Ansel Adams
New Mexico 1958

These two photographs were taken within an hour of each other on a fresh autumn day in the mountains to the north of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The making of the pictures

Adams was driving along the highway through the mountains with his wife and two assistants when they came across this stand of Aspens in mellow golden autumn tints.

All three photographers busied themselves looking for their visions, Adams on this occasion was working with the largest of the cameras he routinely used, the 8 x 10 inch plate camera.

In both images, great pains were taken to ensure that there were no areas of sky in the composition that would would have been the brightest areas in the scene and very distracting. Instead, some trees were found at the base of a steep rise of land where the sky could not intrude from behind.

The scene with the mix of soft gentle colours, a slightly greenish tint to the trunks, vibrant yellow leaves and an understory of  russet shrubs is described as being ideal for a colour photograph. The vision of this particular scene was quite different in some ways to what was before the photographer. The final picture appears to be lit from behind by bright sunlight - this was not the case. By using a deep yellow filter to brighten the leaves and a choice of exposure, negative developer, and paper to suit his vision, the resulting picture was the one that Adams wished to produce rather than being a literal representation of the scene. In particular, it is what he felt about the scene.

Fortunately on that day there was little or no breeze and so an exposure of 1 second was possible, aspen leaves quiver and shake in only the slightest stirring of the air.

Both pictures received the same treatment in their technical aspects and Adams was quite happy that he had obtained the only two "compelling" photographs that were to be had in that area that day.

Printing of the images requires a careful choice of exposure and development as the dark areas are very dark and light areas very light, though both are required to be just right for the print overall to work. These pictures were printed up to 30 x 40 in and even as large as 40 x 60 in, perfectly possible with the 8 x 10 in negatives. The 40 x 60 enlargement still represents a lesser degree of magnification than would a 35mm negative being enlarged to 8 x 10 in.

  • Aspen is known as the "shivering tree" as the leaves are thought to continuously tremble. There are many legends associated with aspens and how they came to tremble. One is that Christ's cross was made from the wood of the Aspen tree, the tree was so filled with grief and remorse at being connected with the Crucifixion that it has trembled ever since.

  • A similar legend from Germany is that the Holy Family were walking in a forest and all the trees bowed reverently. The only tree that didn't was the Aspen, the Holy Child cursed the tree, and the leaves began to tremble and does so to this day.

  • The Aspen has also been thought to help cure fevers. You need to take nail clippings from the sick person and place them in a hole cut in the trunk. The hole should then be covered again to seal the tree.

Aspens by Ansel Adams
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Bibliography - Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs by Ansel E. Adams