Ansel Adams

Dafato Team | Feb 22, 2024

Table of Content


Ansel Easton Adams († April 22, 1984 in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California) was an American photographer, author, and teacher of fine art photography. He became best known for his striking landscape and nature photographs of the national parks, national monuments, and wilderness areas of the western United States, which he championed throughout his life.

As a co-founder of the group f

Childhood and early years

Ansel Easton Adams was the only child of Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray Adams, a San Francisco merchant family. The boy was named after his uncle Ansel Easton. The Adams family came from New England on his father's side. The family had immigrated in the early years of the 18th century, coming from Northern Ireland. The grandfather had established a prosperous lumber business in San Francisco, succeeding Adams' father Charles. His mother's family was from Baltimore, and his maternal grandfather had settled in Carson City, Nevada, as a transportation entrepreneur and land speculator.

Adams' parents were politically liberal, otherwise rather conservative middle-class people. His father was an enthusiastic amateur astronomer who was interested in optical instruments in general and in photography in particular and owned a Kodak "Brownie-Bullseye" box camera as his most modern achievement; his mother was artistically ambitious and preferred to devote herself to porcelain painting.

Ansel Adams' first childhood memory was the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906, in which the four-year-old shattered his nasal bone as a result of a fall that was never repaired, giving Adams his distinctive crooked, left-facing nose. Because the Adams' lived in a home they built themselves in the dunes outside San Francisco, they were otherwise largely spared the effects of the quake.

The Panic of 1907, recessions

In 1907, Ansel's grandfather William James Adams died. His death and the first major stock market crash in the U.S., known as The Panic of 1907, were also accompanied by the demise of his company. The creeping recession of the following decades claimed all of the Adams' family fortune, and Ansel's father tried to salvage what little company capital remained. Collusion and share sales by Ansel's uncle, Ansel Easton, are said to have eventually led to another financial disaster. Ultimately, the bank took over the property and the once thriving company was broken up.

As a child, Ansel was often sickly, suffering from colds and various childhood illnesses. Still, he romped for hours climbing the steep cliffs on the nearby Pacific coast of Fort Scott or China Beach. The inquisitive boy collected insects and botanized plants. Moreover, he was enthusiastic about sports, but was always too impatient to concentrate on one sport. In 1912, Ansel contracted measles and had to spend two weeks in bed in a darkened room. To pass the time, his father explained to him his box camera and the ancient principle of the camera obscura that lay behind it, thus awakening the boy's interest in photography for the first time.

Ansel spent most of his elementary school years at the Rochambeau School in San Francisco. However, because he was considered a difficult child who was usually bored in class and often got into scuffles, he had to change schools several times. After a violent tantrum, he was finally expelled from school altogether and was home-schooled by his father, who taught him basic French and algebra. In addition, Charles Adams made sure that his son read English literary classics and received lessons in ancient Greek from a priest friend. As Adams described in his memoirs, during the numerous conversations with the clergyman, the realization quickly matured in him that he had to use his intellect to create his own critical view of the world, which, as he said, was directed "against intolerance, ignorance, and class arrogance." Around this time, a musical talent also became apparent in the boy, and so he received additional piano lessons starting in 1914.

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Turning to Music

In 1915, his father gave him an annual pass to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the world's fair held to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. The gigantic exposition left a lasting impression on the boy, and he was especially enthusiastic about the concerts that were performed in the exposition's festival hall, a huge domed structure, on an imposing organ. If possible, he did not miss any of the concerts. He also often visited the exhibition of paintings and sculptures at the Palace of Fine Arts, where works by Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Vincent van Gogh were on display.

In his quest for a regular high school diploma, Ansel subsequently attended several more schools, finally formally ending his school career with his eighth grade diploma.

From the age of 13, the boy received intensive piano lessons from an elderly lady named Marie Butler, a graduate of the New England Conservatory with many years of teaching experience. She possessed virtuosity in her playing and a profound knowledge of music theory and history; she knew how to extract a measure of discipline from the boy with a great deal of patience and perseverance and to awaken his fascination for the instrument. In 1918, she recommended young Adams to study music with composer Frederick Zech (1858-1926). Soon the desire to become a professional musician arose in Adams.

The Sierra, Yosemite and photography

Ansel Adams had first been on a vacation trip to Yosemite National Park with his parents in 1916. During the vacation, his father gave him a Kodak "Brownie" box camera, Ansel's first camera of his own. Passionate, the 14-year-old began capturing everything that came in front of his lens. The boy was so enthusiastic about the vacation that he continued to spend the summer months in the nature reserve in the following years. In 1919 Adams joined the Sierra Club founded by John Muir. In 1922, Adams published his first article for the Sierra Club Bulletin. He would eventually become a member of the Club's Board of Directors in 1934 (serving until 1971).

During a club trip to Yosemite in the summer of 1923, Adams again met his childhood friend, violinist and later photographer Cedric Wright (1907-1950). During a several-day excursion through the park, the friendship between the two nature lovers solidified, and they exchanged ideas about music and their mutual burgeoning interest in photography. Wright was concerned with pictorialism and favored creating portraits that were similar in technical quality to Edward Weston's early work. Through Wright, Adams became familiar with, among other things, the artistically printed books of Elbert Hubbard, the founder of the Roycroft movement.

The friendship with Wright, the relationship with the Sierra Club, and the countless field trips in Yosemite Park were to instill in Adams a deep lifelong fascination with wilderness and its conservation. In later years, Adams recalled this time as "the most memorable experience in his life," emphasizing how the powerful experience of nature, his childhood by the sea, and his young years in the Sierra Nevada had shaped his entire life.

Over time, Adams began to think of the snapshots he took on his excursions in Yosemite as a "visual diary," and the more he photographed, the more interested he became in the photographic process behind it. Eventually, he wanted to learn how to put the images on paper himself. Around 1917, a neighbor who ran a photo lab offered him a job as a lab assistant. Within a short time, Adams learned the routine of developing film. Eventually, he perfected his hobby and succeeded in creating expressive images.

Monolith, das Gesicht des Half Dome

Until the mid-1920s, Ansel Adams considered himself an ambitious amateur photographer at best. Adams dated a spring day, April 17, 1927, in Yosemite, that he said "would change his understanding of the medium of photography." On that day, Adams set out with his friends Cedric Wright, Arnold Williams, Charlie Michael and his future wife Virginia Best on a hike to Diving Board, a rocky outcrop with an imposing view of Half Dome. Adams lugged in his backpack a 40-pound camera kit consisting of a corona studio camera, several lenses, filters, six plate holders with twelve glass plates, and a wooden tripod. During the ascent, Adams made several exposures, some of which failed; one glass plate was inadvertently exposed because Adams forgot to protect the camera lens from direct sunlight. Finally, he had only two plates left to expose, as he put it, "with the grandest sight the Sierra affords-the Face of Half Dome itself." From this excursion, Adams brought back one of his most famous images: Monolith, The Face of Half Dome.

In 1937, a fire occurred in Adams' photo lab, destroying or damaging thousands of his original negatives. It took him and his helpers several days to water and dry the rescued negatives. There are enlargements of some photographs, for example Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, which was damaged only at the edges, before and after the fire, with the newer enlargements necessarily showing a smaller section of the image so that the damaged areas would not be visible. Adams kept the original negatives in a safe in later years.

Albert Bender, Robinson Jeffers

In the spring of 1926, Cedric Wright introduced his friend Ansel to the art collector and patron Albert Maurice Bender (1866-1941). Originally from Ireland, Bender had made his fortune as an insurance broker and was considered a philanthropist who possessed a large circle of acquaintances and maintained quite influential relationships with important gallery owners, artists, and publishers on the West Coast. He had a special interest in printmaking and rare artists' books. He was interested in Adams' photographic work and decided without further ado to work with the young photographer on a portfolio. Bender took care of publishing and distribution. In Adams' mind, the portfolio was to be titled simply Photographs, but publisher Jean Chambers Moore had reservations about the word, so they agreed on the artificial word Parmelian Prints as the title, but Adams was not very happy with it. When Adams finally held the finished printed work in his hands, his disappointment was all the greater because the erroneous sub-line "...of the High Sierras" had been added to the title: for "Sierra" is already plural. Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras was published in 1927 with an edition of 100 portfolios plus 10 artist's copies, each containing 18 photographs, at a retail price of $50 per copy.

Ansel Adams and Albert Bender became close friends and went on numerous extended country trips together by car. Through Bender, Adams soon became acquainted with numerous Bay Area creatives, including the journalist and poet Ina Coolbrith, and the reclusive poet and natural philosopher Robinson Jeffers, who was critical of humanism and who, in symbol-laden poems, predicted a future in which nature would do very well without humans, which was quite close to a certain basic sentiment of Adams. Jeffers' increasingly anti-humanist radicalism and his heightened contempt for human civilization, was to bring him into frequent criticism in later years.

Marriage with Virginia Best

On January 2, 1928, Ansel Adams married his childhood sweetheart Virginia Rose Best in Yosemite. Virginia was the daughter, born in 1904, of Harry Best, a local landscape painter who sold paintings, wood carvings, and souvenirs from his own studio and store in Yosemite Park. Ansel had met Virginia at Harry Best's studio back in 1921. The two shared a passion for Yosemite and for music: Virginia originally wanted to be a singer. Virginia Best and Ansel Adams had a chequered relationship for over six years. Their son Michael was born in 1932, followed two years later by their daughter Anne. When Virginia's father Harry Best died unexpectedly in 1936, she took over his store studio in Yosemite.

In the early years of his marriage, Adams still vacillated between two professions: a career as a concert pianist and that of a professional photographer. By the early 1930s at the latest, with the onset of the Great Depression, Adams could no longer afford the balancing act, either financially or emotionally. In order to clarify his future career, he made several trips to New Mexico during this time.

New Mexico, Taos Pueblo

A trip with Albert Bender had already taken Adams to Santa Fe in New Mexico in 1927. It was Adams' first acquaintance with the barren desert region in the southwestern United States. He was strongly impressed by the peculiar light of New Mexico, the sometimes bizarre landscape and the enormous cloud formations. In Santa Fe, they met the poet Witter Bynner and the writer Mary Hunter Austin, who was particularly active in Native American and women's causes. During Adams' first trip to New Mexico in 1927, he took only a few photographs. In the two years that followed, the photographer took a corona studio camera and exposed on orthochromatic film.

In 1929, Ansel Adams and Virginia made an extended visit to Santa Fe in the company of Irish author and theosophist Ella Young, an acquaintance of Albert Bender. It was at this time that Adams first seriously speculated about making a living exclusively from photography and possibly settling in northern New Mexico. Ansel and Virginia had accepted an invitation from Mary Austin to stay with her. They quickly became friends, and soon the idea of writing a book together on a New Mexico subject was born. Adams and Austin, in consultation with Albert Bender, agreed on Taos Pueblo as a sponsor and contacted arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, who had established her Los Gallos artists' colony in nearby Taos. The wealthy Luhan had already maintained influential salons in Europe and New York, where the intellectuals and creatives of her day gathered. Her husband Tony, himself a Pueblo Indian, put her in touch with the Pueblo's chief and council of elders. Tao's Pueblo was published in 1930 in an initial run of 100 books.

Paul Strand, beginnings as a professional photographer

When Adams visited Mabel Dodge Luhan's home in Los Gallos one more time, he made the acquaintance of photographer Paul Strand and his wife Becky, as well as painter and photographer Georgia O'Keeffe, writer D. H. Lawrence, and architect and painter John Marin, all of whom were among the patroness of the arts' guests. Paul Strand was very interested in Adams' Taos book, and so the two photographers struck up a conversation. Strand somewhat awkwardly showed Adams his work, which he had on hand at the time only as 4 × 5 inch large format negatives in cardboard. Despite the lack of positive prints, Adams was fascinated by Strand's perfectly composed images:

The encounter with Paul Strand gave Adams the decisive impulse: Suddenly he recognized the creative possibilities that might lie in the medium of photography. With the decision to finally give up his career as a musician and work as a professional photographer in the future, Adams returned to San Francisco. In the years that followed, Adams maintained an animated pen-pal relationship with Strand.

In 1930, Adams built a house and studio next to his childhood home and began working as a commercial photographer. Under increasing pressure from the Depression, he photographed, as he put it, "just about everything in the early days: from catalogs to industrial reports, from architecture to portraiture." Although he always gave preference to artistic photography and his later teaching career, Adams would also remain successful as a commissioned photographer into old age, doing photo reportage for Fortune or Life magazine, for example, or commercial photography for AT&T, Kodak, and Nissan, among others. Many of his later commissioned works for paying clients were done in color.

As early as 1929, the Yosemite Park and Curry Company (YPCCO), which managed the park's concession operations, had hired him to handle public relations for Yosemite, primarily taking pictures of the winter sports opportunities to attract tourists. For many years, the YPCCO became Adam's primary client. His fellow photographer Imogen Cunningham, whom he had met through Albert Bender around this time in the late 1920s and with whom he remained friends throughout his life, always viewed his commercial work with mixed feelings, sometimes humorously criticizing him with the words, "Adams, you've sold out again." Cunningham was initially under the influence of pictorialism, but also turned to straight photography in the mid-1920s.

From an artistic point of view, Adams did not particularly appreciate the pictorialist photography that was widespread at the time. The style seemed too mannered to him, and so far he had seen only a few photographs that he considered artistic; moreover, his knowledge of the history of photography and photographers had been extremely limited until then. At the latest since his encounter with Paul Strand in New Mexico, Adams had begun to experiment; he tried out new photographic directions and now worked with unstructured, smooth photographic papers with glossy surfaces, just as his idols Strand and Edward Weston did. Eventually he got a finer feel for the light and tonal gradations in the prints. He noted, "I felt liberated: I could create a good negative by visualizing it and now reliably as a fine image

Group f

One evening in 1932, Ansel Adams and the photographers Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift and Edward Weston met at the home of the photographer, filmmaker and Berkeley student Willard Van Dyke to discuss the idea of "straight photography". Although the work of some of the participants was very different, they agreed to pursue a common goal and to define a new path of creative photography that would stand out clearly from traditional pictorialism. At another meeting, they discussed a name for the group. The young photographer Preston Holder, a fellow student of Willard Van Dyke, who was present, made the suggestion "US 256," the obsolete system name for the very small f-stop number 64, which meant a great depth of field. But because the confusion with a US highway was obvious, it was agreed on "f

"Group f

The exhibition ran from November 15 to December 31, 1932, and featured 80 photographs that were available for purchase: Edward Weston charged fifteen dollars per image, During the exhibition, the group distributed a jointly written manifesto. Both exhibition and manifesto caused a stir and led to heated discussions, which, according to Adams, "were largely negative in character." Primarily artists and gallery owners led written complaints against the museum for daring to show photography as an art form in a public space. Ultimately, the Board of Trustees and Museum Director Rollins sided with the photographers. Leading the criticism were the Pictorialists, most notably William Mortensen, a Los Angeles photographer steeped in the painterly tradition who, in Adams' opinion, wrote disparagingly about the group f

The group f

Alfred Stieglitz

In March 1933, Ansel Adams, accompanied by his wife Virginia, undertook an extended trip to the East Coast, which led via Chicago and Detroit, with museum visits there, also to Rochester, where Adams visited the Eastman Kodak factory. The destination of the trip was New York, where Adams arrived on March 28. In addition to theater and museum visits, Ansel, with photographs in his luggage, absolutely intended to meet Alfred Stieglitz, the most influential gallerist and mentor of photography in the United States at the time, to show him his pictures.

Upon first meeting Alfred Stieglitz at his Madison Avenue gallery, An American Place, Adams found the New York photographer cold and dismissive, but eventually Stieglitz viewed Adams' work with favor. With Stieglitz's blessing, Adams made representations to the influential New York gallery owner Alma Reed, who ran Delphic Studios, one of the few prestigious art galleries that also showed photographs. In November 1933, a sales exhibition of 50 photographs by Adams finally opened at Delphic Studios, which, although not a financial success during the Great Depression, was accompanied by a surprisingly good review in the New York Times.

Adams visited Alfred Stieglitz once a year in New York from this point on, to exchange ideas and show him new paintings. It was not until January 1936 that Stieglitz agreed to do an exhibition with Adams; the paintings were shown in a successful show at An American Place in November 1936. Delighted, Adams wrote to his wife Virginia, "The show at Stieglitz's is unusual-not only that the pictures are stylishly matched and hung. Their relationship to space and relationship to Stieglitz are once-in-a-lifetime things."

The Newhalls and MoMA

In 1939 Adams met the art historian Beaumont Newhall and his wife Nancy in New York, with whom Adams had been in correspondence since his 1935 book Making a Photograph. At the time, Beaumont Newhall was a librarian at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA); he had a strong interest in photography as an art form and wrote numerous essays and reviews on the subject. Their correspondence eventually grew into a lifelong friendship. Together with Nancy Newhall, Adams published several books in later years.

In 1940, Adams became curator of a major picture show in San Francisco, entitled A Pageant of Photography, as part of the Golden Gate Exhibition, which was to present a cross-section of the history and development of photography. The spectrum ranged from photography's beginnings with Timothy H. O'Sullivan's Civil War photographs to Man Ray's rayographs. The accompanying exhibition catalog was extensive and included essays by Beaumont Newhall, Dorothea Lange, László Moholy-Nagy, Nicholas Ulrich Mayall of the Lick Observatory, Grace Morley the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Paul Outerbridge.

Beaumont Newhall had also come all the way from New York to the West Coast with his wife. Adams' photography exhibition at the Palace of Fine Arts inspired the Newhalls to extensively build up MoMA's photographic department. Upon their return, they were able to convince the inaccessible Alfred Stieglitz of the idea. Adams, for his part, succeeded in getting photographer Arnold Genthe to participate in the inaugural exhibition planned for MoMA that same year. Both Stieglitz's and Genthe's contributions were considered indispensable, since both were among the pioneers of artistic photography in the United States.

On December 31, 1940, the first exhibition of the new photographic department at MoMA opened under the title Sixty Photographs. The show was extensive and documented all of creative photography from its beginnings to the present. On display were works by Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Eugène Atget, Ruth Bernhard, Mathew B. Brady, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Harold E. Edgerton, Peter Henry Emerson, Walker Evans, Arnold Genthe, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Dorothea Lange, Henri Le Secq, Helen Levitt, Lisette Model, Moholy-Nagy, Dorothy Norman, T. H. O'Sullivan, Eliot Porter, Man Ray, Henwar Rodakiewicz, Charles Sheeler, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Luke Swank, Brett Weston, Edward Weston, and Clarence White, as well as unknown press photographers.

Edward Steichen

With the outbreak of World War II, Beaumont Newhall reported to Europe for air reconnaissance, and his wife Nancy and Ansel Adams briefly took over as trustees for MoMA's photography department. Adams served as vice president of the photographic committee. As the war progressed, Edward Steichen, who had been commissioned by the U.S. Navy to photographically document the Pacific War, took over at MoMA. Adams harbored a pronounced antipathy for Steichen from his first encounter with the photographer, especially as he conceived war propaganda exhibitions. In Adams' view, these exceeded the remit of an art museum. Eventually discrepancies arose, as a result of which both the Newhalls and Adams resigned from their posts. Steichen took office in 1947 as the new director of MoMA's photographic department, which he headed until 1962. He was succeeded by John Szarkowski, who would curate a major traveling exhibition of Adams' work in the 1970s.

In 1954, Adams and Steichen came into contact once again when Steichen was putting together his exhibition The Family of Man (1955) and requested negatives from Adams. Adams sent Steichen the images Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada and From Manzanar, California as duplicates and asked to be allowed to make the prints. Steichen refused and had Adams' work "disproportionately enlarged," as the latter criticized. Adams later remarked, "When I saw the finished mural, I felt sick. He had degraded Mount Williamson, one of my strongest paintings, to wallpaper. I lost interest in MoMA for years."

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico

In the spring of 1941, Adams received a letter from then Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes asking him to photograph the national parks in the United States to create murals of them for the department; at about the same time, the U.S. Potash Company in Carlsbad, New Mexico commissioned him to photograph the potash mines near Carlsbad. To that end, Adams, accompanied by his eight-year-old son Michael and longtime friend Cedric Wright, traveled to northern New Mexico to take a variety of landscape photographs. Near the village of Hernandez, the travelers were treated to an extraordinary sight as the moon suddenly rose above the snow-covered mountain peaks, while to the west the late afternoon sun flashed white a few crosses at a churchyard. Knowing that such a motif would never be repeated, Adams stopped the car to hurriedly unload and set up his bulky plate camera. He succeeded in taking only one shot; by the second negative, the sun had already disappeared behind a bank of clouds and "the magic moment was gone forever," as he recalled. was to become Ansel Adams' most famous photograph. Years later, the photographer was still receiving letters asking him if it was a double exposure, which he always denied.

Unfortunately, in his excitement, Adams forgot to date the image, which is why biographers and photo historians argued for a long time about when the exact date of the legendary photo might have been. In the 1980s, with the help of astronomer friend David Elmore, Beaumont Newhall succeeded in back-calculating the date of the rare sun-moon constellation using azimuth tables and maps on a computer, according to which Moonrise should have been taken on October 31, 1941, between 4:00 and 4:05 p.m. local time. However, recent research dates the date of origin to November 1, 1941, 4:49 p.m. MST.

National Parks

After Adams photographed the U.S. Potash Company's potash mines, he traveled on to Carlsbad Caverns National Park to begin taking photographs for the U.S. Department of the Interior. During the trip, Adams took pictures of the rock settlements of the Anasazi in Mesa Verde National Park or of the adobe pueblos of the Acoma. In addition, Adams recreated in his own way the historic photographs of Timothy H. O'Sullivan, which the latter had already taken in Canyon de Chelly in 1873.

In the summer of 1942, the photographer continued his extensive photo excursion for the government through various national parks: he photographed the geysers of Yellowstone National Park and made stops in Rocky Mountain National Park in Glacier National Park, among others, and finally in Mount McKinley National Park (today Denali National Park). To Adams's displeasure, the mural project was discontinued in July 1942 under the pressure of World War II and was not resumed after the war.

After the war ended, Adams applied to the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation for a fellowship (grant) so that he could continue his work in the national parks for a book project of his own. Adams received the Guggenheim Fellowship twice: in 1946 and 1948. Among other things, the fellowship enabled him to fly to southern Alaska, where he and a group of geologists took photographs of the ice fields around Glacier Bay in Glacier Bay National Park. From all the national park material he extracted the portfolio The National Parks and Monuments and the photobook My Camera in the National Parks, published in 1950.

Manzanar, Dorothea Lange

In the summer of 1943, Adams was assigned by Ralph Merrit, the newly appointed director of the Manzanar internment camp, the project of documenting the plight of the Nisei, country-born American citizens of Japanese descent who had been forcibly relocated to isolated areas as part of a government internment program following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Ansel Adams decided to go to Manzanar in the late fall of that year. He already knew the abandoned Owens Valley area from Mary Austin's stories and from Dorothea Lange's documentary photographs she had taken here a year earlier. The visit to the desolate shantytown touched Adams deeply. Manzanar was the site of one of his best-known images, Winter Sunrise, The Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California (1943).

The photo reportage from the Manzanar internment camp, which remained Adams' only contribution directly related to the war, he published in 1944 as the book Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans. The work received positive reviews and topped the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list in the spring of 1945.

Ansel Adams collaborated with Dorothea Lange on several stories in the 1950s. Lange also lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and had earned a reputation as a social documentary photographer in the 1930s with her vivid images of American rural life, commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (F.S.A.) established under Roosevelt. Adams's relationship with Lange was friendly despite some disagreements, and the two often exchanged animated photographic and political views. Adams saw some sympathy for Trotskyism in Lange's work, though the photographer never stated this directly. "She had integrity in her convictions and was full of skepticism about the smug 'good old boy' attitude she recognized prevalent in industry and politics," Adams recalled of the photographer in his memoir. The two maintained a lively correspondence for many years.

Commissioned by Life magazine, Adams and Lange produced the photo essay Three Mormon Towns in the summer of 1953 about the reclusive Mormons of southwestern Utah.

Edwin Land and Polaroid

In 1948, Adams met physicist and photography pioneer Edwin Herbert Land at a party at Land's home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Land had just presented his novel Polaroid Land separation process and invited the curious Adams to his laboratory the following day, where Land took an instant portrait of Adams. It was Adams' first encounter with the Polaroid process. Since Land at that time counted only scientists and theorists among his circle, but no creative person with phototechnical knowledge, he hired Adams without further ado as a technical advisor. Adams was given not only an instant camera with the accompanying films, but also the task of looking into the quality and performance of the material, which eventually resulted in a lifelong business relationship between Adams and Polaroid, as well as a close friendship between Land and Adams.

Beginning in the 1950s, Ansel Adams made numerous photographs on Polaroid material. A well-known 1968 photograph, El Capitan, Winter Sunrise, showing the El Capitan monolith in Yosemite, was taken on Polaroid Type 55 P

Teaching activities

In 1940, Ansel Adams briefly took over the photography department at the Art Center School (now Art Center College of Design) in Los Angeles and also led numerous workshops "on location" in Yosemite National Park. In 1946, he was asked by then San Francisco Art Association president Ted Spencer to establish a photography department at the California School of Fine Arts, now the San Francisco Art Institute. Adams enthusiastically agreed and immediately began planning three darkrooms and a large demonstration and teaching space for the university. But the cost of Adams' project far exceeded the budget, arousing the displeasure of other teaching departments. "The painters, sculptors, printmakers and potters rose up like a man in anger. Photography is not art, they claimed, and has no place in an art school ..." Adams recalled.

With Spencer's support, he was nevertheless able to begin his teaching career and eventually convinced his critics of both the craft and artistic-aesthetic aspects associated with photography. Adam's photography department was one of the first to teach the medium of photography in a fine arts institution. However, after just one year, upon receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship, Adams resigned from the institute due to time constraints. Morally in duty, he eventually found an equal successor in Minor White.

Ansel Adams continued to organize numerous workshops into old age, in which he lectured on his zone system and other insights into the theory and practice of photography. In this context, he produced numerous textbooks on photographic technique, such as Camera and Lens and The Negative (both 1948), The Print (1950) or Natural Light Photography (1952) and Artificial Light Photography (1956).

Carmel, Die Freunde der Fotografie

After living alternately in San Francisco and Yosemite since the early 1920s, Ansel and Virginia Adams moved in 1961 to Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Dave McGraw, a friend of the Adams', had gathered a small colony of artists. The consideration of moving to Carmel was primarily logistical for the Adams': Ansel still had work to do in New Mexico, while Virginia still ran Best's Studio, her father's former store studio in Yosemite. Dick McGraw offered the Adams a three-acre property on Wild Cat Hill in the Carmel Highlands. It was with a heavy heart that Adams parted with his childhood home in the San Francisco dunes, where he had lived intermittently since it was built in 1903. Adams' mother Olive had already passed away in 1950, and his father Charles had followed her less than a year later. With the help of architect Ted Spencer, Adams had a house designed to his specifications, the center of which was to be a large darkroom accessible from all areas of the house.

In Carmel in 1967, Adams, along with Morley Baer, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, and Brett Weston, founded the Friends of Photography as a non-profit association dedicated to promoting creative photography and organizing exhibitions and exhibition spaces. Within a few years, the association became an internationally known institution with several thousand members. After Adams' death in 1984, the group moved from Carmel to San Francisco and opened the Ansel Adams Center for Photography at Yerba Buena Gardens in 1989.

Late years and death

With increasing age, Ansel Adams limited his activities to smaller workshops for the Friends of Photography, the publication of photo books and contributions to professional journals, as well as the reproduction of his best-known photographs, which had meanwhile become sought-after collector's items. Moreover, since the Nixon era, Adams has been increasingly involved in political initiatives to preserve the national parks. In 1975, he submitted a memorandum to this end to the incumbent President Gerald Ford.

In the 1970s, the photographer began to settle his estate and established two trusts for this purpose: the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, which was to control all future publications and reproduction rights, and the Ansel Adams Family Trust, into which the net proceeds of the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust were to flow and which would exclusively benefit Adams' family, and after Ansel and Virginia's passing, their children Anne and Michael. Furthermore, Adams decreed that his photographs should no longer be associated with any commercial product.

In the mid-1970s, Adams produced his last commissioned works and publicly announced that he would no longer accept picture orders after December 31, 1975. With Adams' announcement, the prices of his photographs at art auctions began to rise steadily. He spent most of 1976, 1977, and 1978 fulfilling outstanding orders. In the last years of his life, the photographer sifted through approximately 40,000 negatives. During Adams' lifetime, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico reached the record price of $71,000 at auction, the highest price paid for a photograph up to that time.

Although Adams' work was shown in international shows during his lifetime, it was not until 1974 that he himself traveled to Europe for the first time, to visit an exhibition of his work in Arles and to give lectures. On this occasion he met fellow photographers such as Bill Brandt, Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Jacques-Henri Lartigue. In 1976 he repeated his lecture tour to Arles, and another time in 1979 he visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. That same year, Adams, who had suffered from increasing heart problems since the early 1970s, underwent surgery to have a triple bypass placed. He declined a fourth lecture tour to Europe in 1982. In 1979, John Szarkowski, Edward Steichen's successor on the board of trustees of MoMA's photographic department, organized the major traveling exhibition Ansel Adams and the West, which featured 153 landscape images by the photographer. The exhibition opening coincided with Adams' book publication, Yosemite and the Range of Light. The show was a great success and was given a cover story on Time magazine by art critic Robert Hughes.

In 1981, Adams was the second after Lennart Nilsson to be honored by the Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation with the Hasselblad Gold Medal. The award ceremony by King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden took place at MoMA. Adams had met the Swedish photographer and inventor Victor Hasselblad during a visit to New York in 1950. At that time, Hasselblad had asked Adams to try out one of his first cameras, the Hasselblad 1600F medium format camera. From that point on, Hasselblad models were among Adams' favorite cameras.

Ansel Adams' eightieth birthday on February 20, 1982, was celebrated with numerous exhibitions, retrospectives, and festivities organized by the Friends of Photography. To Adams' special delight, Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazi, whom he greatly admired, gave a private piano concert at the Adams' home in Carmel.

Adams died of heart failure on April 22, 1984, at the age of 82. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered at Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. In his honor, the Minarets Wilderness area surrounding The Minarets mountain range in the Sierra Nevada was renamed Ansel Adams Wilderness that same year. His wife Virginia Best Adams passed away on January 29, 2000.

Photo-historical classification

Ansel Adams is considered a representative of "straight photography," which, following the tradition of realism in painting, is committed to a strict pictorial aesthetic and, in accordance with the principles established by the group f

Photography as an art form, relation to music

In his numerous writings, lectures, and workshops, Adams decisively outlined his procedures for creating and refining a perfectly drawn "well-composed" photograph and demonstrated the possibilities that pure photography can offer as a medium of artistic expression. Coming from a classical music education, Adams transferred his knowledge of musical composition to composition in art, legitimately declaring photography to "belong to the fine arts." In doing so, Adams considered (and referred to) the camera, with its accessories of various lenses and filters, as equivalent to music as an "instrument."

The "anticipated" fine picture

In contrast to the fast-moving reportage photography and the emerging snapshot photography, which, at the latest since the introduction of the handy Kodak products ("You press the button - we do the rest" - "You press the button, we do the rest" was the company's slogan at the time) and the 35 mm formats, often led to a mechanical arbitrariness of the image, Adams concentrated on a certain "foreseen" ideal composition already on location, which he visualized and finally gave the print the desired form of presentation in the elaborate darkroom process by means of tonal value corrections, which he himself described as an expressive "fine picture". Adams emphasized this "foreshadowing" in reference to his fellow photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who, although considered a snapshot photographer par excellence, visualized the composition of the image already present in the subconscious at the "decisive moment" despite this speed, thus finding the optimal expression.

The zone system

Together with the photographer and college lecturer Fred Archer, Ansel Adams developed and formulated the famous zone system towards the end of the 1930s. The method, which Adams subsequently developed further, is based on a series of articles in the professional journal U.S. Camera. With the help of the zone system, Adams tried to transfer the contrast range of the subject to the (usually much lower) contrast range of the black-and-white film so skillfully that a natural image impression was created. The goal was technically perfect, cleanly drawn negatives that could be easily enlarged. This does not mean, however, that he rejected manipulations in the darkroom. For him, the negative was only an intermediate stage on the way to the picture that already existed in his head - only this intermediate stage had to meet the highest standards so that he could realize exactly his idea in the final print. In the style of music, he understood the negative as a score, but only the print was the interpretation and the completed work.

Adams' zone system was received ambivalently by photographers and the trade press; some found the method helpful in expanding creative possibilities under the aspect of the "calibrated shot," critics of the zone system and proponents of snapshot photography found the principle too didactic, too cumbersome, and not very practical.

The technique

Adams presented his working methods in numerous specialized books, in which he often discusses technical aspects such as exposure times, equipment used, filters, film materials, or the subsequent work in the darkroom or photo lab, based on the history of the creation of a selected work.

Adams worked mainly with Korona and later Linhof large-format (view) cameras, and from the 1950s also with Hasselblad medium-format cameras on black-and-white film stock. Until about the early 1930s, he used the usual orthochromatic films, which is why some shots taken under blue skies produced relatively bright results when unfiltered. To make the sky appear dramatically dark, the photographer used color filters (mostly Wratten No. 29 red filters) with panchromatic films. This is clear, for example, in Monolith, The Face of Half Dome from 1927.

In his own photo lab, Adams used a custom-built horizontal enlarger based on an old converted plate camera. The device also allowed him to enlarge his early large-format negatives, some of which were on 8×10-inch glass plates.

Although the trend was already moving toward large format in the 1930s, Adams often only made contact prints of his negatives in 20 × 25 cm format for exhibition purposes, which he presented in white mounts. To increase contrast and achieve the highest possible archival stability, Adams usually toned the prints with direct selenium toning.

Alfred Stieglitz gave Adams the idea of optimally displaying the works in front of a neutral wall in a mixed lighting of indirect artificial light and subdued daylight to enhance the effect - a presentation method that is now common in white cubes.

Adams and color photography

What is less well known is that Adams also took color photographs: During his photographic life, he made over 3,000 photographs on color slide film. The photographs were taken mainly in the 1940s and 1950s, partly as test shots for Kodak's newly developed Kodachrome film. When Adams died in 1984, he was already planning a book on color photography. The subject had occupied him, albeit with discomfort, since the 1950s. In the 1980s, he admitted that if he could start again now as a young photographer, he would probably shoot in color, "but actually," Adams said, "I don't like color photography very much. It's not my cup of tea."

When asked if he works in black and white because perhaps his color vision was disturbed, he replied that he had his color vision checked and it was fine. He prefers black and white, he said, because he has greater control in the process. A lot of his commercial commissioned work was done in color. Through his acquaintance with Edwin Land, he also had the opportunity to test numerous new instant materials with which he achieved impressive picture results.

Ansel Adams was already one of the most important U.S. photographers of the 20th century during his lifetime. His name, which is now inextricably linked with the photographic documentation and preservation of the national parks and national monuments in the western United States, became both a synonym and a label for technically accomplished, high-quality nature and landscape photography, which was already extensively commercialized during his lifetime.

Importance as a conservationist

Adams spent much of his life in the U.S. national parks and Indian reservations, where he not only worked as a photographer, but supported them with his work, his publications, and in his workshops. His numerous writings quickly aroused public interest in the previously unknown wilderness areas of the West.

Adams' work Sierra Nevada, first published in 1939: The John Muir Trail had a significant influence on then-Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and fit into the regionalist aspect of the government's program of "economic renewal" under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which led, among other things, to the establishment of Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks in 1940. In 1968, Adams was honored by the National Park Service (NPS) for his service with the Conservation Service Award, the highest civilian award given to an agency of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

For the Sierra Club, of which Adams was a board member from 1934 to 1971, the photographer produced numerous photo reportages with accompanying essays, which appeared in the club's magazine, the Sierra Club Bulletin, and which contributed significantly to the development of tourism and the economic-political significance of the nature reserves, which were still untouched at the beginning of the last century. While this was initially done under simple conservation aspects, with the beginning of World War II, a development and popularization of the region began, which led to an expansive commercialization in the 1960s at the latest, when parts of the natural areas were opened up to land speculators and concessions were granted for the construction of power plants. Differences eventually arose over this, as a result of which Adams resigned as a board member in 1971.

Perception by art critics

In a reissue of his widely acclaimed History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present, photo historian and curator Beaumont Newhall, a contemporary and friend of Adams, emphasizes the technical quality of Adams's work, which "as early as 1936, in his exhibition at Stieglitz's gallery An American Place, was of a sensitivity and sincere directness rarely encountered." Newhall stated, "Adams demonstrated superbly in his photography, his writings, and his teaching the possibilities offered by pure photography as a medium of expression," noting Adams' love of experimentation, his technical mastery, and his "serene sense of the earth's untouched regions, skills with which the photographer created magnificent landscape photographs."

In 1979, art critic Robert Hughes devoted a cover story to the photographer in Time magazine, emphasizing that no other living photographer had done more to establish the difference between documentary and aesthetic, or "emotional," uses of photography. Photo historian John Szarkowski-director of MoMA's photography department from 1962 to 1991-characterized Adams in a New York Times interview on the occasion of the Ansel Adams retrospective he curated, Adams at 100, which was shown at MoMA in New York and SFMOMA in San Francisco in 2003: "One goal of the exhibition is to liberate Adams from the image of the green social realist. Although Adams had a lifelong interest in wilderness preservation, his best works were made for reasons that were far more personal and mystical he would be indignant, however, if anyone suggested that he had had anything approaching religious sentiments in the traditional sense in doing so. It is clear from his private letters that his experiences of the natural world were essentially mystical experiences, and that his only truly lasting artistic problem was to provide physical proof of that experience."

Compared to socially critical contemporaries, Szarkowski put Adams' presumed lesser importance to social documentary photography in the U.S. into perspective: "Until about 1960, the fact that he photographed trees and snow-capped mountains was seen as a 'moral failing' by many who thought photography should rather document human suffering. Only later did he become a hero for something he never intended when he made his best work."

In the context of the retrospective, the New York Times described Adams in terms of the commercialization of his name as "America's most beloved photographer, whose photographs of thundering cliffs and glittering groves are more popular than ever through an endless stream of posters, calendars, books and screensavers..." Art historian John Pultz, in a dossier on "New Photography in the United States," considered Adams a photographer of perfection in craft and technique who "devoted himself almost exclusively to the depiction of majestic landscape panoramas in the 1940s and 1950s, while in the variety of his subjects in the 1930s he had already achieved the precision that Strand and Weston had established in the 1920s."

Significance for the establishment of photography as an art form

Turning away from the short-lived pictorialism associated with painting and thus despised as "weak sentimental," Adams, in the wake of Edward Weston and the jointly founded group f

In an obituary for the photographer, Der Spiegel stated in 1984 that Adams was accorded a reverence "that placed him alongside the great writers, painters and composers of his generation: The American Ansel Adams had contributed significantly to establishing photography as an art form in its own right."

Critical considerations

Art photographer and pictorialist William Mortensen (1897-1965) was among Adams's harshest critics in the 1930s. After Mortensen's death, Adams presumably prevented his photographic estate from being archived at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, and Mortensen was forgotten. In this regard, the Center for Creative Photography's recent art historical rehabilitation William Mortensen: A Revival suggests an effort by Adams to erase his counterpart from the annals of photographic history. In his autobiography, Adams gave only a one-sided account of his long correspondence with Mortensen.

A distinctly critical position is taken by author Jonathon Green in his American Photography: A Critical History 1945 to the Present, who assigns puritanical technocratic characteristics to Adams, calling him "the archetypal 19th-century American engineer" who, "like all the great builders of his time, applied his knowledge to the aesthetic and spiritual welfare of humanity." Adams' work is of Puritan grain: austere and conservative with an obsession with technological control, demonstrating another fundamental American trait already seen in Stieglitz and Steichen: the aggressive, acquisitive, inventive engagement with technology and the practical use of new technologies.

"The formalism that permeates Adams' work relates directly to his belief in technology. For Adams, technology is redemptive. He could even sell cars or televisions with a clear conscience. In fact, it seems that he relies more on technology than on vision. Of all the great American photographers, he is the one with the most inconsistent body of work. When his work succeeds, it's stunning, but when it fails, it's nothing more than a finger exercise in the zone system - cloying and decorative."

Adams on the art market - record price for allegedly rediscovered negatives

In 2000, Rick Norsigian, a painter from Fresno, California, purchased two boxes of 65 glass plate negatives at $45, showing photographs of Yosemite Park. According to an appraisal commissioned by Norsigian, the negatives are believed to have been made by Adams. The lettering on the paper sleeves of the negatives is also said to be identical to the handwriting of Adams' wife, Virginia, and the negatives date from the 1920s and 1930s. Norsigian came forward with the find in 2007 via the Los Angeles Times. In a 2010 press conference, art expert and gallery owner David W. Streets stated that it was "a missing link in the history and work of Ansel Adams" and put the value of the find at about $200 million (about 153.5 million euros). Ansel Adams' heirs and executors, on the other hand, doubted the authenticity of the find and remarked that if the negatives were indeed genuine, they would not have such a great value, since only original prints made by Adams himself would have high collector value. Later comparisons revealed similarities to early photographs by an otherwise obscure portrait photographer named Earl Brooks. In March 2011, Norsigian and the Adams Trust reached an out-of-court settlement denying Norsigian the right to continue marketing prints of the negatives in question as "genuine" Adams photographs; he must also point out that his negatives are not authorized by the Adams Trust.

Ansel Adams Award

Since 1971, the Sierra Club has presented the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography to photographers whose work has been primarily dedicated to the preservation and protection of nature. A well-known award winner is the Dutchman Frans Lanting.

Considered classics of landscape photography:

Portrait photographs:

Other motifs:

Ansel Adams donated a selection of his work from the national parks and photographs from the Manzanar internment camp to the Library of Congress Image Archive in 1965.

Publications by Ansel Adams


German translations


illustrated books, monographs

(Unless otherwise noted, the biographical section is based in excerpts on Ansel Adams and Mary Street Alinder: Ansel Adams: Autobiography; in German translation with notes by Fritz Meisnitzer, published by Christian Verlag, Munich, first edition 1985, ISBN 3-88472-141-0)


  1. Ansel Adams
  2. Ansel Adams
  3. Als Ansel Adams in späteren Jahren erfuhr, dass sein reicher Onkel den eigenen Bruder, Ansels Vater Charles, durch finanzielle Machenschaften langsam in den Ruin getrieben hatte, strich er den Zweitnamen „Easton“.
  4. Ansel Adams: Autobiographie. Christian Verlag, München 1985, S. 13–15.
  5. Nach Charles Hitchcock Adams wurde der Mondkrater Adams benannt.
  6. Adams: Autobiographie, S. 17
  7. ^ In 2010, Rick Norsigian bought some glass negatives at a garage sale and claimed they were some of the lost negatives, estimating their value at $200 million.[70] The Ansel Adams Foundation contested this claim and sued. A settlement was reached in 2011 where Norsegian could sell prints without any reference to Adams.[71]
  8. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 192, states that the image caption for Moonrise in U.S. Camera 1943 was inaccurate, citing several discrepancies among technical details.
  9. ^ David Elmore of the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, Colorado, had determined that Moonrise was taken on October 31, 1941, at 4:03 pm.[92] Di Cicco noticed that the Moon's position at the time Elmore made his determination did not match the Moon's position in the image, and after an independent analysis, determined the time to be 4:49:20 pm on November 1, 1941. He reviewed his results with Elmore, who agreed with di Cicco's conclusions.[93]
  10. Polski tytuł za Fotografia XX wieku. Muzeum Ludwig w Kolonii, wyd. trzecie, 2007, s. 18.
  12. Alinder, Mary Street (1996). Ansel Adams: A Biography . Nova York: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 978-0-8050-4116-3, p. 13.

Please Disable Ddblocker

We are sorry, but it looks like you have an dblocker enabled.

Our only way to maintain this website is by serving a minimum ammount of ads

Please disable your adblocker in order to continue.

Dafato needs your help!

Dafato is a non-profit website that aims to record and present historical events without bias.

The continuous and uninterrupted operation of the site relies on donations from generous readers like you.

Your donation, no matter the size will help to continue providing articles to readers like you.

Will you consider making a donation today?