I picked up one of my oldest photography books, Camera And Lens by Ansel Adams, to go through it with a new perspective. It was a birthday gift to me from John and Ruth Rhodes, my in-laws, in 1971. I was an avid student of the Zone System, eventually added all his books to my collection, and enjoyed reading his teachings. Over time, I became quite proficient in applying the system to my own photography. As I opened the first few pages and started reading the foreword he wrote, I was struck by how much his words still made eminent sense for photographers. So, I am sharing his entire foreword as if this is a guest post by Ansel Adams. I realize that some parts may not apply anymore, and the publications he mentions are not even available. But, I think it is worth a very careful reading to get his message about “photography,” “vision,” and “tools and techniques,” and that photography is a creative art. This is what he said:
Photography Is a Language. The concept underlying this phrase is a very important one indeed. It leads to a better understanding of the scope and power of photography as a varied medium of expression and communication. Just as in the media of the written word we have poems, essays, scientific and journalistic reports, novels, dramas and catalogues – so with photography we touch the domains of science, illustration, documentation and expressive art.
The literature of photography is replete with repetitions of errors and questionable or obsolete formulas and procedures. New devices, systems, equipment and materials applicable to all aspects of the process have supplanted those which were considered effective decades ago. The fundamental principles of optics and sensitometry remain unchanged. Our present-day problem is to function as simply as possible, to adapt to new concepts and procedures and to understand the performance of new equipment and materials. Except in purely automatic photography, systems designed for automatic or semi-automatic operation may confuse our creative objectives if controls are not provided.
There is no such thing as reality in graphic expression. A picture of a house is not a house; it may simulate some visual aesthetic, emotional or informational aspects of the house. What is important is how the photographer “saw” the house and how he visualized the final print. Consciously or intuitively we create our statement of the external world within the limitations of the medium employed.
It is the function of this revised edition of Camera and Lens not only to discuss the practical aspects of the essential instruments of photography but to suggest concepts of approach and application. The more photography expands in every domain, the more confused our understanding may become. Today it presents an enormous variety of applications with attendant complexities of technique, style and content. For the most naïve snap-shooter, through the journalist, professional photographer and technician, to the creative artist (whose work may touch all fields in some way), the photographic industry has provided tremendous resources of equipment and materials-so varied and complex that no one can fully comprehend them. We find it difficult to make optimum selections of equipment and materials in any field of photography. We must always remember that the ultimate objective of photography is the picture, not the manipulation of equipment and systems.
A certain simplicity of approach is essential. The photographer and his work must dominate his equipment, not the other way ‘round. Blind devotion to any particular equipment – or to any group of films, developers, papers, etc. – can have deleterious results; the photographer must have a flexible viewpoint on the physical aspects of his profession (or avocation) and be willing to change, partially or totally, his technical means and methods in reference to the needs of his functional or creative work.
Information through photography is abetted by aesthetic factors; expression depends upon adequate techniques. There should be a little art in the most practical applications of the medium, and the technical elements must be fully developed in all.
The mechanics of photography are self-evident: operation of cameras, lenses and shutters, accessories and laboratory devices; the problems of exposure and development of the negative (and associative processes); the problems of printing, enlarging, toning and “presenting’.’ the final picture-these represent the basic steps of the process. Variations are involved in color photography, slides, motion picture photography and Polaroid Land photography, but in all cases basic principles are applied and the understanding of these principles will assure a more efficient command of all aspects of the medium.
Technique is the application of mechanical, physical and chemical principles and is modified by the requirements of the particular photograph. Distinction between mechanics and technique is important; mechanics have little or no meaning in themselves but are often exaggerated beyond reason in photographic literature and sales effort. Edward Weston produced his magnificent images with only the bare essentials of equipment and a stern selection of materials and method. The present-day professional photographer, however, faced with varied and difficult projects, must have adequate equipment and resources of materials. He must build his own technical systems in reference to his needs.
The function of all of the Basic Photo Series books is to present a philosophy of mechanics and technique. Every statement is set forth with the hope that the photographer and serious student will use it as the basis for personal experiment and for the development of a personal approach. Photography in the final analysis can be reduced to a few simple principles. Unlike most arts, it seems complex at the initial approach. This seeming complexity can never be resolved unless a fundamental understanding of both technique and mechanics is sought and exercised from the start.
Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas; it is an exalted profession and a creative art. Therefore, emphasis on technique is justified only insofar as it will simplify and clarify the statement of the photographer’s concept. These books are designed to present a working technique; they do not relate to advanced sensitometry or technological and scientific photography. Repetitions in the text are intentional.
Mere restatement of items of general knowledge has been avoided as much as possible; only essential formulas are given, and physical and chemical data have been presented only in elementary form. There are many sources of complete technical information; frequent reference may be made to the Photo-Lab-Index, edited by Ernest M. Pittaro (Morgan & Morgan, Inc.), which is the most comprehensive formulary in existence. Every photographer should have this work and keep it up to date through subscription to the Quarterly Supplements
Book I deals primarily with the functions of the camera and lens, but it is by no means a treatise on photographic optics. It will acquaint the photographer with the capacities and limitations of the camera and its various adjustments (or lack of them!) and the capacities of the lens in practical use, such as angle of view, coverage, depth of field, perspective, transmission, contrast, etc. “Practical use” implies far more than mere mechanical applications; the aesthetic factors are constantly involved, and problems of visualization, composition, scale, etc. will be related to the physical properties of equipment.
Particular equipment and materials mentioned in this book have been selected because of the writer’s familiarity with them. There is no implication of inferiority of other equipment and materials; the field is too vast to mention more than typical examples. The writer has, however, freely expressed his choice of certain types of materials and equipment as being more favorably oriented to his particular philosophy of photography.
 The title of a book by John R. Whiting (Ziff·Davis Publishing Co., Chicago and New York, 1946).