.

A few years ago the magazine Wired had an article about 10 photographs one should ignore. One of them was no other than Ansel Adams. The writer Blake Andrews wrote about him: «Adams created some remarkable images and he wrote the book (literally) on photographic technique. Yet on the whole he’s probably done more harm than good for photography. How many young photographers have fussed over which zone to put the shadows in while the light fades and the photo disappears? More importantly, how many perfectly exposed black and white vistas of snow-capped peaks or rivers snaking into the background do we need to see? Yes, nature is majestic. We get it. Saint Ansel showed us, and he did it better than you ever will, so move on already or we’ll score your performance as a negative.» Point made, I should add.

To sum up my point then: The world doesn’t need another Ansel Adams. It needs a genuine you.

On a different note: For the next two weeks I will take some time off from blogging – I am actually gonna have some holidays, padling and travelling and visiting friends. But alas, by mid July I will be back blogging again. See you again then. Have a great summer (if you are in the northern hemisphere) or great winter (for those of you in the southern hemisphere).

77 thoughts on “The World Doesn’t Need Another Ansel Adams

  1. Yep! Be Yourself! However:)… ” I have seen and experienced enough things to say that Difference leads to hatred and discrimination” quote from Henry Beyle, as Stendhal (1830). that means a lot to me, since that still makes sense nowadays : Unfortunately!! Enjoy a great Summer Otto and have a Sunny Holiday!:)

  2. You are right! As you pointed out in this post, I can see other field than photography too now. I have watched singing contests on TV (I am sure you’ve seen too) and the commentators always mention a point to bringing your own style into the songs the contestants choose to sing (they do not have songs of their own yet). In music, this also runs true.

  3. Unless you get in a rut and keep doing the same things over and over (errors included…), doesn’t that go for your whole life, who you are? I see around me a lot of people who do one good thing at a certain moment of their lives – and then keep on repeating it on and on… But trying NOT to be that way can also become the next train tracks you get stuck on… Or you loose yourself in too much flexibility, openness, too much searching… Hazards of life, translated into photography? 🙂

  4. I couldn’t agree with you more about copying our heroes. Learn from them, but we all need to be our own person. I hope you have a great vacation!

  5. Intriguing and powerful image. Your theme is great advice. To discover one’s individual voice can be a lifelong quest, but worth the hard work. Have a joyful and memorable r & r.

  6. Everyone chases the best artists. We see it more so in painting, or sculpture. But I 100% agree, you have to have your own style to stand out.

    1. As I have said in other comments, it’s completely fine to have role models and even copying them in the process of learning. At some point, though, we need to find our own way.

  7. I wonder if truly creative artists actually asked themselves, what is my artistic voice. This kind of thinking could bog one down. Isn’t it best to take risks, keep pushing and doing the work from the heart and stop comparing and defining?

    1. You are right, in that we cannot really shape our own voice consciously. The only way to make it happen is to keep working from the heart as you say and not so much look to others’ work.

  8. Otto, Well said as usual. Todd Henry has great words to ponder and he resonates with me. As for Ansel Adams, a photo genius back in the day I was in a darkroom developing film. I can appreciate his talents and digital snap shots and post processing can’t be compared in the same room. Have a great holiday. I miss my blogging days and get inspired by you and others to get back.

  9. I’m going to have to say that I find the concept of someone else dictating my own artistic path to be rather wrong-headed…
    “… so move on already or we’ll score your performance as a negative.”
    Well, who died and made them the photo fashion police?!?

    To try and tell someone else that they can’t be ‘cool’ and ‘with it’, unless they never try to learn things by trying to emulate the masters, is to ensure that we forget the lessons of the past.

    Yes there comes a time to break away, to step out on your own.
    But I’ll be damned if I’m going to live by someone else’s timeline.

    Fashionistas exist in every endeavor.
    It doesn’t follow that they are necessarily correct.

    1. I hope you don’t take my post as trying to dictate anyone’s creative path. Anyone will have to find their own way. My point is the same as yours, it seems to me, that at some point it’s time to break away find one’s own approach.

  10. To try to stay different from Robert Bateman and Glen Loates, I used to make most of my wildlife illustrations in graphite. I became such a fan a of Boris Vallejo that much of my fantasy art began to look like his. I literally had to stop looking at the work of the artists I admire for a long while so that I could retain unique aesthetics, which is so important to me.

    I find staying original is even harder to do in photography. There are only so many techniques that can be used in each genre, and they’ve all been used by someone else before. As difficult as it is, it’s still important to try to distinguish oneself.

    1. I think staying original is always difficult. Of course, there is only a limited amount of techniques and everything has already been done before. But no one has done it with you vision – that’s really what makes the difference. Maybe the most difficult part of being original is not keep copying oneself over time. 🙂

  11. Thanks for the inspiring post and the very powerful photo. I think the journey to authentic art is… to let everything that is not you fall way and yet some how honor all that has made us who we.
    I’ll be checking out Todd Henry’s book always looking for inspiring reads.

    Have a wonderful trip!

  12. Interesting piece. I wish everybody a lot of originality in their creativity. Nobody is interested in copys… i think. It is annoying.
    Have a nice holiday! See you later.

  13. Such a wonderful post Otto. Thank you for giving this new photographer more food for thought…
    Enjoy your holiday 💐🌝🌝

  14. A brilliant article Otto. I have to admit, perhaps to my shame, I have spent little or no time looking at photographs taken by other people. I just got out there and started taking my pictures and people liked them. I developed a photographic voice organically without inputs to use an agricultural analogy. I now have books about Bresson, who’s work I love. I have a book of Ansel Adams work but don’t know about the zone system. I also have a couple of books by Mapplethorpe whose flowers and nudes are so powerful. I enjoy looking at the photographs but I don’t try and imitate them. I found my voice and don’t see a need to change it. Perhaps I’ve been lucky but my advice to anybody, as this article so brilliantly highlights, is get out there, take pictures and find yourself. Enjoy your holiday Otto! 🙂

    1. Your advice is really the best, just get out there and do the work. Eventually you will find yourself. Your development as a photographer feels genuine and true to yourself. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience, Adrian.

  15. Bra skrivet, som vanligt…och så sant. För en som är utpräglad ensamvarg och egensinnig, ter det sig näst intill obegripligt, att det finns så många som behöver en “ledare”…en stark person att efterapa.
    Hoppas att många läser dina rader och tar till sig av dessa! Världen behöver självständiga och unika kreatörer…inte dåliga kopior.
    Hoppas att du/ni har en fin sommar!
    Själv är jag snart, on the road again…Svalbard nästa, via Enare träsk, Honningsvåg och Tromsö…

    1. Du har så rett, Gertie, det vi trenger er selvstendige og unike kunstnere. Ser av FB at du er på Svalbard og har hatt en fantastisk tur. Fortsatt god sommer til deg og.

  16. Hi Otto, I don’t think there is any chance of me being another Ansel Adams hehe, I go out of my way to be ridiculous with my boring photography… I had this AWESOME idea that totally made me laugh today, since my body doesn’t enable me to get out much, and we no longer have a sectional couch for me to take zillions of pictures of my husband lying on it, and we don’t take road trips anymore to find things that would look good blurry… i thought ‘well, if i watch movies, that’s like taking mental roadtrips, what if i watch for bits in it that would make a good photograph, HAHAHA, bad and blurry photographs lol, not something that would be recognizable as any given movie, but just as a slice of life, only not my life, except that i see it’ 🙂 i posted the first pic in my blog tonight, and i’m still giggling about it…. if you can think of any better ideas on how to be a bad photographer, i’m open to them *snarfle*

    1. I am glad that you will not become another Ansel Adams. The photography world need you as you are. But I am sorry to read that your body doesn’t allow you to get much out. However, I am sure whatever way you find to shoot it will end up being an expression I have come to appreciate very much. I wish you all the best in getting back on your feet. 🙂

  17. Ansel Adams’ photographs show me places I’ll never see, as HE saw them. You show me people, places, and things I’ll never see, as YOU see them. The riveting photo above is a perfect example. What a waste it would have been if you had stuck to imitating Ansel!
    PS – Hope you’re having a wonderful summer break and enjoying adventures and relaxation with your loved ones.

  18. This is such a wise post. It also reminded me of my favorite article about Ansel Adams and his days as a young, urban photographer in Los Angeles. Whenever I get discouraged, I look at the double exposure at the bowling alley that’s shown in the article, and laugh. Then, I ponder: could he have been just messing around, and doing the kind of experimentation you recommend? That’s a fun thought, too.

  19. Something I like about your writing Otto, it’s the way you convey great truths with simple words based in your experiences.
    I do not care what art any person may it pursue, those who cannot escape copying, and imitation, will never gain their true Self,
    As you mention t’s understandable to like, and be inspired by certain famous artist, but at one point we have to break away, and be our own self, and do our own thing, unfortunately there are some who even if good at imitating, never take a step beyond, like if the world need another Elvis?
    Despite the legions who devote their life to impersonating him!
    Sadly it resemble an immature, childish fixation, from someone who never grew up, and find his own voice, and ultimately his own self.
    Thank you for this great piece. 🙂

    1. It is sad when artists don’t take that step forward to finding their own voice – at least if they have a craving for it. The world certainly don’t need another Elvis, but then, on the other hand, if that makes somebody happy to impersonate him, why not…

  20. Exactly! In my case I idolized Karsh. He was brilliant. Yet, I was never one to shoot black and white if I didn’t have to. I never wanted to recreate what he did. I wanted to recreate the feeling he gave people when they saw his work, with my own.

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