Walk in the park

It may look like the setting for a Fifties sci-fi movie, but this black and white photograph of the Californian desert is a real lesson in tone and contrast. Helen Luckett suggests ways to examine this eye-catching work further

The photograph "In Joshua Tree National Monument, California, 1942", is an extraordinary image of an extraordinary place. The title tells us the location and we are given a date, but unless you happen to know this area of the Californian desert, it might almost be a picture of another planet, or from a geological time far removed from our own. The photograph speaks of heat and a sort of desolation, as well as grandeur. There is no human presence and no human scale; we could be looking at a mountain or a miniature rock garden. The image is drenched in light, with deep shadows etching the rhythm of the rocks, probing their folds and fissures, while the scouring sun reveals textures of stone and leaf and sky.

Adams maintained: "You don't take a photograph, you make it." His black-and-white photography involved two stages - making the negative and making the print. The vital element was "visualisation", which Adams defined as "the process of 'seeing' the final print while viewing the subject" and which involved the intuitive search for meaning, shape, form, texture, tone and framing. By starting with a clear mental picture of the final image, he was able to make the right decisions as to lenses, filters and other controls before pressing the shutter. His famous "Zone System", an aid for determining correct exposure and development times, enabled him to anticipate effects and to control the range of tone and contrast during the printing process.

Teaching ideas

Looking at, discussing and analysing photographs is a powerful way of developing observational and interpretative skills, and increasing vocabulary. But how do you look at a photograph? Where do you start and what do you look for? Ansel Adams's own approach to looking at other people's photographs was to: "think (or feel) as follows: A. What did they 'see'?

B. How did they 'see' it?

C. How did they execute (make) it?"

This can be changed slightly to "What do you see? What is it about? How do you know?"

Besides talking about photographs, it helps to make them. Use black-and-white film and look for subjects near at hand: a cluster of pebbles or a few leaves in their natural surroundings.

Finding the subject is half the exercise; how you frame it is part of the other half.

Key stage 1

Explore the photograph. Is this a place where you would like to be? How would it feel to be there? Imagine you are inside the picture. Which is the hottest part? Where is the coolest part? What is sharpest object? Which is the smoothest? How can you tell? Which object would you most like to touch? Which object would you least like to touch? Why? Can you climb to the top of the rocks? Where would you go to hide?

Key stage 2

Look at textures and rhythm. How many textures can you see? Describe them, using as many different words as you can. Pictures, like music, have rhythms. There are at least two clear lines of rhythm in this photograph. Describe the rhythm that follows the outline of the rocks. Then look at the line that curves around the base of the rocks, punctuated by the bristling Joshua tree on the left, the boulder in the foreground and the silhouetted rock at the far right. How would you describe this rhythm?

Secondary

As Adams pointed out, "there are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer." Try standing in the photographer's footsteps and think about how the photograph was made. What angle was it taken from; looking down, looking up, or at eye level? Consider the framing. What difference would it make if the camera had been moved to the left or right, or if it was closer or further away? Analyse the light. Where is it coming from? What is its quality? How does it affect the subject and its atmosphere? Copy the different tones as accurately as you can and arrange them in order from the darkest to the lightest.

A-level

Adams remarked: "It is easy to take a photograph, but it is harder to make a masterpiece in photography than in any art medium." He also said:

"Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer - and often the supreme disappointment." Discuss the particular challenges which landscape photographers face; think about the conditions under which the photographs are made and how meaning, emotion and form are achieved.

Helen Luckett is education programmer at theHayward Gallery, London

Ansel Eaton Adams 1902-1984

Ansel Adams was born in San Francisco in 1902. Inspired by a family trip to Yosemite, California, in 1916, he became a commercial photographer for 30 years and made visionary photos of western landscapes. He was awarded three Guggenheim grants (1944-58) to photograph the US's national parks. With photographerEdward Weston, he founded the f64 group in 1932, and developed "zone exposure" to get maximum tonal range from black and white film. He died of heart failure in 1984.

EXTRA TIME

The exhibition "Ansel Adams at 100" celebrates the 100th anniversary of the photographer'sbirth and takes a fresh view of Adams's work. Focusing almost exclusively on Adams's landscapes, the exhibition re-evaluates his achievement as an artist and his unique contribution to landscape photography.

The exhibition is at the Hayward Gallery,South Bank, London SE1, until September 22

Tel: 020 7960 5226 Recorded information: 020 7261 0127 Bookings: 020 7960 4242

Admission (includes entrance to William Eggleston exhibition): pound;7 (concessions pound;5). Children aged 16 and under are free outside school hours.

www.hayward.org.uk

An interactive computer program examining seven of Adams's key works, with archival video and sound recordings by the artist andcommentaries by curators and critics, is available in the Gallery's Resource Centre and at www.hayward.org.uk

Resources for schools are available online at www.haywardeducation.org.uk Catalogue, Ansel Adams at 100, is available priced pound;21.95.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you