79-AAC-2 "Canyon de Chelly," [Electronic Record] Panorama of valley from mountain. Photograph by Ansel Adams, courtesy of the National Archives.
“Canyon de Chelly,” [Electronic Record] Panorama of valley from mountain. Photograph by Ansel Adams

ANSEL ADAMS FOUND. chiaroscuro

Article by Photography World Editor Mina Thevenin

Published August 2015

Chiaroscuro. Light defines three-dimensional objects. It can also create an illusion of three- dimensions in a one-dimensional photograph. Art and photography know it as  the Italian word chiaroscurochiaro means “light,” and scuro means “dark”. Value is chiaroscuro (1) © Diagram of VALUE or CHIAROSCURO Relationships. Photography World, Ltd Co with textFigure 1.  Antiquity shows some use of chiaroscuro by the Greeks and Romans, and it has most undoubtedly been used since that time- though its popularity as a technique didn’t take-off until the famous Leonardo da Vinci shed light on the technique (probably in part because he was famous that it affected the popularity of artists using chiaroscuro). Since the mid to late 1400’s artists began capitalizing on the chiarascuro’s technique to create dramatic and emotional impact for the final piece. Art and photography that relies heavily on the gradations of light and dark encompasses value, also known as the Italian style, chiaroscuro.

Andrea G. Stillman worked closely with Adams and was his executive assistant for seven years in the 1970’s. In an excerpt from her book, LOOKING AT ANSEL ADAMS, The Photographs and the Man, (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2012, 129.) Stillman wrote:

“Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California, 1943”.  It was a December morning in 1943, and Ansel felt the chill as he and Virginia sat in their Pontiac station wagon. They were parked near the little town of Lone Pine. Just off Highway 395, over-looking a pasture below the breathtaking Sierra Nevada. They sipped hot coffee from a thermos and waited for sunrise.


Ansel described the scene: “I set up my camera on my car platform [Ansel’s first car platform was mounted on his 1941 woodie Pontiac station wagon in the spring of 1943. The elevation of the platform provided a better vantage point from which to photograph.] at what I felt was the best location, overlooking a pasture. It was very cold- perhaps near zero- and I waited, shivering for a shaft of sunlight to flow over the distant trees. [Ansel’s photographic assistant, John Sexton, heard Virginia Adams describe on more than one occasion how-over her protests-she had to move the car slightly while Ansel stood on top with his camera, in order to achieve the desired composition.] A horse grazing in the frost pasture stood facing away from me with exasperating, stolid persistence. I made several exposures of moments of light and shadow, but the horse was uncooperative, resembling a distant stump. I observed the final shaft of light approaching. At the last moment the horse turned to show its profile, and I made the exposure. Within a minute the entire area was flooded with sunlight and the natural chiaroscuro was gone. [Ansel Adams, Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1983),164.]

Ansel Adams found, chiaroscuro. Intentionally referring to Adam’s Winter Sunrise, Sierra…

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