Ansel Adams was a renowned American photographer and environmentalist. Although his initial ambition was to become a pianist, he was equally passionate about photography and it was only in the middle of his twenties that he realized that he would make a better photographer than a musician. By that time he had become a member of the Sierra Club and had started hiking with them, developing a keen interest in its conservation. His journey as photographer was long and tough and for a long period, he had to sustain himself by accepting commercial assignments. But his genius was apparent from the beginning and his very first portfolio was highly appreciated by all. Later, he started working for the conservation of what was left of the wilderness in the American West. He not only fought to restrict use of national park areas, but also fought to create new parks and wildernesses. Protection of redwood forests, sea lions and sea otters was also close to his heart.
Childhood & Early Years
Ansel Easton Adams was born on February 20, 1902 in San Francisco. He was the only son of Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray Adams. Initially Charles was involved with running of the lumber trading business established by his father. Later he set up an insurance agency and a chemical factory.
Ansel enjoyed a close bond with his father, who taught him to lead a modest life with equal responsibility to man and nature. Initially, they lived in the Western Addition neighborhood in San Francisco.
In 1906, while they were still living there, a devastating earthquake shook the city. Four-year-old Ansel was thrust against a wall in an aftershock and broke his nose. It could not be repaired and he lived with a crooked nose all his life.
In 1907, the family moved to a new residence, from where one could see the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands. Little Ansel, who was sickly and hyperactive, did not have many friends, but the landscape around his home kept him occupied.
When he became a little older, he was enrolled into a number of public and private schools. Unable to adjust, he was dismissed from each of them. In 1914, as he turned twelve, his father took him out of school to be educated at home.
At home, Ansel continued his education under the supervision of private tutors. He also studied with his father and Aunt Mary, his mother’s sister. When he was free, he explored Lobos Creek and collected bugs. With his father, he also enjoyed sky-watching.
Also in 1914, Ansel started taking piano lessons and soon made up his mind to take it up as a career option, continuing to work in that direction until 1920. Although he later gave it up in favor of photography, the training helped him to get over his hyperactivity and become more disciplined.
It is not known when, but after a while, he started attending Mrs. Kate M. Wilkins Private School, where he studied up to eighth grade and received his diploma on June 8, 1917. Meanwhile in 1916, his father took him to Yosemite National Park for a visit, which opened a new vista for him.
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Initiation into Photography
It was during this visit that Ansel Adams took his first shot with his new Kodak Brownie Box camera. It highly fascinated him. In 1917, he returned alone to the National Park; this time equipped with a better camera and tripod. The visit intensified his interest in photography.
On his return, he began to work part time for a San Francisco photo finisher just to learn the basics of darkroom technique. He also began reading photography magazines, attending camera clubs as well as photography exhibitions.
Eventually, he started exploring the Sierra Nevada mountain range with an amateur ornithologist. Through this, he began to develop the skill necessary for photographing under difficult weather conditions.
In 1919, he joined the Sierra Club, an organization devoted for protecting the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. Thereafter from 1920 to 1924, he worked as the summer caretaker of its visitor center in Yosemite Valley. He also took part in the club’s high altitude treks.
In 1922, he had his first photograph published in the club’s bulletin. While it showed careful composition, music still remained his main focus. Therefore, while he spent the summer months hiking and photographing in the Sierra Nevada, the rest of the year was spent in improving his piano techniques.
Over the time, he became more involved with the conservation programs of the Sierra Club. From the middle of the 1920s, he also started experimenting with soft-focus, etching, bromoil process, and other techniques. Yet, music remained the goal of his life.
Photography as Career Option
From the late 1920s, Ansel Adams started having doubts about his musical acumen and decided to take up photography as his career option. In 1927, he produced his first portfolio, titled ‘Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras’.
Containing 18 silver gelatin photographic prints, the portfolio was an instant hit. He not only earned $3900 from it, but also started getting commercial assignments. Concurrently, he continued to improve his techniques and in 1928 he had his first one-man exhibition at the club’s San Francisco headquarters.
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In the spring of 1929, Adams traveled to Mexico, staying there for two months. The shots he took there were published in a book form titled ‘Taos Pueblo’. Published in 1930, it had text written by nature writer Mary Hunter Austin and marked his transition from pictorial style to sharp-focused images.
In 1931, Adams had his first solo exhibition at Smithsonian Institution, which earned fantastic reviews from the ‘Washington Post.’ In the following year, he had a group show with Imogen Cunningham and Edward Henry Weston at the M. H. de Young Museum. The success of the show prompted them to form Group f/64.
In 1933, Adams opened the Ansel Adams Gallery for the Arts in San Francisco. Concurrently, he continued to visit Sierra Nevada, taking photos, among which, ‘Clearing Winter Storm’ (1935) being one of his most well-known works.
In 1936, he held a successful solo show at ‘An American Place’ gallery in New York, where he put up his recent works on Sierra Nevada, earning praise both from critics and buyers.
Slowly Ansel Adams began to get more involved in conservation of wilderness. In 1938, he created a limited-edition book, titled ‘Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail’. This book, along with his testimony before Congress, played a vital role in designating Sequoia and Kings Canyon as National Parks.
In 1940, Adams put together the largest photography show in the west. Called ‘A Pageant of Photography’, it was visited by millions of photography lovers. Concurrently, he began to work on a children’s book, titled ‘Illustrated Guide to Yosemite Valley’ and started taking photography classes.
In 1941, he was appointed as a teacher at the Art Center School of Los Angeles, where he also trained military photographers. This was also the year, when he visited New Mexico and shot his famous photograph, ‘Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico’.
In December 1941, as the USA joined the Second World War, President Roosevelt ordered relocation of more than a hundred thousand people of Japanese ancestry in Manzanar War Relocation Center in the Owens Valley. Adams visited the site and photographed the life at the camp.
Distressed by their condition, he published, ‘Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans’. The book created controversy and many labeled him as disloyal. At the same time, he contributed to the war effort by undertaking many photographic assignments for the military.
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In 1945, Adams formed the first fine art photography department at the San Francisco Art Institute. In the following year, he received Guggenheim fellowship to photograph every National Park in USA. His works on Old Faithful Geyser, Grand Teton, and Mount McKinley are still cherished by photography lovers.
In 1952, he cofounded the ‘Aperture’ magazine. This was also the time, when he began to contribute to different magazines on a regular basis, ‘Arizona Highways’ being one of them. Concurrently, he continued accepting commercial assignments.
In 1954, collaborating for the first time with Nancy Newhall, he published his works on Mission San Xavier del Bac in a book form. In the following year, he held his first big workshop, which turned into an annual event, teaching thousands of aspirants until 1981.
In 1963 he accepted a commission to produce a series of photographs to commemorate the centennial celebration of the University of California. The collection was published in 1967 as ‘Fiat Lux’ after the motto of the university.
This was also the time when art galleries, which had hitherto refused to consider photography a form of art, decided to show his works. Later in 1974, he travelled to France to attend the Rencontres d'Arles festival as the guest of honor.
The festival celebrated his works through screening and exhibitions, not only in 1974, but also in 1976, 1982 and 1985. Also in 1974, he had a major retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Cofounding the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona was another of his achievements during this period.
Towards the end of his career, Adams spent more time in the cause of environmentalism, focusing mainly on the protection of Yosemite from overuse and also on Big Sur coastline of California. He also spent considerable time on curating his negatives, reprinting them in order to meet the demands of the art museums.
'Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico', taken on November 1, 1941, is possibly Adam’s most popular work. It became so famous that at least 1,300 photographic prints were made during his career. On October 17, 2006, a print of this photograph was auctioned for $609,600 by Sotheby's.
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Other major works are ‘Monolith, the Face of Half Dome’ (1927), ‘Rose and Driftwood’ (1932), and ‘Clearing Winter Storm’ (1935). The last mentioned picture depicts the whole of Yosemite Valley covered with a fresh coat of snow just after a winter storm.
Awards & Achievements
In 1963, Ansel Adams received the Sierra Club John Muir Award.
In 1968, he was awarded with the Conservation Service Award by the Department of the Interior.
In 1980, Adams was awarded with the Presidential Medal for Freedom by the US President Jimmy Carter.
In 1981, he received the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography.
In 1966, Adams was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Personal Life & Legacy
In the early 1920s, while on a trip to Yosemite National Park, Ansel Adams met Virginia Best, whose father owned the Best’s Studio in the Park. They got married in the same studio in 1928. They had two children, Michael born in 1933 and Anne born in 1935.
On April 22, 1984, Adams died from cardiovascular disease at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in Monterey, California. He was then 82 years old. He was survived his wife, two children and five grandchildren.
In 1985, the Minarets Wilderness in the Inyo National Forest was renamed as Ansel Adams Wilderness. Moreover, an 11,760-foot high peak, located within the Wilderness was named Mount Ansel Adams.
The Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography, established in 1971 by Sierra Club and Ansel Adams Award for Conservation established in 1980 by the Wilderness Society continues to carry his legacy.
In 2007, Adams was inducted into the California Hall of Fame.
When the Voyager spacecraft was launched in 1977, Adams's photograph ‘The Tetons and the Snake River’ was included among the 115 images recorded on the Voyager Golden Record.
In his later years, he highly disapproved of his family’s lumber business because of environmental reasons.
When his mother died in 1950, he chose the cheapest casket, not out of disrespect for his mother, but because he believed in modest living.