Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams - Biography and Legacy

American Photographer

Born: February 20, 1902 - San Francisco, California
Died: April 22, 1984 - Monterey, California

Biography of Ansel Adams


Ansel Easton Adams was born on the 20th of February 1902, in San Francisco. He was the only child of Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray. Charles was a successful businessman but the family were already sheltered financially due to Ansel's paternal grandfather who was a wealthy timber baron. The family lived the Californian idyll in a house looking beyond sand dunes onto the Pacific Ocean. However, in 1907 the family lost most of their wealth in the financial crisis. Charles tried in vain to rebuild the family fortune, but their changed financial situation put a new strain on a family residence that was also home to Olive's sister and her elderly father. Ansel's mother grew somewhat ambivalent towards her son and so it fell to Charles to nurture his son's latent talents and interests.

Adams did not adapt to school life. He was a painfully shy boy and his sensitivity was not helped by a badly disfigured nose which he acquired, aged just four, following a serious fall during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. His low self-esteem was only made worse by teasing and bullying from classmates and, having moved schools several times, his father took the decision to have his son privately tutored. During these formative years Adams often took solace in nature, becoming lost in long walks in the forest and among the sand dunes that abutted the family home. At the age of twelve, Adams found a new distraction in the piano. He taught himself to read music and very soon, he was taking formal piano lessons. His enthusiasm for music led to a dogged pursuit of a career as a concert musician that would continue into his mid-twenties. Throughout the 1920s Adams pursued music and photography equally, though still holding on to the hope that he might soon make the grade as a concert pianist. Despite his best efforts, it became increasingly clear that he did not have what it took to be a professional musician.

Adams's passion for music, and the personal discipline that demanded of him, would transfer then to his other creative pursuit, photography. Indeed, Adams believed that photography could give vent to the same feelings he experienced through his music. His first attraction to photography came indeed through his love of the natural landscape and a yearning to capture something of that overwhelming experience on film. That process had been set in motion when, aged 14, Adam was given a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie Camera ahead of family trips to Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Early Training and Work

Adams joined the Sierra Club in 1919, an environmental organization founded in 1892 by conservationist John Muir. Soon thereafter, he was given a summer job as custodian of the LeConte Memorial Lodge, the Club's headquarters in Yosemite. The lodge would provide the 17-year-old Adams with accommodation during summer trips to Yosemite and he would accompany the Lodge on its annual trips in the Sierra Nevada, producing a series of photographic portfolios on its behalf. Most of his early photographs were landscapes viewed on memorable climbs. Indeed, the Sierra Club was instrumental to Adams's early success as an exhibiting photographer. They published his first photographs and writings in a 1922 bulletin and gave Adams his first solo exhibition at their headquarters in San Francisco in 1928. Six years later he was elected to the Sierra Club's board of directors.

In 1926 Adams met the philanthropist Albert Bender. Bender, who was to become Adams's first benefactor, was well connected within San Francisco's community of writers and artists and it was he who suggested to Adams that he create a saleable portfolio of his mountain pictures. The portfolio of eighteen prints was titled Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras (1927) and was printed in an edition of 100. It included Monolith, The Face of the Half Dome, which Adams considered to be his first truly important photograph. Bender had been so invested in Adams's talent in fact that he bought the first ten portfolios for himself and sought out buyers for the remainder. Adams's friendship with Bender would also bring him into contact with other artists and photographers, including the photographer Edward Weston, who he met at Bender's home in 1927.

Following a long courtship (he had practiced his piano in her family home) Adams married Virginia Best, an aspiring singer and the daughter of landscape painter Harry Best, in 1928. The couple had two children (a girl, Anne, and a boy, Michael). Virginia's father owned a gallery in Yosemite, where Adams would later exhibit his photographs. Virginia, who acted as producer, archivist and proofreader for her husband, later inherited the gallery from her father and the family continued to run the gallery until 1971 (it has since changed its name to the Ansel Adams Gallery and is still in operation today).

Mature Period

Ansel Adams, <i>Church, Taos Pueblo National Historic Landmark, New Mexico</i> (1942).

Adams first visited Taos, New Mexico in 1930, and returned on numerous occasions to photograph the landscape and architecture of the Southwest.

In 1930, while on a trip to Taos Adams met American photographer Paul Strand, the architect of so-called Straight Photography. Their meeting proved to be a decisive moment for Adams who was won over by Strand's modernist approach to his art. With Straight Photography, Strand had advocated the use of large format (over hand-held) cameras to create finely detailed, high contrast, flat images with the end-goal of producing semi-abstractions and/or geometric repetitions within the picture frame. Strand's images were reliant moreover on size and context for their full effect and his images were always intended to be hung on the walls of dedicated photographic galleries. After his meeting with Strand, and having viewed with admiration some of his recent New Mexico negatives, Adams returned to San Francisco ready to devote his life and career to the art of photography.

Adams's reputation soared in 1931 following his first solo exhibition, featuring sixty of his photographs of the Sierra Nevada mountains, at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The following year Adams travelled to New York where he met Alfred Stieglitz, known as the father of modern American photography, at his famous gallery An American Place. At their appointment, Stieglitz is said to have looked through Adams's portfolio twice, and in total silence, before telling Adams that his were some of the best photographs he had ever seen. The two became close friends, corresponding frequently about photography and other matters of mutual interest. Adams held an exhibition at An American Place in 1936, the first solo exhibition by a photographer since Paul Strand had exhibited there some 20 years earlier.

Ansel Adams with his camera in Yosemite (c. 1950)

In 1932, Adams founded Group f/64 with Edward Weston. Active between 1932 and 1935, f/64 comprised a group of photographers - including Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, Consuelo Kanaga, Henry Swift, Alma Lavenson, and Sonya Noskowiak - that advocated Straight and unmanipulated photography over Pictorialism. Pictorialism favored traditional, soft-focus images, which were printed from manipulated negatives that produced prints more reminiscent of oil paintings than photographs. The group's name, f/64, referred to their use of the smallest aperture setting (f-stop) on a camera that created an image with the sharpest depth of field. This approach contradicted Strand's preference for flat images, but the members were still united in their drive to pursue a "pure" unmanipulated style of photography that was devoid of tricks and pictorial manipulation.

During the early 1930s Adams wrote for the magazine Camera Craft and published the influential book Making a Photograph (1935), in which he demonstrated a technical, but straightforward and approachable way of writing about photography. Making a Photograph was a great success and continued the newly established tradition of the photography manual. Illustrated with high quality reproductions of his photographs, and technical commentary about how to "make" (rather than "take") the best photographs, the book merely enhanced Adams's burgeoning reputation.

Later, in 1944, the book The American Annual of Photography 1944, Volume Fifty-Eight was published. The first essay in the book, which also featured examples of his photography, was Adams's "A Personal Credo, 1943". In the essay, Adams explained how the use of his "Zone System" allowed the photographer to pre-visualize the final image. "The Zone System" was described as a "tool" for controlling the picture image based on a foreknowledge of four interlocked variables that were unique to the medium of photography: sensitivity of the negative paper, exposure time, lighting and studio development. The "Zone System" was a way to measure gradations (ten in total) of natural light (0 = black; IX = white) with the various gradations in shade falling somewhere between those limits. As Adams described "pre-visualization" would exist "at, or before, the moment of exposure of the negative" and from "that moment on to the final print, the process [would be] chiefly one of craft."

Despite his increased stature in the field of fine art photography, however, Adams continued to struggle financially. To bring in income, he took on a variety of commercial projects: for the National Park Service, Kodak, Zeiss, IBM, AT&T, and the University of California. He also worked for magazines including Life, Fortune, and Arizona Highways. Adams put his technical knowledge to use as a photographic consultant for Polaroid and Hasselblad too. Although he was kept busy with commissions and other commercial work, including the production of photography manuals, the financial strain of life as a professional photographer troubled him for most of his life.

Arguably his most satisfying personal triumph began in 1936 when, in his capacity as a member of its board of directors, the Sierra Club sent Adams to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the creation of a Kings Canyon National Park. Armed with his portfolios, he met with politicians in the hope that they might be persuaded by the region's overwhelming natural beauty (as captured in his photographs). Though he left without assurances, he published a book of his photographs of the Sierra Nevada two years later, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. Adams sent a copy of the book to the National Park Service and Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior. Ickes duly forwarded the book to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was so moved by Adams's photographs of the canyon he signed legislation allowing for the creation of Kings Canyon National Park in 1940.

Late Period

Ansel Adams, <i>Yellowstone Falls</i> (1941). Adams was commissioned to photograph National Parks in 1941, a project that took him to Yellowstone.

Adams was committed throughout his professional life to the promotion of photography as a fine art. In 1940, he helped to establish the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, later co-curating its first exhibition Sixty Photographs: A Survey of Camera Aesthetics with the department's first curator Beaumont Newhall. In the years that followed, he developed a close friendship with Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, traveling with them to the Southwest and New England in the late 1940s. In addition to their work at the museum, Adams and Nancy Newhall collaborated in the 1950s and 1960s on several books and exhibitions.

Adams's willingness to share his knowledge of photography meant he was much in demand as a teacher and in 1941 he took up a teaching post at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. The same year, Adams was commissioned to photograph the National Parks by Secretary of the Interior (Harold Ickes). The resulting photographs were meant to be printed at mural size and hung at the Washington D.C. Department of the Interior building. However, the project was halted later that year when funding for the project was withdrawn (an unforeseen consequence of America's participation in World War II). Though he never produced the large-scale prints for the Interior Department, Adams remained so committed to the project that he applied for, and received, a Guggenheim grant to complete the project in 1946. He created an enormous body of work for the project that was published as a book and a limited-edition portfolio.

Though his most important and influential work was probably behind him, in his later years Adams spent much of his time working on books of his photographs and reinterpreting his earlier negatives; very often to dramatic new effect. In 1952, with Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, Dorothea Lange, Minor White and others, he co-founded the high-end photography magazine Aperture. In 1967 he helped set up the Friends of Photography, a group founded to promote photography as a fine art. Adams remained an active member of the Sierra Club until 1971 (acting as its president from 1934). He died in Monterey, California in 1984, aged eighty-two. In his honor, a section of the Sierra Nevada mountains that he loved so much was renamed the Ansel Adams Wilderness shortly after his passing.

The Legacy of Ansel Adams

Shortly after his death, Adams was honored by having his favorite section of the Sierra Nevada mountains named after him.

As a conservationist, writer, teacher, and photographer, Ansel Adams has been profoundly influential on future generations of artists, photographers, and environmentalists. There can be little doubt that he produced some of the most iconic images of the great American wilderness. Following in a long tradition of American landscape photographers, including Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, Timothy O'Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson, Adams brought landscape photography into the realm of modernism by fusing technical precision with a profound and abiding love of the natural world. His work has inspired a range of artists and photographers working in the landscape tradition, from Eliot Porter and Robert Adams, to Edward Burtynsky and Richard Misrach. The subject of countless documentaries, books, essays, and exhibitions, Adams's images appear on living room and museum walls, proving that his photographs of the great American landscape continue to resonate. In 1980 Adams was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter. The award was in recognition of Adams's contribution to photography and the preservation of the great American landscape. In his citation, President Carter stated that "It is through [Adams's] foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans."

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Content compiled and written by Karen Barber

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Ansel Adams Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Karen Barber
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 28 Nov 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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