1902 - 1984

Photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams was born in San Francisco, California, the son of Charles Hitchcock Adams, a businessman, and Olive Bray.  The grandson of a wealthy timber baron, Adams grew up in a house set amid the sand dunes of the Golden Gate.  When Adams was only four, an aftershock of the great earthquake and fire of 1906 threw him to the ground and badly broke his nose, distinctly marking him for life.  A year later, the family fortune collapsed in the financial panic of 1907, and Adams’s father spent the rest of his life doggedly but fruitlessly attempting to recoup.

The most important result of Adams’s somewhat solitary and unmistakably different childhood was the joy that he found in nature, as evidenced by his taking long walks in the still-wild reaches of the Golden Gate.  Nearly every day found him hiking the dunes or meandering along Lobos Creek, down to Baker Beach, or out to the very edge of the American continent.

When Adams was twelve, he taught himself to play the piano and read music.  Soon he was taking lessons, and the ardent pursuit of music became his substitute for formal schooling.  For the next dozen years the piano was Adams’s primary occupation and, by 1920, his intended profession.  Although he ultimately gave up music for photography, the piano brought substance, discipline, and structure to his frustrating and erratic youth.  Moreover, the careful training and exacting craft required of a musician profoundly informed his visual artistry, as well as his influential writings and teachings on photography.

If Adams’s love of nature was nurtured in the Golden Gate, his life was, in his words, “colored and modulated by the great earth gesture” of the Yosemite Sierra.  He spent substantial time there every year from 1916 until his death. From his first visit, Adams was transfixed and transformed.  He began using the Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie his parents had given him.  He hiked, climbed, and explored, gaining self-esteem and self-confidence.  In 1919 he joined the Sierra Club and spent the first of four summers in Yosemite Valley, as “keeper” of the club’s LeConte Memorial Lodge.  He became friends with many of the club’s leaders, who were founders of America’s nascent conservation movement.  He met his wife, Virginia Best, in Yosemite; they were married in 1928.  The couple had two children.

The Sierra Club was vital to Adams’s early success as a photographer.  His first published photographs and writings appeared in the club’s 1922 Bulletin, and he had his first one-man exhibition in 1928 at the club’s San Francisco headquarters.  Each summer the club conducted a month-long “High Trip,” usually in the Sierra Nevada, which attracted up to two hundred members.  The participants hiked each day to a new and beautiful campsite accompanied by a large contingent of pack mules, packers, cooks, and the like.  As photographer of these outings, in the late 1920s, Adams began to realize that he could earn enough to survive — indeed, that he was far more likely to prosper as a photographer than as a concert pianist.  By 1934, Adams had been elected to the club’s board of directors and was well-established as both the artist of the Sierra Nevada and the defender of Yosemite.

1927 was the pivotal year of Adams’s life.  He made his first fully visualized photograph, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, and took his first “High Trip.”  More important, he came under the influence of Albert M. Bender, a San Francisco insurance magnate and patron of arts and artists.  Literally the day after they met, Bender set in motion the preparation and publication of Adams’ first portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras [sic].  Bender’s friendship, encouragement, and tactful financial support changed Adams’s life dramatically. His creative energies and abilities as a photographer blossomed, and he began to have the confidence and wherewithal to pursue his dreams.  Indeed, Bender’s benign patronage triggered the transformation of a journeyman concert pianist into the artist whose photographs, as critic Abigail Foerstner wrote in the Chicago Tribune (Dec. 3, 1992), “did for the national parks something comparable to what Homer’s epics did for Odysseus.”

Although Adams’s transition from musician to photographer did not happen at once, his passion shifted rapidly after Bender came into his life, and the projects and possibilities multiplied.  In addition to spending summers photographing in the Sierra Nevada, Adams made several lengthy trips to the Southwest to work with Mary Austin, grande dame of the western literati.  Their magnificent limited-edition book, Taos Pueblo, was published in 1930.  In the same year, Adams met photographer Paul Strand, whose images had a powerful impact on him and helped to move him away from the “pictorial” style he had favored in the 1920s.  Adams began to pursue “straight photography,” in which the clarity of the lens was emphasized, and the final print gave no appearance of being manipulated in the camera or the darkroom.  Adams was soon to become straight photography’s mast articulate and insistent champion.

In 1927, Adams met photographer Edward Weston.  They became increasingly important to each other as friends and colleagues. The renowned Group f/64, founded in 1932, coalesced around the recognized greatness of Weston and the dynamic energy of Adams. Although loosely organized and relatively short-lived, Group f/64 brought the new West Coast vision of straight photography to national attention and influence.  San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum promptly gave f/64 an exhibition and, in that same year, gave Adams his first one-man museum show.

Adams’s star rose rapidly in the early 1930s, propelled in part by his ability and in part by his effusive energy and activity.  He made his first visit to New York in 1933, on a pilgrimage to meet photographer Alfred Stieglitz, the artist whose work and philosophy Adams most admired and whose life of commitment to the medium he consciously emulated.  Their relationship was intense and their correspondence frequent, rich, and insightful.  Although profoundly a man of the West, Adams spent a considerable amount of time in New York during the 1930s and 1940s, and the Stieglitz circle played a vital role in his artistic life.

In 1933, the Delphic Gallery gave Adams his first New York show.  His first series of technical articles was published in Camera Craft in 1934, and his first widely distributed book, Making a Photograph, appeared in 1935.  Most important, in 1936, Stieglitz gave Adams a one-man show at An American Place.

Adams was compelled to spend much of his time as a commercial photographer.  Clients ran the gamut, including the Yosemite concessionaire, the National Park Service, Kodak, Zeiss, IBM, AT&T, a small women’s college, a dried fruit company, and Life, Fortune, and Arizona Highways magazines — in short, everything from portraits to catalogues to Coloramas.  On 2 July 1938, he wrote to friend David McAlpin, “I have to do something in the relatively near future to regain the right track in photography.  I am literally swamped with “commercial” work — necessary for practical reasons, but very restraining to my creative work.”

Adams’s technical mastery was the stuff of legend.  More than any creative photographer, before or since, he reveled in the theory and practice of the medium.  Weston and Strand frequently consulted him for technical advice.  He served as principal photographic consultant to Polaroid and Hasselblad and, informally, to many other photographic concerns.  Adams 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.  He produced ten volumes of technical manuals on photography, which are the most influential books ever written on the subject.

Adams’s energy and capacity for work were simply colossal.  He often labored for eighteen or more hours per day, for days and weeks on end.  There were no vacations, no holidays, no Sundays in Ansel Adams’s life.  Frequently, after and intense period of work, he would return to San Francisco or Yosemite, promptly contract the “flu,” and spend several days in bed.  His hyper-kinetic existence was also fueled by alcohol, for which he had a particular fondness, and a constant whirl of social activity, friends, and colleagues.  As Beaumont Newhall writes in his FOCUS: Memoirs of a Life in Photography (1993), “Ansel was a great party man and loved to entertain. He had a very dominating personality, and would always be the center of attention.”

Adams described himself as a photographer — lecturer — writer.  It would perhaps be more accurate to say that he was simply — indeed, compulsively — a communicator.  He endlessly traveled the country in pursuit of both the natural beauty he revered and photographed and the audiences he required.  Adams felt an intense commitment to promoting photography as a fine art and played a key role in the establishment of the first museum department of photography, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  The work at the museum fostered the closest relationships of Adams’s life, with Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, a historian and museum administrator and a writer-designer, respectively.  Their partnership was arguably the most potent collaboration in twentieth-century photography.  In the 1950s and 1960s Nancy Newhall and Adams created a number of books and exhibitions of historic significance, particularly the Sierra Club’s This is the American Earth (1960), which, with Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring, played a seminal role in launching the first broad-based citizen environmental movement.

Adams was an unremitting activist for the cause of wilderness and the environment.  Over the years he attended innumerable meetings and wrote thousands of letters in support of his conservation philosophy to newspaper editors, Sierra Club and Wilderness Society colleagues, government bureaucrats, and politicians. However, his great influence came from his photography.  His images became the symbols, the veritable icons, of wild America.  When people thought about the national parks of the Sierra Club or nature of the environment itself, the often envisioned them in terms of an Ansel Adams photograph. His black-and-white images were not “realistic” documents of nature.  Instead, they sought an intensification and purification of the psychological experience of natural beauty.  He created a sense of the sublime magnificence of nature that infused the viewer with the emotional equivalent of wilderness, often more powerful than the actual thing.

Though wilderness and the environment were his grand passions, photography was his calling, his metier, his raison d’etre.  Adams never made a creative photograph specifically for environmental purposes.  On 12 April 1977 he wrote to his publisher, Tim Hill, “I know I shall be castigated by a large group of people today, but I was trained to assume that art related to the elusive quality of beauty and that the purpose of art was concerned with the elevation of the spirit (horrible Victorian notion!!)” Adams was often criticized for failing to include humans or evidence of “humanity” in his landscape photographs.  The great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson made the well-known comment that “the world is falling to pieces and all Adams and Weston photograph is rocks and trees.”).

Reviewers frequently characterize Adams as a photographer of an idealized wilderness that no longer exists.  On the contrary, the places that Adams photographed are, with few exceptions, precisely those wilderness and park areas that have been preserved for all time.  There is a vast amount of true and truly protected wilderness in America, much of it saved because of the efforts of Adams and his colleagues.

Seen in a more traditional art history context, Adams was the last and defining figure in the romantic tradition of nineteenth-century American landscape painting and photography.  He always claimed he was not “influenced,” but, consciously or unconsciously, he was firmly in the tradition of Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, Carlton Watkins, and Eadweard Muybridge.  And he was the direct philosophical heir of the American Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir.  He grew up in a time and place where his zeitgeist was formed by the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and “muscular” Americanism, by the pervading sense of manifest destiny, and the notion that European civilization was being reinvented — much for the better — in the new nation and, particularly, in the new West.  Adams died in Monterey, California.

Oxford University Press