Thumbing through various magazines as a kid, I saw some interesting black and white photos that I thought looked very interesting. One in particular was a night sky image taken in the desert that had a shot of the moon in the top right corner. I didn’t even really think of how famous the photograph was when I first saw it, I just knew I really enjoyed it. Some years later (2003) a friend of mine wanted to take me to an art museum in Springfield, Missouri to see a traveling exhibit. He mentioned it was an exhibit of Ansel Adams. I asked him who was that and he described him as a famous black and white photographer. I thought it was cool but didn’t take any interest at first because I didn’t recognize the photographer’s name at the time. When we got to the museum and I saw the Ansel Adams exhibit, I was shocked at how familiar I was to his photographs after all. I knew the artist’s work for years and didn’t even realize it! He’s an awesome photographer. I really enjoy his work.
He wasn’t just a photographer – he was also an environmentalist and was born on February 20, 1902 in San Francisco, California. His father was a businessman by the name of Charles Hitchcock Adams and his grandfather was a wealthy timber baron. When he was four years old, an aftershock of the great San Francisco Earthquake in 1906 threw him to the ground and broke his nose very badly which had distinctly marked him for life. Ansel was an only child and his mother was almost 40 years of age.
He had problems fitting in at school as a child due to his shyness, his nose and his genius. At one point later in his life he had noted that he might’ve been diagnosed as being hyperactive. He may have also suffered from dyslexia. His parents sent him to several different schools, but he wasn’t very successful. His dad and aunt ended up tutoring him. He got a “legitimizing diploma” from the Mrs. Kate M. Wilkins Private School, equivalent to completing 8th grade.
He had a very solitary childhood, and he found joy in nature. He took long walks to the Golden Gate Bridge, hiking the dunes and meandering along Lobos Creek.
At the age of 12, he taught himself how to play the piano and read music. This was his primary occupation and in 1920 became his intended profession. Even though eventually he gave up music for photography, the piano brought discipline to his frustrating and erratic youth. Also, the training as a musician profoundly informed his visual artistry as well as influential writings and teachings on photography.
His first camera was a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie that his parents gave him and from 1916 to his death he spent a lot of time in the Yosemite Sierra. He had hiked and climbed and explored the area and he gained self-esteem and self-confidence and joined the sierra club in 1919. He met Virginia Best and they both were married in 1928 and had 2 children. The marriage ended his attempt at a music career.
The Sierra Club scene played an important role in Ansel’s early photography success. The club’s 1922 Bulletin featured his first published photographs and in 1928 he had his first one man exhibition at the club’s San Francisco headquarters. Also, each summer the club would have a month long hiking trip normally in the Sierra Nevada. The participants hiked each day to a new campsite, as the official photographer of the outings he realized he could earn enough to survive with his photographs.
In 1927 he made his first fully visualized photograph “The Face of Half Dome”. He also met San Francisco insurance magnate Albert M. Bender. Bender was also a patron of arts and artists. Right after they met, he literally set out to prepare and publish Adams’ first portfolio! This changed Ansel’s life tremendously! He than was able to pursue his dreams.
He also made several trips to the southwest where he collaborated with Mary Austin and together published a book titled “Taos Pueblo” in 1930. He also met Paul Strand who is another photographer that inspired him to move away from the pictorial style he favored to a more “straight photography.” Ansel was about to become straight photography’s mast articulate and insistent master.
Even though he was profoundly a man of the west, during the 1930s and 1940s he spent a good amount of time in New York where he met photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Ansel admired Alfred’s work and philosophy. The Stieglitz circle played an important role in Ansel’s artistic life. The Delphic Gallery gave him his first show in New York in 1933 and in 1935 his first widely distributed book “Making A Photograph” was published.
All the recognition though didn’t get rid of his financial pressure. In 1935 he stated in a letter “I’ve been busy, but broke.” He spent a lot of his time working for clients such as The National Park Service, Kodak, Zeiss, IBM, AT&T, Life Magazine, Fortune Magazine and Arizona Highways Magazine. In 1938 he wrote to a friend “I had to do something in the near future to regain the right track in photography. I am literally swamped with commercial work. It is very restraining to my creative work.” He constantly worried about how he was going to pay his next month’s bills. This was very stressful for him until late in his life.
Ansel’s technical mastery was legendary. He was probably to photography what Jimi Hendrix was to guitar playing. He was arguably, probably the greatest photographer there ever was. He was frequently consulted for technical advice and was the principal photographic consultant for Polaroid. He also developed the famous and highly complex “zone system” of controlling and relating exposure and development, enabling photographers to creatively visualize an image and produce a photograph that matched and expressed that visualization. Books he has written on the topic are the most influential ever written on the subject.
He endlessly travelled the country looking for natural beauty to photograph. He also felt an intense commitment to promoting photography as a fine art and played a major role in the establishment of the first museum department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
He was a major activist in causes dealing with protecting the wilderness and the environment. Over the years he has been a part of several meetings and has written many letters in support of his conservation philosophy. However his greatest influence came from his photography. His pictures became the symbols of wild America. When people think about national parks or the nature of the environment itself, they often think about an Ansel Adams photograph.
Even though wilderness and the environment were his passions, photography was his calling but he never made a creative photograph specifically for environmental purposes. He was also criticized constantly for never including humans or evidence of them in his landscape pictures. French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once said “The world is falling to pieces and all Ansel Adams photographs is rocks and trees!” Many national parks are preserved and protected to this day, mainly because of Ansel and his colleagues efforts.
In September of 1983, he was confined to his bed for four weeks after a leg surgery to a remove a tumor and on April 22, 1984 at the age of 82 he passed away from a heart attack. His vast archive of papers, memorabilia, negatives and proof prints are in the John P. Schaefer Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona. He has received a number of awards during his lifetime and posthumously, even some have been named for him. In 1968 he was awarded the Conservation Service Award by the Department of the Interior and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. He was also inducted into the California Hall of Fame posthumously by Governor Arnold Shwarzenegger and in 1985 the Minarets Wilderness in the Inyo National Forest were renamed the Ansel Adams Wilderness and Mount Ansel Adams, and the Sierra Club’s Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography was created in 1971 and the Wilderness Society created the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation in 1980. In December of 1992, Abigail Foerstner wrote in an article in the Chicago Tribune about Ansel Adams: “He did for the national parks something comparable to what Homer’s epics did for Odysseus.”
This article is original, but I have to give credit where it’s due so here’s the bibliography.
Ansel Adams – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 19th October 2012. 15th and 20th October 2012 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ansel_Adams>.
Turnage, William. ANSEL ADAMS BIOGRAPHY | | The Ansel Adams GalleryThe Ansel Adams Gallery. 2012. 15th and 21st October 2012 http://www.anseladams.com/ansel-adams-information/ansel-adams-biography/.