Ansel Adams (1902-1984) was not only a masterful photographic technician but a lifelong conservationist who pleaded for understanding of, and respect for, the natural environment. Although he spent a large part of his career in commercial photography, he is best known for his majestic landscape photographs.
Ansel Easton Adams was born on February 20, 1902, in San Francisco, California, near the Golden Gate Bridge. His father, a successful businessman, sent his son to private, as well as public, schools; beyond such formal education, however, Adams was largely self-taught.
His earliest aspiration was to become a concert pianist, but he turned to photography in the late teens of the century; a trip to Yosemite National Park in 1916, where he made his first amateurish photos, is said to have determined his direction in life. Subsequently, he worked as photo technician for a commercial firm.
He joined the Sierra Club in 1919 and worked as a caretaker in their headquarters in Yosemite Valley. Later in life, from 1936 to 1970, Adams was president of the Sierra Club, one of the many distinguished positions that he held.
Ansel Adams decided to become a full time professional photographer at about the time that some of his work was published in limited edition portfolios, one entitled Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras (1927) and the other, Taos Pueblo (1930), with a text written by Mary Austin.
His first important one-man show was held in San Francisco in 1932 at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum. Subsequently, he opened the Ansel Adams Gallery for the Arts, taught, lectured, and worked on advertising assignments in the San Francisco area; during the 1930s he also began his extensive publications on the craft of photography, insisting throughout his life on the importance of meticulous craftsmanship. In 1936 Alfred Stieglitz gave Adams a one-man show in his New York gallery, only the second of the work of a young photographer (in 1917 Paul Strand was the first) to be exhibited by Stieglitz.
In 1937 Adams moved to Yosemite Valley close to his major subject and began publishing a stream of superbly produced volumes including Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail (1938); Illustrated Guide to Yosemite Valley (1940); Yosemite and the High Sierra (1948); and My Camera in Yosemite Valley (1949).
In 1930 Adams met the venerable Paul Strand while they were working in Taos, New Mexico, and the man and his work had a lasting effect on Adams' approach to photography by shifting his approach from a soft formulation of subjects to a much clearer, harder treatment, so-called "straight photography." This orientation was further reinforced by his association with the shortlived, but influential, group which included Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham and called itself f/64, referring to the lens opening which virtually guarantees distinctness of image.
Throughout much of his early career Adams worked both on commercial assignments and in pursuit of his own vision. He saw no inherent conflict between the two approaches since, as he affirmed, "I don't have any idea that commercialism or professionalism is on one side of the fence and the creative side is on the other. They're both interlocked."
In one sense Ansel Adams' work is an extensive documentation of what is still left of the wilderness, the dwindling untouched segment of the natural environment. Yet to see his work only as documentary is to miss the main point that he tried to make: without a guiding vision, photography is a trivial activity. The finished product, as Adams saw it, must be visualized before it is executed; and he shared with 19th century artists and philosophers the belief that this vision must be embedded within the context of life on earth. Photographs, he believed, are not taken from the environment but are made into something greater than themselves.
During his life, Ansel Adams was criticized for photographing rocks while the world was falling apart; he responded to the criticism by suggesting that "the understanding of the inanimate and animate world of nature will aid in holding the world of man together."
Further Reading on Ansel Adams
A great deal has been written by and about Ansel Adams; of particular value are two books that are superbly illustrated with his work. Nancy Hewhall's Ansel Adams: The Eloquent Light (1963) provides a good analysis of his work and place in the history of photography; and Ansel Adams' book Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs (1983) is a firsthand account of his working methods. For a deeper understanding of his thinking see his essays "What is good photography?" (1940), "A personal credo" (1944), and "Introduction to Portfolio One" (1948) all in Nathan Lyons, Photographers on Photography (1966). In 1985 Ansel Adams: An Autobiography, written with Mary S. Alinder, was published with 277 illustrations.