Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams Presentation

Ansel Adams was born on February 20, 1902 and died on April 22, 1984; he was an only child in an upper class family. He grew up in San Francisco and was there in 1906 when the city was rocked by a large earthquake, he survived unharmed but fell and broke his nose during an aftershock. He was supposed to get it reset upon reaching adulthood but never did. As a child he had no interest in sports but took an interest in nature instead. At age 12 he began to teach himself to play the piano and to be a musician was his early life goal and brought structure and discipline to his youth. He first visited Yosemite National Park in 1914 with his family and was dazzled by the experience,

“the splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious. Little clouds were gathering in the sky above the granite cliffs, and the mists of Bridal Veil Fall shimmered in the sun. We trailed a drogue of dust as we gathered speed on the level valley floor. One wonder after another descended upon us; I recall not only the colossal but the little things: the grasses and ferns, cool atriums of the forest. The river was mostly quiet and greenish-deep; Sentinel Fall and Yosemite Falls were booming in the early summer flood, and many small shining cascades threaded the cliffs. There was light everywhere!”(Adams,53)

One of the first pictures he ever took was during an accidental fall from a rotting stump upon which he’d perched for a picture of Half Dome. After that summer he returned to Yosemite many times in the following years. In 1919 Adams joined the Sierra Club, a club founded in 1892 by John Muir, which is the oldest and largest grassroots environmentalist organization in the U.S. “To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; to practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives.” That is the mission statement for the Sierra Club. His first photographs were published in 1921 even though he was still an aspiring pianist. The summer was for hiking, camping and photography while the rest of the year was devoted to his music. In 1928 he married Virginia Best, who came from a family of artists that had a studio in Yosemite Valley. That marriage signaled the end of his musical career as well.
Adams’ career truly began in 1927 when he was contracted to make a portfolio, it was entitled Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras and was shot in the style he has come to be known for. However he did experiment with other techniques in the 1920s, pictorialism was popular at the time and he experimented with the style, a style that mimicked paintings, but ultimately rejected it for more realism through sharp focus, heightened contrast, precise exposure, and darkroom techniques. This excursion to the High Sierras was the first time he visualized what he wanted in the photograph and was able to reproduce that vision physically. Here is his definition of visualization,

“The camera makes an image-record of the object before it. It records the subject in terms of the optical properties of the lens, and the chemical and physical properties of the negative and print. The control of that record lies in the selection by the photographer and in his understanding of the photographic process at his command. The photographer visualizes his conception of the subject as presented in the final print. He achieves the expression of his visualization through his technique - aesthetic, intellectual, and mechanical.”(78)

Monolith the Face of Half Dome was one of his most striking photos from this excursion. It was a success and allowed Adams to make money doing photography. This was all made possible in 1926 when he was introduced to a man named Albert Bender. Bender was philanthropist, a successful businessman with an appreciation for the arts. Adams recognized the importance of good technique when it came to making prints as well as taking the photo itself. He learned much about printing techniques, inks, design, and layout which he later applied to other projects from a group called the Roxburghe Club. Up until 1930 Adams was still juggling both music and photography, it was in that year that he went to New Mexico and met the man that would help him to make up his mind, Paul Strand. Strand showed Adams some of his negatives, and those negatives inspired Ansel to the powers of photography as an expressive art. “I returned to San Francisco resolved that the camera, not the piano, would shape my destiny.”(109)

“With high energy I began to explore the personal photographic direction based on the inherent qualities of the photographic process itself. I abandoned my textured photographic papers and began using the same smooth, glossy surfaced papers sued by Paul Strand and Edward Weston to reveal every possible detail of the negative. I am unsure how much this change in paper affected my photographic seeing, but I suddenly could achieve a greater feeling of light and range of tones in my prints. I felt liberated; I could secure a good negative born from visualization and now consistently progress to a fine print on glossy paper.”(110)

His first solo exhibition was at the Smithsonian in 1931 and was made up of 60 prints taken in the High Sierras. His photos were very well received, however he felt they were lacking so he broadened his subject matter to include still-lifes and close-ups. He also began to visualize every image before capturing it to increase the quality of his photos. Natural light and small apertures were also a key factor in his photos (i.e.: Rose and Driftwood).
1932 marked the historical start of Group f/64. Adams was with a group of fellow, like-minded photographers that believed in straight photography, photos that looked like photos not imitations of other art forms. They came up with the name Group f/64 because it was an f-stop that many of these photographers used consistently in order to get great detail and large depth of field in their art. These artists defined what they felt creative photography should be and lent moral support to one another. Here is their manifesto,

The name of this Group is derived from a diaphragm number of the photographic lens. It signifies to a large extent the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image which is an important element in the work of members of this Group.
The chief object of the Group is to present in frequent shows what it considers the best contemporary photography of the West; in addition to the showing of the work of its members, it will include prints from other photographers who evidence tendencies in their work similar to that of the Group.
Group f/64 is not pretending to cover the entire spectrum of photography or to indicate through its selection of members any deprecating opinion of the photographers who are not included in its shows. There are great number of serious workers in photography whose style and technique does not relate to the métier of the Group.
Group f/64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art form by simple and direct presentation through purely photographic methods. The Group will show no work at any time that does not conform to its standards of pure photography. Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form. The production of the "Pictorialist," on the other hand, indicates a devotion to principles of art which are directly related to painting and the graphic arts.
The members of Group f/64 believe that photography, as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.(112)

Along with this manifesto the group displayed 80 photos in the de Young Museum. This created a backlash within the art community from artists claiming that photography was not art. The museum allowed the photos to be shown however. Adams became embroiled in a verbal conflict with William Mortensen, a well known pictorialist at the time. The feud lasted many years and Adams often said that Mortensen was the opposite of everything he believed in and stood for in photography. Adams was forced to do some commercial photography both to support his family and his creative works.
Adams used large format cameras because they allowed for the greatest resolution in the negatives. This also allowed him to shoot at very small apertures (f/64) which captured a large depth of field and a lot of detail. He often shot on glass plate negatives, they are fragile but they are of a higher quality and last much longer than film will. He frequently used filters to heighten or lessen contrast within his images. With Monolith he used a dark red filter to make the sky darker, the way he visualized it. For Adams, and Group f/64 the technique was of the utmost importance. They called it straight photography, capturing the world as it is (as they see it). Adams loved nature, he was a strong advocate for preservation of our natural resources and as such nature is the common theme in his photography. He did some portraiture as well but he is mostly known for his landscapes. Often mountains or waterfalls, beautiful yet imposing vistas that a select few have witnessed in person. People today often go to the sights of some of his more famous landmark photos and attempt to recreate them for themselves. One book in particular called Yosemite in Time (Mark Klett) is a book of contemporary photos trying to recreate some of the greatest photos taken in Yosemite. It if fascinating to see just how much the landscape has changed in some instances and how it has stayed the same in others. As much as his film camera was important and of the highest quality, Adams had to keep his own body in top form as well. He often was hiking in rough terrain, and inclement weather did not stop him from his cragt. Interestingly enough as a child he was quite often ill, but he credits the High Sierras for curing him. His love for them was pure, and he hated to see the parks destroyed by daily visitors to the park.
He also pioneered the Zone System, a technique of determining the tonal qualities of an image to assist the artist with composition. This technique is now taught to every aspiring photographer and discussed in most photographic books and magazines. Many people believe this system is too difficult and only complicates things for the artist. It was developed to give the artist maximum control over their subject matter, and allow them to more easily visualize the image and achieve it. Adams has written many articles and books on his techniques, both for the camera and the darkroom.
Ansel Adams was an artist. His photographs are art, science, personal, and now decades later archival/historical. They are all of these things and none of them at the same time. They are also commercial, his images are iconic and can be seen everywhere, in books, magazines, advertisements, and calendars. His work is so popular because he shows us the majesty of a Mother Nature untouched by men. Giving us a glimpse of what we can never really see, especially today after many decades of land development. It really is a testament to his skill with the camera that his images endure in today’s culture. Perhaps the best way to sum up the career of Ansel Adams would be to repeat what he told his mother when he decided to pursue photography as a career. She begged him to not give up on the piano because the camera cannot express the soul. He responded that perhaps the camera cannot, but the photographer can (110).


Adams, Ansel and Mary Street Alinder, Ansel Adams: As Autobiography, Boston: Little, Brown and Compnay, 1985. .

Szarkowski, John, The Portfolios of Ansel Adams, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977.