Deeply Manipulating the Mountain: D’Agata on Ansel Adams

December 7, 2013 § 10 Comments

ansel adams
This blog has been critical of John D’Agata for some of the choices/changes he made in his book About a Mountain and in the subsequent quasi-true, fact-checking opus The Lifespan of a Fact, so it is only fair that we also tip our hat when his writing hits the mark.  D’Agata is a smart, sharp student of the essay, of course, whether we agree with where he sets the”truth” line or whether we do not.  In any case, here is an excerpt of his Essay Daily post where he talks about the photography of Ansel Adams

(Adams) places over his lens a heavy red filter that immediately darkens the sky, transforms it even darker than the cliff face itself, so that an abyss opens up on the left side of the cliff, as if the brooding shelf of Half Dome has torn straight through it like a cleaver made of light, terrifying and bright, a threat to everything that is not there.

As he himself later put it, this is the first time in Adams’ career that he has managed to make a mountain look like how it feels.  To do this however, he has deeply manipulated the mountain he loves, he has wrangled the reality of the world around him into what he has needed it to be.

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§ 10 Responses to Deeply Manipulating the Mountain: D’Agata on Ansel Adams

  • rbshea says:

    I disagree, Dinty, that D’Agata hits the mark here. Is D’Agata’s point that Adams visual manipulations creating an image are similar to D’Agata’s manipulation of the “truth” line in essays? If so, in my view, it’s clever but, like much of D’Agata’s self-serving polemics, misleading. No one who knows photography considers photographers such as Adams, Steichan, Stieglitz or Edward Weston as documentarians, purporting to show the actuality of what’s in their images. By contrast, Matthew Brady, Dorothea Lange, Gary Winogrand, and James Nachtwey are acclaimed for their work as photojournalists.
    As a former news and documentary videographer, and film now digital photographer, I know first hand manipulating an image can be mere “tweaking” (cropping, for example, or increasing color saturation) so the image is clearer or meets printing ‘s technical parameters. That certainly is different than the deeply manipulated images found and expected in art, fashion and personal portraiture. The intent and differences are clear. They were to Adams and the others I listed.
    As an essayist and memoirist, I accept storytelling/creative non-fiction techniques such as time compression or renaming people for privacy reasons. I accept their use as long as the writer is clear to the reader that he/she is doing so. Mary Karr, for example, does this extremely well while maintaining her unique writer’s voice.
    D’Agata seems to want more license in his “truth” line. That license makes his credibility continuously suspect, much like a fashion photographer’s Photoshopping an image to show the “Truth” of the image for his client’s benefit.

    • Amy Hereford says:

      Preach! I had similar troubles when I read this essay. Indeed, manipulating truth in photography and manipulating truth in what is supposed to be nonfiction are completely different. D’Agata and others that continue to lay claims on this genre as a playground for fiction and undisclosed “creativity” is what scared CNF writers do.

    • Well to be clear, he has hit the mark by giving me a new way to think about this. He hasn’t convinced me. RB Shea’s rebuttal above is excellent.

  • Julie Chovanes says:

    It seems to make a photograph “feel” like a mountain you would need to do something like what Adams did — photographs are limited in what they can show and feel — Adams was expanding the scope of the art form to make it more natural.

  • Sigrun says:

    “to make a mountain look like how it feels”; I think this is just a very beautiful way of putting it, very true for me – at least.

  • Brixton says:

    David Ulin wrote about this piece in the LA Times yesterday. He reminds us that D’Agata has never called his work ‘nonfiction’.

    I think D’Agata gives plenty of cues about what he’s up to, within his work and with his anthologies — which actually catalog some fiction as ‘essay’, making what seems to be a historically valid point that the essay is about inquisition, factually based, as well as creative/subjective, as much as it is about verifiable, actionable information, which is what newspapers are for.

    ‘About a Mountain’ is very much about the limits of facts and information, that they are unstable and are often manipulated to offer what Mark Lane, in his piece on D’Agata, called “symbols of control”: “About a Mountain is as fact-laden as any John McPhee book, but where McPhee works to clarify domains of fact generally understood only by experts, D’Agata focuses on the insufficiency of facts as vehicles for understanding contemporary reality.” The ostensible subject of the book, Yucca, is the most studied piece of land in history yet we still don’t know anything about it, whether it’s safe. Holding that book to such a high standard of factual accuracy is possibly missing the point, in my opinion, that sometimes we need another approach to get at the unknowable. We give photographers that room. And filmmakers. Why not a writer who is testing the boundaries of form? Journalists and newspapers are dominating this conversation about “nonfiction”, a classification D’Agata rejects.

  • rbshea says:

    I find Brixton’s comment thoughtful and considerate. However, I disagree that D’Agata not calling his work “non-fiction” is sufficient to find his manipulations of the form anything more than self-serving rhetoric.

    For example, photography and film have both documentary and art outcomes for what is both the maker’s intent and the technical requirements of the media. Viewers of art photos know they’re seeing images the content of which is more or less manipulated to “make” the image, create the desired effect or ‘feeling” intended by the creator.
    Viewers of documentary/journalism photography, however displayed (newspaper, magazine, gallery, website), expect that, given the technical limits of the medium and skill of the photographer, they are viewing a piece of reality captured as it happened. The image may provoke strong feeling or not and be presented in a context which gives it meaning.

    Film documentary presented as non-fiction demands more of both the maker and viewer in evaluating the “truth” of the film; what’s the producer’s known agenda and background; were scenes fabricated, role of narration if any in presenting context or point of view and so on. Again the larger context in which the work is created and experienced matters.

    Context in art, documentary, photojournalism, personal essay, narrative non-fiction is a significant factor in defining the work regardless of the medium. It’s not only the writer’s intent that matters but the reasonable expectations of the viewer/reader. I fail to see how exactly D’Agata is pushing the “boundaries of form” or, perhaps more to the point, why. Actually, I should say…what’s the point of boundaries except to provide some part of the context in which a work is experienced.

    If D’Agata rejects the “non-fiction” classification then it’s also fair to identify him as a fiction writer and a non-reliable narrator in his essays. Otherwise, it seems to me he’s saying that facts are whatever he decides to make them. And of course that keeps his name and output in the spotlight…however small that beam is in the larger world. And that may in fact be his real point.

  • rbshea says:

    I usually don’t do this but Alex Pareene’s Salon blog post on Malcolm Gladwell seems to relate to this discussion of D’Agata, non-fiction and manipulation.

  • Brixton says:

    This piece reinforces D’Agata’s point that data is sometimes manipulated by experts, such as the half-life of the Yucca mountain proposed waste. The facts (not just the fudges, the foundational ones around the subjects) and the structure of “About a Mountain” are flawed and implode so that an argument, or any sense of logical understanding, by factual accrual, can’t be made. The book is an anti-argument, an intentionally failed essay, which leaps into the imagination at the end in order to try to find some kind of understanding in a sea of flawed facts (Yucca) and suppressed facts (suicide stats in Vegas). It’s not a polemic or a work of social science or journalism. I’m not sure D’Agata can be accused of the same kind of bad faith or sloppy arguments. ‘About a Mountain’, which is really the book at issue, if judged under its own unique terms, scans far differently. You could argue it’d just be better book without the minor fudges, but that’s placing a premium on facts in a book that is very dubious about the sense of security they are supposed to provide in certain contexts.

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