Ansel Adams and Lemon Cake

Public Domain: Tetons by Ansel Adams, 1942 (National Parks Service/NARA)

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved my Aunt Olga’s lemon cake. It’s one of those things that crop up on the occasional birthday or special occasion, and it tastes like nothing else in the world. Well, one time I asked for, and was lucky enough to get, the recipe for that lemon cake. I’ve tried making it a few times over the years, and while it’s been competent (tasted fine, didn’t have the consistency of, say, the stuffing from a seat cushion), it wasn’t anything like the original.

Fast-forward a few years. Not long ago, I read an article about a person, or maybe a group of people, that organizes photo tours to the places where Ansel Adams made some of his best-known photographs. People from the world over dutifully trudge to the same parks and vistas that Adams so lovingly, and expertly, documented, waiting for exactly the same light, some even using the same kinds of cameras used by the Master himself. I’m sure their photos were competent (exposed well, didn’t look like the aftermath of an all-night bender), but they weren’t anything like the original.

These two seemingly-disparate things have more in common than you might think.

Some people, whether they’re musicians, painters, chefs or photographers, jealously guard their technique. They realize they have something unique, and I think on some level, they feel that if they share what went into that “something,” some of its uniqueness is somehow stripped away or diminished. They may be perfectly good at what they do, but they’re missing the one thing that makes a good craftsman great: they don’t share their secrets.

A great cook can teach you every last one of their recipes and techniques, and a great photographer can be willing to show you every last step in their process, from the framing of a shot, to the settings used, to their developing/postproduction process. They’ll get their results; you, probably, will not. Some of this has to do with the years of experience that go into becoming an expert. *

Some of it, though – and a big part of the reason that those who share, do – is that knowing someone else’s process, their recipes, if you will, is only a starting point. You can become competent following someone else’s lead, but the only way to become great (or get near great’s ZIP code) is to use those teachings as a point of departure in developing your own voice. Just the same as great cooking stems from the taste of an individual chef (any two people can make pesto, for instance, using the same ingredients, but taste and experience will generally mean different proportions of each), great photography comes from seeing the world as only you do, and conveying that vision to someone else.

So I’ll still make Aunt Olga’s lemon cake from time to time, and one of these days, if the mood strikes, I may even schlep my camera and myself to the Grand Tetons. But the bigger challenge, not just for me, but for anyone else who picks up a camera – whether they realize it or not – is moving beyond someone else’s way of doing things, and finding your own.

*This is also one very big reason that the recently discovered Adams negatives were regarded not to be worth quite as much as their discoverer had hoped. It wasn’t just Adams’ composition that made those photos; his developing process (not just the chemical part of it, but other aspects, like the way he dodged and burned his prints) played as much of a part in the photos’ final appearance, and without that individual touch, the negatives lose a good deal of their impact.

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