Book Review: Mandel’s Zone Eleven

The reviews of Mike Mandel’s new book, Zone Eleven, can make you want to write your own review. The photos in the book are made by Ansel Adams but sequenced by Mike Mandel long after Ansel’s passing. The sequencing provides the real content of the book, the way one photo plays off another, adding a level of meaning beyond that of the individual images. The book is a tricky one to review and it’s easy to get the hard stuff wrong. It’s also easy, so it seems, to get the easy stuff wrong.

The title of the book is a play of words on the Zone System, a framework for controlling contrast in film photography. You may read that the Zone System is about exposure or about development but the real issue is contrast–will that cloud come out as pure paper white or will it have some tone to it? Will that shadowed tree trunk have texture or will it be just black? By controlling contrast you can consistently predict how the tonal range of a scene before the camera will translate to the tonal limits of the print. You can reliably see, in your head, what the print will look like at the time you are clicking the shutter.

You may also read that the Zone System has ten zones numbered 0 through Roman numeral X. Zone O, Zone, I, Zone II, etc., all the way to Zone X. The earlier zones are lighter tones, with Zone 0 being paper white. The latter zones are darker tones, all the way to the maximum black achievable by that paper. Zone V–a key tone for metering a scene–is right in the middle. But there are not ten zones, there are eleven. This mistake, perhaps a trivial one, is one commonly made by non-photographers and finds its way into print surprisingly often.

The Zone System is all about contrast and Zone Eleven is all about contrasts.

The photos in the book are said by some to be “obscure”, that they are “failed attempts,” and that “the stuff on the cutting room floor in many cases deserves to be on the cutting room floor.” The images chosen by Mandel “remind that, like an iceberg, most of what exists in an artist’s archive goes unseen,” that the question must be asked whether the photographs are merely “commercial works attributed to Adams…essentially found images that have little to do with his artistic vision?”

An unwary reader, trusting to the written reviews, might be forgiven for thinking that the images in Zone Eleven are unpublished images, pictures that Ansel never printed in an expressive manner and certainly never thought worthy of being seen by the public in any way. The reviewers of Zone Eleven certainly seem to think that this is the case. But is it?

Let’s have a look.

The first photograph in the book is of two tree trunks with mountains behind in the distance. One tree (on the left) is light colored, the other dark. It is obvious this photograph is here to reference the Zone System (light and dark tones) and Ansel’s familiar images of the Sierras. The picture is the embodiment of the famous Ansel, Ansel the photographer of landscapes.

It is also a well-known image.

This photo appears in at least seven Ansel Adams books. I have them here on my bookshelf. The earliest is This is the American Earth, a bestselling book with text by Nancy Newhall. American Earth book has been printed in at least six editions since it was published in 1960 and is often credited as a seminal work in the conservation movement. The image also appears in 1979’s Yosemite and the Range of Light which, according to Mary Alinder’s biography, sold nearly a quarter-million copies in the first five years after its publication. In both books, the image, titled Trees, near Washburn Point, is printed large on the page, eight inches across and ten inches high in one book and slightly larger in the other.

Ansel Adams in the National Parks, published in 2010, highlights Washburn Point in an interesting appendix, using it to demonstrate Ansel’s painstaking attention to detail, including the particular cropping of his images. The book presents two versions of the image. One a “straight” print–essentially an un-Photoshopped print, to put it in modern terminology–and one printed by Ansel, interpreted by Ansel, with dodging and burning and slightly cropped. Andrea Stillman, former Ansel employee turned Ansel scholar, shares that “he considered his [cropping] decisions inviolate” and that he would “protest vigorously” if an image was cropped incorrectly in a magazine or book. Oddly, the version of the image in Zone Eleven is the straight print version. It is not cropped correctly nor do its tones match the final print version in the Stillman book (or any of the other six books). The Zone Eleven version is a dead ringer for the straight, uninterpreted version of the image.

While that puzzle brews, we can turn to the next page and see that another single image awaits us, in the same size and position as that of the image of the trees. This next image is indeed obscure, two young women from a marching band, dark military-esque uniforms against a black background, each carrying a large drum on a harness, drumsticks in hand. You might think at first that this is from the Fiat Lux project, the large contract that Ansel undertook in the 1960s for the University of California system to document all of their campuses, but the end-of-the-book caption reveals that its title is Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps, Two Drummers, photographed in 1942, made three years before the image of the trees.

The position of the women clearly echoes the positions of the two trees in the previous image. The drum on the left is light-toned, the drum on the right dark-toned, matching the trees. The woman on the left has a white shirt and black tie, the woman on the right a dark shirt and medium-toned tie. If I had a loupe handy I would not be at all surprised to see the emblems on their hats as “Zone 0” and “Zone X.”

And that’s the basic idea throughout Zone Eleven–photographs pictorially contrasting in some way, feeding off each other in some way, hopefully leading to something more than a mild amusement (although a mild amusement is just fine).

A few pages on we have an image of people in dive suits entering the ocean from a sandy beach, the water going on forever to the horizon. (This image, along with a variation, appears in two of my Ansel books.) On the facing page is an image with a similar compositional feel and structure but here two horses (pursued by a cowboy, it seems) approach a small pool of water in an otherwise dry-looking land, the land going on forever to the horizon. The one photo is the opposite of the other, the shapes mimicking one another.

The next spread’s photos are both of vast, mountainous snow, with people snaking their way through the landscape. In the right picture, a dark rock juts into the frame which the line of people wind around. In the left image, a vast crevasse juts into the frame, mirroring the rocks of the right image, the people edging past. These images may seem unAnsel-like but they are from one of his early projects, his Sierra Club Album of 1928. Rebecca Senf, one of the primary scholars of Ansel’s work, published just two years ago a book featuring this early work. In Making a Photographer she examines the development of Ansel as a photographer in general and this project in particular and shares a slight variation of this image, taken shortly before the line of people progressed to the rock formation. Samples from this project, including similar images, have been published and exhibited for many years.

As I mentioned, many of the images in Zone Eleven were made by Ansel as part of a large contract from the University of California system. Much of this work was published in 1967 as Fiat Lux: The University of California (with Nancy Newhall again writing the text). Other pictures eventually made it into a companion volume of sorts, Unseen Ansel Adams, Photographs from the Fiat Lux Collection (2010), an oversized and handsome volume from Jason Weems. If you’ve seen these volumes then you’ve encountered many if not most of the images in Zone Eleven before. Mandel evidentially likes the Fiat Lux project.

Ansel himself didn’t much like the project. It bears only the most passing mention in his autobiography, appearing embedded in a list of seven books he worked on with Nancy Newhall. The project began in 1960, 1963, or even 1964, depending on what source you look at, aimed at celebrating the UC System for its one-hundred-year anniversary in 1968. Ansel made over 6,700 negatives–a massive number of images considering his primary camera was a sheet-film-using view camera–from which he crafted six hundred and five finished prints. (Many did not make it into the book.) The contract, for a flat fee of $75,000 (over $700,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars), was to be split between Ansel and Newhall. They earned their money but it was an uninspiring slog.

Ansel was not happy that it was a slog. Speaking in an oral history in 1971 he remembered “I found I went to a certain campus, in four or five days I was through–I just couldn’t see anymore. It’s terribly hard trying to make inspiring pictures out of sometimes very uninspiring architecture…” []

The Fiat Lux project is the key vein that Mandel mines for Zone Eleven and probably it is these images that give reviewers so much trouble. They are indeed uninspired photographs, for the most part. It’s not because of their unfamiliarity–look through Yosemite and the Range of Light or Ansel Adams at 100 and you will see plenty of images that are unfamiliar to casual fans of Ansel’s work but yet still have that spark. It’s not because they are not landscapes, either. Look at the books that Ansel put out before he hired Bill Turnage to manage his affairs and you will see a photographer who considers himself much more than a landscape photographer. In his Ansel Adams monograph, for example, less than half of the images are landscapes.

My copy of <I>Zone Eleven</I> with stickies referencing other books in which its images have been previously published. Almost every page has a stickie, some multiple stickies.

Some reviewers are surprised that Ansel’s images contain people and trace their dislike of Zone Eleven to their inclusion, so different from Ansel’s supposed real work. But Ansel photographed people all of the time–he considered himself a skilled portraitist. In that same monograph from 1972, there are thirty-five portraits out of the one hundred and sixteen images that Ansel chose to include in the book.

The reason the photographs from Fiat Lux are uninspired ones also does not come from the fact that Ansel was getting paid to do them. Ansel was anything but a trust fund baby wandering the wilderness pursuing his muse and only occasionally having to demean himself to scrawl his name to the money-line of a contract. This view is nonsense and perhaps tells us more about the reviewer than about the photographer. Ansel worked under contract for most of his life, producing some of his most famous works while the checks came in from Kodak, Polaroid, the Federal government, and a variety of commercial entities.

He was in his early sixties when he photographed the UC campuses, and he was busy with shows and books and his advocacy work in conservation. And, I suspect, he was tired of Ansel Adams, his Mona Lisas all but behind him now, the world changing around him. He wanted a new direction but Fiat Lux wasn’t it.

Zone Eleven is a sort of game in the best sense of the word. It’s a series of pairings and associations. I’ve already talked about the paring of the two trees and the two drummers, and about the divers entering the vast water and the horses racing toward the small pool, and also about the snow-climbers circumventing a rock projection that is too high to cross and a crevasse that is far too deep.

Mandel shared his own thoughts on one of the pairings, posting it to the Photo-Eye blog, offering an example of how to look at his book.

He picks a portrait of an older woman sitting in a chair, framed by a doorway. A nude drawing hangs on the wall to the right and what appears to be another nude hangs in the darkened space beyond the door. On the facing page is a black metal bed frame sitting in the desert (a sight more common than you might expect). After describing each image in detail Mandel offers his attempt to put the frisson between the two images into words:

When I put these two photographs next to each other they begin to inform each other. The woman is old, the nude is young. The span of age is the better part of a lifetime. The woman rests quietly and looks directly at the camera. The nude young woman uses her arms to push her breasts forward toward the viewer but demurely turns her head away. The big hard metal in the dirt bursting the frame contains a lifetime of memories of getting up, making love, and lying down. I can’t help thinking about the fragility and temporality of it all. Once we were naked together and flaunted our sex. Before we know it, we’re on the far side and then gone. Every photograph contains a little death, for what was photographed in an instant is already past.

This association game is a good one and it carries you through the book, sometimes in rewarding ways, sometimes in only mildly amusing ways, and sometimes I just don’t get it.

There are several images at the beginning of the book showing a community swimming pool, divers suspended forever in the air, photographed at UCLA. I look at them and I look at them and I see and feel nothing.

Likewise, with the Manzanar images. Made at the Manzanar War Relocation Center during World War II where over ten thousand Americans of Japanese descent were “interned,” it was one of ten such camps throughout the western United States (including a camp in Arkansas).

Some of the image pairs from the Manzanar project are compelling: The uncannily flesh-like cross with barbed wire, part of a fence, on one page, and the cross-like telephone pole image on the next work well enough. Better yet the following spread pairs a left-hand image of the camp, the Sierras behind, with an image on the right of a Japanese muralist painting a similar scene with no sign whatsoever of the camp.

The close-in portraits that follow, however, leave me with no reaction at all, except to wonder if the picture of the young man smiling in front of the church service sign on one image and then looking glum in the next is supposed to indicate the man’s true feelings about his situation. If so, the pairing is particularly heavy-handed.

And I still have no clear thoughts about why so many of the images in the book look to be straight prints from the negative, not prints that Ansel finished himself, a necessary and usually transformative step in the creation of his work.

The book ends with a bit of mystery, a 1941 image of a stuffed kudu from the famed dioramas at the California Academy of Sciences. It doesn’t look like an Ansel Adams photograph at all. In fact, it looks like it belongs in the series of diorama photographs made by the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto in the 1970s. What is it doing here? The essay at the end of the book by Erin O’Toole offers a strange bit of trivia about the kudu image–it seems to have been made on December 7, 1941, hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Is this in some way contrasting the conceptual work of Sugimoto with the more literal work of Ansel Adams, one in opposition to the other? I cannot say.

Sometimes the associations you make between images is along the lines that those who made the pairing expected, sometimes the associations are wholly unintended, though perhaps no less legitimate. That’s part of the game of sequencing.

Zone Eleven is a book all about sequencing and not nearly as much about photographs. Coming to the book expecting to find unknown masterpieces by Ansel is sure to disappoint (although several of the images have real power). The book is not about the photographs but about the emotional reaction to the pairings. It’s a follow-on to Mandel and Sultan’s much earlier book, Evidence, but completely different in so many ways. In Evidence you have odd pairings and the sequencing is key but you also have a book full of images of things and people doing things and anyone would be hard-pressed to say exactly what these things might be and what those people might be doing.

There are echoes in Zone Eleven, sure, of that earlier book. My favorite image in Evidence is the one with a line of hard hat-wearing men filing out into a landscape of soapy foam and the picture of the men entering the ocean in Zone Eleven made me think of it. But what the men in Evidence are doing is inexplicable–I have no plausible theory–but the divers in the Zone Eleven photo are, like the people in all of the images in Zone Eleven, doing sensible things.

But what you lose in weirdness you gain in emotion. There is no pairing like the one of the old woman and the bed frame in Evidence, no sense of history or the passage of time, no real concern about life. Evidence is a cold book, a book for art students and the cool crowd. Zone Eleven is a book made by, and perhaps for, an older person, and it may be the better book.

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