by Gerald Boerner
“It is easy to take a photograph, but it is harder to make a masterpiece in photography than in any other art medium.”
— Ansel Adams
“His photographs are like portraits of the giant peaks, which seem to be inhabited by mythical gods.”
— Washington Post
“Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form.”
— Group f/64
“…the splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious… One wonder after another descended upon us… There was light everywhere… A new era began for me.”
— Ansel Adams
“I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print.”
— Ansel Adams
“My photographs have now reached a stage when they are worthy of the world’s critical examination. I have suddenly come upon a new style which I believe will place my work equal to anything of its kind.”
— Ansel Adams
“I know that I am one with beauty and that my comrades are one. Let our souls be mountains, Let our spirits be stars, Let our hearts be worlds.”
— Ansel Adams’ Gaelic Mantra
“Ansel Adams attuned himself more precisely than any photographer before him to a visual understanding of the specific quality of the light that fell on a specific place at a specific moment. For Adams the natural landscape is not a fixed and solid sculpture but an insubstantial image, as transient as the light that continually redefines it. This sensibility to the specificity of light was the motive that forced Adams to develop his legendary photographic technique.”
— John Szarkowski, N.Y. Museum of Modern Art
“We all know the tragedy of the dustbowls, the cruel unforgivable erosions of the soil, the depletion of fish or game, and the shrinking of the noble forests. And we know that such catastrophes shrivel the spirit of the people… The wilderness is pushed back, man is everywhere. Solitude, so vital to the individual man, is almost nowhere.”
— Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams (1902 – 1984)
Ansel Easton Adams was an American photographer and environmentalist, best known for his black-and-white photographs of the American West and primarily Yosemite National Park.
For his images, he developed the zone system, a way to determine proper exposure and adjust the contrast of the final print. The resulting clarity and depth characterized his photographs. Although his large-format view cameras were difficult to use because of their size, weight, setup time, and film cost, their high resolution ensured sharpness in his images.
He founded the Group f/64 along with fellow photographers Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, which in turn created the Museum of Modern Art’s department of photography. Adams’s timeless and visually stunning photographs are reproduced on calendars, posters, and in books, making his photographs widely recognizable.
Adams was a hyperactive child and prone to frequent sickness. He had few friends but his family home and surroundings on the heights facing San Francisco Bay provided ample childhood activities. Although he had no patience for games or sports, the curious child took to nature at an early age, collecting bugs and exploring the nearby beach. His father bought a telescope and they shared the hobby enthusiastically. His parents raised him to follow the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson, to live a modest, moral life guided by a social responsibility to man and to nature.
After the death of his grandfather and the aftermath of the Panic of 1907, his father’s business suffered great financial losses and by 1912, the family’s standard of living had dropped sharply. After young Ansel was dismissed from several private schools for his restlessness and inattentiveness, his father decided to pull him out of school in 1915, at the age of 12. Adams was then educated by private tutors, his Aunt Mary, and by his father. During the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, his father insisted that, as part of his education, Adams spend a good part of each day studying the exhibits. After a while, Adams resumed and then completed his formal education by attending another private school until eighth grade.
Music became the main focus of his later youth. Possessing a photographic memory, Adams quickly learned to read music and play the piano. Through a series of dedicated piano teachers, the regimen of grueling piano exercises and strict discipline quieted his hyperactivity and his musical skills blossomed. Music also provided the channeled emotional outlet he had craved. He applied himself seriously toward becoming a concert pianist.
Adams first visited Yosemite National Park in 1916 with his family. The famous valley was the first place in the United States to be designated a protected nature area by a Congressional act, signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1864. He wrote of his first view of the valley which so inspired him, “the splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious… One wonder after another descended upon us… There was light everywhere… A new era began for me." His father gave him his first camera, a Kodak Brownie box camera, during that stay and he took his first photographs with his “usual hyperactive enthusiasm”. He returned to Yosemite on his own the following year with better cameras and a tripod. In the winter, he learned basic darkroom technique working part-time for a San Francisco photo finisher. Adams avidly read photography magazines, attended camera club meetings, and went to photography and art exhibits. With his Uncle Frank he explored the High Sierra, in summer and winter, developing the stamina and skill needed to photograph at high altitude and under difficult weather conditions.
Close-up of leaves
In Glacier National Park
While in Yosemite, he had frequent contact with the Best family, owners of Best’s Studio, who allowed him to practice on their old square piano. In 1928, Ansel Adams married Virginia Best in Best’s Studio in Yosemite Valley. Virginia inherited the studio from her artist father on his death in 1935, and the Adams continued to operate the studio until 1971. The studio, now known as the Ansel Adams Gallery, remains in the hands of the Adams family.
At age 17, Adams joined the Sierra Club, a group dedicated to preserving the natural world’s wonders and resources, and he was the custodian of the organization’s headquarters at Yosemite, for four years. He remained a member throughout his lifetime and served as a director, as did his wife. He was first elected to the Sierra Club’s board of directors in 1934, and served on the board for 37 years. Adams participated in the club’s annual "high trips", and was later responsible for several first ascents in the Sierra Nevada.
In 1927, Adams contracted for his first portfolio, in his new style, which included his famous image Monolith, the vertical western face of Half Dome taken with his Korona view camera utilizing glass plates and a dark red filter (to heighten the tonal contrasts). On that excursion, he had only one plate left and he “visualized” the effect of the blackened sky before risking the last shot. As he stated, “I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print”. As he wrote confidently in April, 1927, “My photographs have now reached a stage when they are worthy of the world’s critical examination. I have suddenly come upon a new style which I believe will place my work equal to anything of its kind.”
With the sponsorship and promotion of Albert Bender, an arts-connected businessman, Adams’s first portfolio was a success (earning nearly $3,900) and soon he received commercial assignments to photograph the wealthy patrons who bought his portfolio. Adams also came to understand how important it was that his carefully crafted photos were reproduced to best effect. At Bender’s invitation, he joined the prestigious Roxburghe Club, an association devoted to fine printing and high standards in book arts. He learned much about printing techniques, inks, design, and layout which he later applied to other projects. Unfortunately, at that time, most of his darkroom work was still being done in the basement of his parent’s home, and he was somewhat limited by barely adequate equipment.
Evening, McDonald Lake,
Glacier National Park
After a cooling off period with Virginia Best during 1925–6, during which he had short-lasting relationships with various women, many of them students of his mentor Cedric Wright, he married Virginia in 1928. The newlyweds moved in with his parents to save expenses. His marriage also marked the end of his serious attempt at a musical career, as well as her ambitions to be a classical singer.
Between 1929 and 1942, Adams’ works became more mature and he became more established. In the course of his 60-year career, the 1930s were a particularly productive and experimental time. Adams expanded his works, focusing on detailed close-ups as well as large forms from mountains to factories. In 1930 Taos Pueblo, Adams second portfolio, was published with text by writer Mary Austin.
In New Mexico, he was introduced to notables from Stieglitz’s circle, including painter Georgia O’Keeffe, artist John Marin, and photographer Paul Strand, all of whom created famous works during their stays in the Southwest. Adams’s talkative, high-spirited nature combined with his excellent piano playing made him a hit within his enlarging circle of elite artist friends. Strand especially proved influential, sharing secrets of his technique with Adams, and finally convincing Adams to pursue photography with all his talent and energy. One of Strand’s suggestions which Adams immediately adopted was to use glossy paper rather than matte to intensify tonal values.
Through a friend with Washington connections Adams was able to put on his first solo museum exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in 1931, featuring 60 prints taken in the High Sierra. He received an excellent review from the Washington Post, “His photographs are like portraits of the giant peaks, which seem to be inhabited by mythical gods”. Despite his success, Adams felt he was not yet up to the standards of Strand. He decided to broaden his subject matter to include still life and close-up photos, and to achieve higher quality by “visualizing” each image before taking it. He emphasized the use of small apertures and long exposures in natural light, which created sharp details with a wide range of focus, as demonstrated in Rose and Driftwood (1933), one of his finest still-life photographs.
In 1932, Adams had a group show at the M. H. de Young Museum with Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston and they soon formed Group f/64, which espoused “pure or straight photography” over pictorialism (f/64 being a very small aperture setting that gives great depth of field). The group’s manifesto stated that “Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form”. In reality, “pure photography” did borrow from some of the established principles of painting, especially compositional balance and perspective, and some manipulation of subject and effect. By these standards, not only were “soft focus” lenses prohibited but Adams earlier photo Monolith, which used a strong red filter to create a black sky, would have been considered unacceptable.
In September 1941, Adams contracted with the Department of the Interior to make photographs of National Parks, Indian reservations, and other locations for use as mural-sized prints for decoration of the Department’s new building. Part of his understanding with the Department was that he might also make photographs for his own use, using his own film and processing. Although Adams kept meticulous records of his travel and expenses, he was less disciplined about recording the dates of his images, and neglected to note the date of Moonrise, so it was not clear whether it belonged to Adams or to the U.S. Government. But the position of the Moon allowed the image to eventually be dated from astronomical calculations, and it was determined that Moonrise was made on November 1, 1941, a day for which he had not billed the Department, so the image belonged to Adams. The same was not true for many of his other negatives, including The Tetons and the Snake River, which, having been made for the Mural Project, became the property of the U.S. Government.
Farm workers at Manzanar
War Relocation Center
with Mt. Williamson
in the background.
Adams was distressed by the Japanese American Internment that occurred after the Pearl Harbor attack. He requested permission to visit the Manzanar War Relocation Center in the Owens Valley, at the foot of Mount Williamson. The resulting photo-essay first appeared in a Museum of Modern Art exhibit, and later was published as Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans. He also contributed to the war effort by doing many photographic assignments for the military, including making prints of secret Japanese installations in the Aleutians. Adams was the recipient of three Guggenheim fellowships during his career, the first in 1946 to photograph every National Park. This series of photographs produced memorable images of “Old Faithful Geyser”, Grand Teton, and Mount McKinley.
In 1945, Adams was asked to form the first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA). Adams invited Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham and Minor White to become faculty members.
In 1952 Adams was one of the founders of the magazine Aperture, which was intended as a serious journal of photography showcasing its best practitioners and newest innovations. He was also a contributor to Arizona Highways, a photo-rich travel magazine which continues today. His article on Mission San Xavier del Bac, with text by longtime friend Nancy Newhall, was enlarged into a book published in 1954. This was the first of many collaborations with her. In June 1955, Adams began his annual workshops, teaching thousands of students until 1981.
By the 1950s, Adams came to believe that he was on the down side of his creative life. He continued with commercial assignments for another twenty years and became a consultant on a monthly retainer for Polaroid Corporation, founded by good friend Edwin Land. He made thousands of photographs with Polaroid products, El Capitan, Winter, Sunrise (1968) being the one he considered his most memorable. In the final twenty years of his life, the Hasselblad was his camera of choice, with Moon and Half Dome (1960) being his favorite photo made with that brand of camera.
Contributions and influence
Romantic landscapists Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran portrayed the Grand Canyon and Yosemite at the end of their reign, and were subsequently displaced by daredevil photographers Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, and George Fiske. But it was Adams’s black-and-white photographs of the West which became the foremost record of what many of the National Parks were like before tourism, and his persistent advocacy helped expand the National Park system. He skillfully used his works to promote many of the goals of the Sierra Club and of the nascent environmental movement, but always insisted that, as far as his photographs were concerned, “beauty comes first”. His stirring images are still very popular in calendars, posters, and books.
Realistic about development and the subsequent loss of habitat, Adams advocated for balanced growth, but was pained by the ravages of “progress”. He stated, “We all know the tragedy of the dustbowls, the cruel unforgivable erosions of the soil, the depletion of fish or game, and the shrinking of the noble forests. And we know that such catastrophes shrivel the spirit of the people… The wilderness is pushed back, man is everywhere. Solitude, so vital to the individual man, is almost nowhere.”
Adams co-founded Group f/64 with other masters like Edward Weston, Willard Van Dyke, and Imogen Cunningham. With Fred Archer, he pioneered the zone system, a technique for translating perceived light into specific densities on negatives and paper, giving photographers better control over finished photographs. Adams also advocated the idea of visualization (which he often called ‘previsualization’, though he later acknowledged that term to be a redundancy) whereby the final image is “seen” in the mind’s eye before taking the photo, toward the goal of achieving all together the aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and mechanical effects desired. He taught these and other techniques to thousands of amateur photographers through his publications and his workshops. His many books about photography, including the Morgan & Morgan Basic Photo Series (The Camera, The Negative, The Print, Natural Light Photography, and Artificial Light Photography) have become classics in the field.
He was elected in 1966 a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1980 Jimmy Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
The Tetons and the
Snake River (1942)
Adams’s photograph The Tetons and the Snake River has the distinction of being one of the 115 images recorded on the Voyager Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft. These images were selected to convey information about humans, plants and animals, and geological features of the Earth to a possible alien civilization. These photographs eloquently mirror his favorite saying, a Gaelic mantra, which states “I know that I am one with beauty and that my comrades are one. Let our souls be mountains, Let our spirits be stars, Let our hearts be worlds.”
His lasting legacy includes helping to elevate photography to an art comparable with painting and music, and equally capable of expressing emotion and beauty. As he reminded his students, “It is easy to take a photograph, but it is harder to make a masterpiece in photography than in any other art medium”.
“Ansel Adams,” wrote John Szarkowski, of the N.Y. Museum of Modern Art, “attuned himself more precisely than any photographer before him to a visual understanding of the specific quality of the light that fell on a specific place at a specific moment. For Adams the natural landscape is not a fixed and solid sculpture but an insubstantial image, as transient as the light that continually redefines it. This sensibility to the specificity of light was the motive that forced Adams to develop his legendary photographic technique.”
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Ansel Adams that can be found at…
Ansel Adams Biography…