The Beauty of Ansel Adams’ Vision


Here is one image of Ansel Adams’ encounter with the evocative forms, textures, and light-sensitive surfaces of the historic church in Taos, New Mexico.

Here is another of his images of the same church, from the east end:

Adams’ attentiveness to the features of the natural world, and with his particular eye to the dynamic interrelationship between light and dark, helped him to create a legacy of compelling photographs that continue to be a source of allure for those who love photography. Many of us find especially compelling his winter images, as well as those of Yosemite and northern New Mexico, where he spent so much time in the field.

Adams’ photographs often prompt me to think of John’s Gospel. This is because of Adams’ and John’s mutual interest in the juxtaposition of light and dark, and the dynamic relation between the two in our perception and experience. Given our present physical as well as spiritual existence in this world, and considering the terms of successful photography, the presence of the dark helps us appreciate the beauty of light.

A technical inquiry into Ansel Adams methods, about how he photographed scenes with film-based cameras, helps us appreciate the significance of his technique. He used lens filters to highlight visual contrast, and was equally attentive to the composition of the chemical baths used for developing the negatives and the subsequent prints made from them. Noticing and considering these aspects of his creative work helps us appreciate how the ‘given-ness’ of what he saw was also shaped by how he came to render and present it. If he had been a religious man, he might have attributed some of this ‘rendering process’ to the shaping power of the grace of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel writer, John, in receiving, interpreting, and then presenting Jesus and his ministry, as well as Jesus’ life and death, had a similar challenge. There was the ‘given-ness’ of Jesus’ teachings, signs or mighty acts, and his powerful presence in the eyes of many. Yet, John, led by the Holy Spirit, has given us a marvelous Gospel shaped by the spiritual dialectic between light and dark. And this is what brings to mind the ostensibly secular parallel provided by Ansel Adams’ portfolio. Among several passages in John, consider the marvelous account of Nicodemus’ visit to Jesus by night in chapter 2. And John, alone among the Gospels, records Jesus as saying, “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Perhaps, when we are brought to the hoped-for ‘other side,’ we won’t experience a contrast between light and dark, but rather something more like a contrast among various captivating colors. Yet, while in this world, and while our lives remain colored by sin, we see, and we see better, when we are blessed by the perception of contrast between light and dark.

A ‘both-and’ approach to what we encounter in life may be congenial and even comforting when we deal with paradox and contradiction. But, an either/or challenge to our preferred ways of seeing things can be bracing and helpful for our perception. This is one reason why, even though most of us see the world in color, black and white photographs can be so evocative. As John recognizes in his Gospel, the darkness that has not overcome the light helps us recognize the Light of the world.


In memory of Robert (Bob) Bolton of Albuquerque, NM (1948-2022).


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