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[Detail] Warehouse, Manzanar Relocation Center

Ansel Adams's Manzanar photographs present a unique opportunity to examine Adams's technique and to learn about photography and photographic documentaries. It can also provide the basis for a research project investigating racial representations in newspapers during World War II. Finally, certain items can be used to study the use of persuasion and detail in writing.

Photography: Composition and Value

Ansel Adams's Manzanar photographs present a unique opportunity to examine Adams's technique and to learn about photography and photographic documentaries. It can also provide the basis for a research project investigating racial representations in newspapers during World War II. Finally, certain items can be used to study the use of persuasion and detail in writing.

Photography: Composition and Value

This collection provides the unique opportunity to compare Adams's final photographs to his original negatives. Examining the differences between the final photographs and negatives provides insight into Adams’s technique—his choices about the composition and value of his photographs.

When a photographer clicks the shutter on his camera to take a picture, it doesn't actually create the picture that he will put in an album or a frame. It creates a negative, which is a piece of film with an image on it that is used to create the final photograph. The film is usually a strip of plastic or a piece of glass, and the photographer projects light through it onto a piece of light-sensitive paper to create the final photograph.

The photographer uses a device called an enlarger to project the light through the negative and onto the paper. With the enlarger, he can crop the original image to include only part of it in his final photograph. For example, when Adams photographed a fashion designing class at Manzanar he captured more of the surrounding room in his negative than he included in his final photograph. He used the enlarger to crop out some of the background and tighten the image in around the people. The arrangement of the final image is called the photograph's composition.

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The photographer can also use the enlarger to control how dark or light his photograph will be. For example, Adams's final photograph of Benji Iguchi in a storehouse filled with squash is much darker than the image of his original negative. The darkness and lightness of a photograph is called its value.

Browse the Subject Index and compare some of Adams's prints and negatives to see what choices he made about the composition and value of his photographs.

  • Is the final photograph darker or lighter than the original negative?
  • How did Adams's choice of value affect the information and feeling you get from his final photograph?
  • Why do you think Adams might have chosen to darken or lighten his final photograph?
  • Did Adams crop the original image to create the final photograph? If so, why might he have done this? How does the difference in composition change the way you react to the image?
  • What is the importance of an image's composition and value? How do they affect the image's impact?
  • Did Adams make similar or different decisions about composition and value in his photographs of different subjects, such as people and landscapes?
  • How would you describe Adams's style and technique based on his use of composition and value?

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