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ANSEL ADAMS: Classic Images
Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley National Monument, California, c. 1948
To learn more about this photograph see the information below. To see a larger view of this image as an Acrobat Reader PDF file, click on the image...

Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley National Monument, California, c. 1948 by Ansel Adams

This image is copyrighted by The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust and cannot be printed or reproduced in any way. The use of the photograph is limited to viewing in the context of this web site.

 

 

Sand Dunes, Sunrise, Death Valley National Monument, California, c. 1948
Plate 37 in Ansel Adams - Classic Images

Sources: Ansel Adams - An Autobiography, p. 247; Examples - The Making of 40 Photographs by Ansel Adams, pp 56-58


A. What did Adams see when he arrived to take the shot?
B. How and why did Adams photograph Sand Dunes at sunrise?
C. Why do you think photographers find deserts a difficult subject?
D. What does it mean to "visualize" the photograph in the mind's eye?
E. Why is Sand Dunes a photograph sometimes termed abstract?
F. Technical Aspects
G. Related links in this site


A. What did Adams see when he arrived to take the shot?
First, what do YOU see when you first look at the photograph? Adams describes in Examples what he saw: "A searing sun rose over the Funeral Range, and I knew it was to be a hot day. Fortunately I had just arrived at a location where an exciting composition was unfolding. The red-golden light struck the dunes, and their crests became slightly diffuse with sand gently blowing in the early wind." In his autobiography he adds, "Just then, almost magically, I saw an image become substance: the light of sunrise traced a perfect line down a dune that alternatively glowed with the light and receded in shadow."
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B. How and why did Adams photograph Sand Dunes at sunrise?
Adams described how he was able to be on the spot just as the sun rose. He parked nearby and spent the night sleeping on top of his car. "Arising long before dawn, I made some coffee and reheated some beans, then gathered my equipment and started on the rather arduous walk through the dunes." Adams termed the effect of the dune sunrise "legendary." He had tried to get there for that special moment several times before, struggling "through the steep sands with a heavy pack only to find (he) was too late for the light." On this morning he just made it on time. Fifteen minutes after he made his exposure, "the light flattened out on the dunes."
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C. Why do you think photographers find deserts a difficult subject?
Ansel Adams wrote about the light. "For most photographers Death Valley presents difficulties. The desert experience is primarily one of light; heroic, sunlit desolation and sharp intense shadows are the basic characteristics of the scene... In many desert photographs of sunlit subjects, the shadows appear as empty black areas." Adams also wrote about the shifting sands. "The dunes are constantly changing, and there is no selected place to return to after weeks or months have passed." Another difficulty can be strong winds that blow the sands about and damage the lens. And of course there's the extreme heat that makes it uncomfortable for the photographer and can damage film.
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D. What does it mean to "visualize" the photograph in the mind's eye?
Adams understood his craft and the entire process of developing and printing so well that he would "visualize" the end result he desired. He then used his light meter to determine scientifically the intensity of the light. About Sand Dunes, he said, "we should thus visualize the desired shadow values and adjust exposure and development of the negative thereto."

Does the human eye or the camera capture a truer picture? According to Adams, the eye actually "perceives great luminosity and texture" in shadows in deserts. Through the limitations of the camera apparatus, shadows appear almost solid black which is "visually untrue.
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E. Why is Sand Dunes a photograph sometimes termed abstract?
What struck you first when you looked at it? The shapes? The tones? The textures? These are elements of art that apply to most images, whether we can recognize the subject (figurative) or not (abstract). When artists arrange formal elements in aesthetic (artful) ways so that they please the eye, often the result is an effect of abstraction. Did you recognize that the image was of sand dunes at first? Is it an "important" subject? Not really, not like a mighty mountain or famous person or historical event. What's important in this photograph is the way of SEEING. The choices the artist made about angle and lighting and composition (the way the shapes and textures are arranged) make it an exquisite image.
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F. Technical Aspects

  • Lens: 7 " Dagor lens.
  • Film: 4X 5 Kodachrome, Kodak Plus-X filmpack film at ASA 64
  • Filter: Wratten No. 8 (K2) filter
  • Exposure: 1/8 second at f/22-32.
  • Development: Normal-plus-one development


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G. Related links in this site

Exhibit Home | Gallery | About Ansel Adams | About Photography | Lesson Plans & Activities | Student Projects | Resources | Programs & Tours | HMA Home

Housatonic Museum of Art
Housatonic Community College
900 Lafayette Blvd.
Bridgeport, CT 06604
For information call Robbin Zella, Director, 203-332-5052