Ansel Adams

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Ansel Adams
A photo of a bearded Ansel Adams with a camera on a tripod and a light meter in his hand. Adams is wearing a dark jacket and a white shirt, and the open shirt collar is spread over the lapel of his jacket. He is holding a cable release for the camera, and there is a rocky hillside behind him. The photo was taken by J. Malcolm Greany, probably in 1947.
Ansel Easton Adams

(1902-02-20)February 20, 1902
San Francisco, California, US
DiedApril 22, 1984(1984-04-22) (aged 82)
Known forPhotography and conservationism
Spouse(s)Virginia Rose Best

Ansel Easton Adams (February 20, 1902 – April 22, 1984) was an American landscape photographer and environmentalist known for his black-and-white images of the American West.

Adams helped found the anti-pictorialist Group f/64, an association of photographers advocating "pure" photography that favored sharp focus and the use of the full tonal range of a photograph.

With Fred Archer, Adams developed an exacting system of image-making called the Zone System, which described a method of achieving a desired final print through a deeply technical understanding of how tonal range is recorded and developed in exposure, negative development, and printing. The resulting clarity and depth of such images characterized his photography.

Adams was a life-long advocate for environmental conservation, and his photographic practice was deeply entwined with this advocacy. At age 12, he was given his first camera during his first visit to Yosemite National Park. He developed his early photographic work as a member of the Sierra Club. He was later contracted with the U.S. Department of the Interior to make photographs of U.S. National Parks; his work and his persistent advocacy helped expand the National Park system.

With trustee David H. McAlpin and curator Beaumont Newhall, Adams was a key advisor in establishing the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, an important landmark in securing photography's institutional legitimacy. He helped to stage that department's first photography exhibition, helped found the photography magazine Aperture, and co-founded the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.


Early life[edit]


Adams was born in the Western Addition of San Francisco, California, the only child of Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray Adams. He was named after his uncle, Ansel Easton. His mother's family came from Baltimore, where his maternal grandfather had a successful freight-hauling business but lost his wealth investing in failed mining and real estate ventures in Nevada.[1] The Adams family came from New England, having migrated from Northern Ireland during the early 18th century. His paternal grandfather founded and built a prosperous lumber business which his father later managed. Later in life, Adams condemned the industry his grandfather worked in for cutting down many of the great redwood forests.[2]

Early childhood[edit]

One of Adams's earliest memories was watching the smoke from the fires caused by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Then four years old, Adams was uninjured in the initial shaking but was tossed face-first into a garden wall during an aftershock three hours later, breaking and scarring his nose. A doctor recommended that his nose be reset once he reached maturity,[3] but it remained crooked for his entire life.[4]

In 1907, his family moved 2 miles (3 km) west to a new home near the Seacliff neighborhood, just south of the Presidio Army Base.[5] The home had a "splendid view" of the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands.[6]

Adams was a hyperactive child and prone to frequent sickness and hypochondria. He had few friends, but his family home and surroundings on the heights facing the Golden Gate provided ample childhood activities. He had little patience for games or sports, but enjoyed the beauty of nature from an early age, collecting bugs and exploring Lobos Creek all the way to Baker Beach and the sea cliffs leading to Lands End,[6][7] "San Francisco's wildest and rockiest coast, a place strewn with shipwrecks and rife with landslides."[8]

Early education[edit]

His father bought a three-inch telescope, and they enthusiastically shared the hobby of amateur astronomy, visiting the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton together. His father later served as the paid secretary-treasurer of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific from 1925 to 1950.[9]

Ansel's father's business suffered significant financial losses after the death of Ansel's grandfather and the aftermath of the Panic of 1907. Some of the induced near-poverty was because Ansel's uncle Ansel Easton and Cedric Wright's father George Wright had secretly sold their shares of the company to the Hawaiian Sugar Trust for a large amount of money, "knowingly providing the controlling interest."[10] By 1912, the family's standard of living had dropped sharply.[11]

Ansel was dismissed from several private schools for being restless and inattentive, so his father decided to remove him from school in 1915 at age 12. Private tutors, his aunt Mary, and his father then educated Adams. His aunt Mary was a devotee of Robert G. Ingersoll, a 19th-century agnostic and women's suffrage advocate. As a result of his aunt's influence, Ingersoll's teachings were important to Ansel's upbringing.[12] During the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in 1915, his father insisted that Adams spend part of each day studying the exhibits as part of his education.[13] Adams eventually resumed and then completed his formal education by attending the Mrs. Kate M. Wilkins Private School, graduating from eighth grade on June 8, 1917. During his later years, he displayed his diploma in the guest bathroom of his home.[14]

His father raised him to follow the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson: to live a modest, moral life guided by a social responsibility to man and nature.[12] Adams had a loving relationship with his father, but he had a distant relationship with his mother, who did not approve of his interest in photography.[15] The day after her death in 1950, Ansel had a dispute with the undertaker when choosing the casket in which to bury her. He chose the cheapest in the room, a $260 coffin that seemed the least he could purchase without doing the job himself. The undertaker remarked, "Have you no respect for the dead?" Adams replied, "One more crack like that and I will take Mama elsewhere."[16]


Adams became interested in piano at age 12 and taught himself to play and read music.[17] His father sent him to piano teacher Marie Butler, who emphasized perfectionism and accuracy. After four years of studying with her, he had other teachers, one being composer Henry Cowell.[18] For the next twelve years, the piano was Adams's primary occupation and by 1920, his intended profession.

Adams first visited Yosemite National Park in 1916 with his family.[19] He wrote of his first view of the valley: "the splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious... One wonder after another descended upon us... There was light everywhere... A new era began for me." His father gave him his first camera during that stay, a Kodak Brownie box camera, and he took his first photographs with his "usual hyperactive enthusiasm."[20] He returned to Yosemite on his own the next year with better cameras and a tripod. During the winter, he learned basic darkroom technique while working part-time for a San Francisco photograph finisher.[21]

Adams contracted the Spanish Flu during the 1918 flu pandemic and became seriously ill, but he recovered after several months to resume his outdoor life.

Adams avidly read photography magazines, attended camera club meetings, and went to photography and art exhibits. He explored the High Sierra during summer and winter with retired geologist and amateur ornithologist Francis Holman, whom he called "Uncle Frank." During this time, he developed the stamina and skill needed to photograph at high elevation and with difficult weather conditions.[22]

A black-and-white close-up photograph of palmate, conifer, and small fern-like leaves overlapping, all visibly damp. One slightly larger and brighter palmate leaf rests in the upper foreground, covering all but one third of the photograph.
Close-up of leaves In Glacier National Park (1942)

While in Yosemite, he had frequent contact with the Best family, owners of Best's Studio, who allowed him to practice on their old square piano. In 1928, he married Virginia Best in Best's Studio in Yosemite Valley. Virginia inherited the studio from her artist father on his death in 1935, and the Adams continued to operate it until 1971. The studio is now known as the Ansel Adams Gallery and remains owned by the Adams family.

The Sierra Club and early photographs[edit]

At age 17, Adams joined the Sierra Club,[23] a group dedicated to protecting the wild places of the earth, and he was hired as the summer caretaker of the Sierra Club visitor facility in Yosemite Valley, the LeConte Memorial Lodge, from 1920 to 1924.[24] He remained a member throughout his lifetime and served as a director, as did his wife. He was first elected to the Sierra Club's board of directors in 1934 and served on the board for 37 years until 1971.[4] Adams participated in the club's annual High Trips and was later responsible for several first ascents in the Sierra Nevada.

During his twenties, most of his friends had musical associations, particularly violinist and amateur photographer Cedric Wright, who became his best friend as well as his philosophical and cultural mentor. Their shared philosophy was from Edward Carpenter's Towards Democracy, a literary work which endorsed the pursuit of beauty in life and art. For several years, Adams carried a pocket edition with him while at Yosemite,[25] and it became his personal philosophy as well. He later stated, "I believe in beauty. I believe in stones and water, air and soil, people and their future and their fate."[26] He decided that the purpose of his art, whether photography or music, was to reveal that beauty to others and to inspire them to the same philosophy.

During summer, Adams would enjoy a life of hiking, camping, and photographing, and the rest of the year he worked to improve his piano playing, expanding his piano technique and musical expression. He also gave piano lessons for extra income, with which he purchased a grand piano suitable to his musical ambitions.[27] An early piano student was mountaineer and fellow Sierra Club leader Jules Eichorn.

His first photographs were published in 1921, and Best's Studio began selling his Yosemite prints the next year. His early photos already showed careful composition and sensitivity to tonal balance. In letters and cards to family, he wrote of having dared to climb to the best viewpoints and to brave the worst elements.[28] At this time, however, Adams was still planning a career in music. Though he felt that his small hands limited his repertoire,[29] qualified judges considered him a gifted pianist.[30] It took seven more years for him to conclude that, at best, he might only become a concert pianist of limited range, an accompanist, or a piano teacher.

During the mid-1920s, Adams experimented with soft-focus, etching, bromoil process, and other techniques of the pictorial photographers, such as Photo-Secession promoter Alfred Stieglitz who strove to have photography considered equivalent to painting by trying to mimic it. However, Adams avoided hand-coloring, which was also popular at the time. He used a variety of lenses to get different effects but eventually rejected pictorialism for a more realistic approach that relied on sharp focus, heightened contrast, precise exposure, and darkroom craftsmanship.[31]



In 1927, Adams began working with Albert M. Bender, a San Francisco insurance magnate and arts patron. Bender helped Adams produce his first portfolio in his new style, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, which included his famous image Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, taken with his Korona view camera using glass plates and a dark red filter (to heighten the tonal contrasts). On that excursion, he had only one plate left, and he "visualized" the effect of the blackened sky before risking the last image. He later said, "I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print."[32] In April 1927, he wrote, "My photographs have now reached a stage when they are worthy of the world's critical examination. I have suddenly come upon a new style which I believe will place my work equal to anything of its kind."[33]

Adams's first portfolio was a success, earning nearly $3,900 with the sponsorship and promotion of Bender. Soon he received commercial assignments to photograph the wealthy patrons who bought his portfolio.[34] He also began to understand how important it was that his carefully crafted photos were reproduced to best effect. At Bender's invitation, he joined the Roxburghe Club, an association devoted to fine printing and high standards in book arts. He learned much about printing techniques, inks, design, and layout which he later applied to other projects.[35] Through Bender, Adams also met and made friends with Robinson Jeffers, John Marin, and Georgia O'Keeffe.[36] Adams met Georgia O'Keeffe in Taos, New Mexico in 1929. Their works set in the desert Southwest have been often published and exhibited together.

He married Virginia Best in 1928 after an intermission from 1925 to 1926 during which he had brief relationships with various women. The newly-weds moved in with his parents to save expenses. His marriage also marked the end of his serious attempt at a musical career, as well as her ambitions to be a classical singer.

A black-and-white vertical photograph shows an adobe wall in the foreground, rising in the middle with a stairstep pattern and a white wooden cross at the pinnacle, with an open doorway beneath. Through the doorway and above the wall, an adobe church with white double doors and a similar stair-stepped roof and cross stands, slightly larger than the wall in front of it. The midday sun casts harsh shadows on the dirt ground.
Church, Taos Pueblo (1942)


Between 1929 and 1942, Adams's work matured and he became more established. The 1930s were a particularly productive and experimental time for him. He expanded his works, emphasizing detailed close-ups as well as large forms from mountains to factories.[37]

His first book Taos Pueblo was published in 1930 with text by writer Mary Hunter Austin. In New Mexico, he was introduced to notables from Stieglitz's circle, including painter Georgia O'Keeffe, artist John Marin, and photographer Paul Strand. Adams's talkative, high-spirited nature combined with his excellent piano playing made him popular among his artist friends.[38]

Strand proved especially influential. Adams was impressed by the simplicity and detail of Strand’s negatives, a style that ran counter to the soft-focus, impressionistic Pictorialism still popular at the time.[39][40] Strand shared secrets of his technique with Adams and convinced him to pursue photography fully. One of Strand's suggestions which Adams adopted was to use glossy paper to intensify tonal values.

Adams was able to put on his first solo museum exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in 1931 through a friend who had associations in Washington, D.C. The exhibition featured 60 prints taken in the High Sierra. He received a favorable review from the Washington Post: "His photographs are like portraits of the giant peaks, which seem to be inhabited by mythical gods."[41]

Despite his success, Adams felt that he was not yet up to the standards of Strand. He decided to broaden his subject matter to include still life and close-up photos and to achieve higher quality by "visualizing" each image before taking it. He emphasized the use of small apertures and long exposures in natural light, which created sharp details with a wide range of focus, as demonstrated in Rose and Driftwood (1933), one of his finest still-life photographs.

In 1932, Adams had a group show at the M. H. de Young Museum with Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston, and they soon formed Group f/64 which espoused "pure or straight photography" over pictorialism (f/64 being a very small aperture setting that gives great depth of field). The group's manifesto stated, "Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form."[42]

A black-and-white photography shows farm workers with Mt. Williamson in background.
Farm, farm workers, Mt. Williamson in background, Manzanar Relocation Center, California.

Adams opened his own art and photography gallery in San Francisco in 1933, imitating Stieglitz's example.[43] He also began to publish essays in photography magazines and wrote his first instructional book Making a Photograph in 1935.[44]

During the summers, he often participated with Sierra Club High Trips outings, as a paid photographer for the group, and the rest of the year a core group of the Club members socialized regularly in San Francisco and Berkeley. In 1933, his first child Michael was born, followed by Anne two years later.[45]

During the 1930s, Adams began to deploy his photographs in the cause of wilderness preservation. He was inspired partly by the increasing desecration of Yosemite Valley by commercial development, including a pool hall, bowling alley, golf course, shops, and automobile traffic. He created the limited-edition book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail in 1938, as part of the Sierra Club's efforts to secure the designation of Sequoia and Kings Canyon as national parks. This book and his testimony before Congress played a vital role in the success of the effort, and Congress designated the area as a National Park in 1940.[46]

Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space. I know of no sculpture, painting or music that exceeds the compelling spiritual command of the soaring shape of granite cliff and dome, of patina of light on rock and forest, and of the thunder and whispering of the falling, flowing waters. At first the colossal aspect may dominate; then we perceive and respond to the delicate and persuasive complex of nature.

— Ansel Adams, The Portfolios Of Ansel Adams

In 1935, Adams created many new photographs of the Sierra Nevada, and one of his most famous, Clearing Winter Storm, depicted the entire Yosemite Valley just as a winter storm relented, leaving a fresh coat of snow. He gathered his recent work and had a solo show at Stieglitz's "An American Place" gallery in New York in 1936. The exhibition proved successful with both the critics and the buying public, and earned Adams strong praise from the revered Stieglitz.[47]

A black and white photograph shows Georgia O'Keeffe and Orville Cox wearing hats with the sky and clouds behind them.
Georgia O'Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona, 1937.

Adams made a candid 1937 portrait of O'Keeffe with Orville Cox, the head wrangler at Ghost Ranch, on the rim of Canyon de Chelly. Adams once remarked, “Some of my best photographs have been made in and on the rim of [that] canyon.”[48]

During the rest of the 1930s, Adams took on many commercial assignments to supplement the income from the struggling Best's Studio. Until the 1970s, Adams was financially dependent on commercial projects. Some of his clients included Kodak, Fortune magazine, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, AT&T, and the American Trust Company.[49] He photographed Timothy L. Pflueger's new Patent Leather Bar for the St. Francis hotel in 1939.[50] The same year, he was named an editor of U.S. Camera & Travel, the most popular photography magazine at that time.[49]


Adams c. 1941

In 1940, Ansel created A Pageant of Photography, the most important and largest photography show in the West to date, attended by millions of visitors.[51] With his wife, Adams completed a children's book and the very successful Illustrated Guide to Yosemite Valley during 1940 and 1941. He also taught photography by giving workshops in Detroit. Adams also began his first serious stint of teaching in 1941 at the Art Center School of Los Angeles, now known as Art Center College of Design, which included the training of military photographers.[52]

In 1943, Adams had a camera platform mounted on his station wagon, to afford him a better vantage point over the immediate foreground and a better angle for expansive backgrounds. Most of his landscapes from that time forward were made from the roof of his car rather than from summits reached by rugged hiking, as in his earlier days.[53]

On a trip in New Mexico during 1941, Adams photographed a scene of the Moon rising above a modest village with snow-covered mountains in the background, under a dominating black sky. The photograph is one of his most famous and is named Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. Adams's description in his later books of how it was made probably enhanced the photograph's fame: the light on the crosses in the foreground was rapidly fading, and he could not find his exposure meter; however, he remembered the luminance of the Moon and used it to calculate the proper exposure.[54][55][56] Adams's earlier account[57] was less dramatic, stating simply that the photograph was made after sunset, with exposure determined using his Weston Master meter.[n 1]

However the exposure was actually determined, the foreground was underexposed, the highlights in the clouds were quite dense, and the negative proved difficult to print.[58] The initial publication of Moonrise was in U.S. Camera 1943 annual, after being selected by the "photo judge" for U.S. Camera, Edward Steichen.[59] This gave Moonrise an audience before its first formal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1944.[60]

Over nearly 40 years, Adams re-interpreted the image, his most popular by far, using the latest darkroom equipment at his disposal, making over 1,369 unique prints, most in 16″ by 20″ format.[61] Many of the prints were made during the 1970s, finally giving Adams financial independence from commercial projects. The total value of these original prints exceeds $25,000,000;[62] the highest price paid for a single print of Moonrise reached $609,600 at Sotheby's New York auction in 2006.

A black-and-white photograph shows a large, still lake extending horizontally off the frame and halfway up vertically, reflecting the rest of the scene. In the distance, a mountain range can be seen, with a gap in the center and one faint smaller mountain in between. The sky is cloudy and large dark clouds rest at the very top of the frame.
Evening, McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park (1942)

In September 1941, Adams contracted[n 2] with the Department of the Interior to make photographs of National Parks, Indian reservations, and other locations for use as mural-sized prints for decoration of the department's new building. Part of his understanding with the department was that he might also make photographs for his own use, using his own film and processing.

Although Adams kept meticulous records of his travel and expenses,[63] he was less disciplined about recording the dates of his images and neglected to note the date of Moonrise, so it was not clear whether it belonged to Adams or to the U.S. Government. But the position of the moon allowed the image to be eventually dated from astronomical calculations, and it was determined that Moonrise was made on November 1, 1941,[n 3] a day for which he had not billed the department, so the image belonged to Adams. The same was not true for many of his other negatives, including The Tetons and the Snake River, which, having been made for the Mural Project, became the property of the U.S. Government.[64]

When Edward Steichen formed his Naval Aviation Photographic Unit in early 1942, he wanted Adams to be a member, to build and direct a state-of-the-art darkroom and laboratory in Washington, D.C.[65] In approximately February 1942, Steichen asked Adams to join.[65] Adams agreed, with two conditions: He wanted to be commissioned as an officer, and he also told Steichen he would not be available until July 1.[66] Steichen, who wanted the team assembled as quickly as possible, passed on Adams and had his other photographers ready by early April.[66]

A black-and-white photography shows a smiling woman from below twirling batons with the sun behind her.
Baton practice at the Manzanar War Relocation Center, 1943.

Adams was distressed by the Japanese American Internment that occurred after the Pearl Harbor attack. He requested permission to visit the Manzanar War Relocation Center in the Owens Valley, at the base of Mount Williamson. The resulting photo-essay first appeared in a Museum of Modern Art exhibit, and later was published as Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans. On release of this book, "it was met with some distressing resistance and was rejected by many as disloyal."[67] This work was a significant departure, stylistically and philosophically, from the work for which Adams is known for.[68]

He also contributed to the war effort by doing many photographic assignments for the military, including making prints of secret Japanese installations in the Aleutians.[69]

Adams was the recipient of three Guggenheim fellowships during his career, the first in 1946 to photograph every national park.[70] This series of photographs produced memorable images of Old Faithful Geyser, Grand Teton, and Mount McKinley. At that time, there were 28 national parks, and Adams photographed 27 of them, missing only Everglades National Park in Florida.

In 1945, Adams was asked to form the first fine art photography department at the San Francisco Art Institute. Adams invited Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston to be guest lecturers and Minor White to be main instructor.[71] The photography department produced numerous notable photographers, including Philip Hyde, Benjamen Chinn, Bill Heick, and C. Cameron Macauley.


In 1952 Adams was one of the founders of the magazine Aperture, which was intended as a serious journal of photography displaying its best practitioners and newest innovations. He was also a contributor to Arizona Highways, a photo-rich travel magazine. His article on Mission San Xavier del Bac, with text by longtime friend Nancy Newhall, was enlarged into a book published in 1954. This was the first of many collaborations with her.[72]

In June 1955, Adams began his annual workshops, teaching thousands of students until 1981,[73] He continued with commercial assignments for another twenty years, and became a consultant with a monthly retainer for Polaroid Corporation, which was founded by good friend Edwin Land.[74] He made thousands of photographs with Polaroid products, El Capitan, Winter, Sunrise (1968) being the one he considered his most memorable. During the final twenty years of his life, the 6x6cm medium format Hasselblad was his camera of choice, with Moon and Half Dome (1960) being his favorite photograph made with that marque of camera.[75]

Adams published his fourth portfolio, What Majestic Word, in 1963, and dedicated it to the memory of his Sierra Club friend Russell Varian,[76] who was a co-inventor of the klystron and who had died in 1959. The title was taken from the poem "Sand Dunes," by John Varian, Russell's father,[18] and the fifteen photographs were accompanied by the writings of both John and Russell Varian. Russell's widow, Dorothy, wrote the preface, and explained that the photographs were selected to serve as interpretations of the character of Russell Varian.[76]

Later career[edit]

President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty Ford viewing photographs with Adams, 1975

In the 1960s, a few mainstream art galleries (without a photographic emphasis), which originally would have considered photos unworthy of exhibit alongside fine paintings, decided to show Adams's images, particularly the former Kenmore Gallery in Philadelphia.[77] In March 1963, Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall accepted a commission from Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California, to produce a series of photographs of the university's campuses to commemorate its centennial celebration. The collection, titled Fiat Lux after the university's motto, was published in 1967 and now resides in the Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside.

In 1974, Adams was guest of honor at the Rencontres d'Arles festival in France. An evening screening at the Arles's Théâtre Antique and an exhibition were presented. The festival celebrated the artist three more times after that: in 1976, 1982 and 1985, through screenings and exhibitions.

In 1974, Adams had a major retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Much of his time during the 1970s was spent curating and reprinting negatives from his vault, in part to satisfy the great demand of art museums which had finally created departments of photography and desired his works. He also devoted his considerable writing skills and prestige to the cause of environmentalism, emphasizing particularly the Big Sur coastline of California and the protection of Yosemite from overuse. President Jimmy Carter commissioned him to make the first official portrait of a president made by a photograph.[78] That year he also cofounded the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, which handles some of his estate matters.[79]

Death and legacy[edit]

Adams died from cardiovascular disease on April 22, 1984, in the Intensive-care unit at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in Monterey, California, at age 82. He was surrounded by his wife, children Michael and Anne, and five grandchildren.[80]

Publishing rights for most of Adams's photographs are handled by the trustees of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. An archive of Adams's work is located at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Numerous works by the artist have been sold at auction, including a mural-sized print of Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, which sold at Sotheby's New York in 2010 for $722,500, the highest price ever paid for an original Ansel Adams photograph.[81]

John Szarkowski states in the introduction to Ansel Adams: Classic Images (1985, p. 5), "The love that Americans poured out for the work and person of Ansel Adams during his old age, and that they have continued to express with undiminished enthusiasm since his death, is an extraordinary phenomenon, perhaps even unparalleled in our country's response to a visual artist."

Contributions and influence[edit]

Landscapes of the American West[edit]

A dramatically-lit black-and-white photograph depicts a large river, which snakes from the bottom right to the center left of the picture. Dark evergreen trees cover the steep left bank of the river, and lighter deciduous trees cover the right. In the top half of the frame, there is a tall mountain range, dark but clearly covered in snow. The sky is overcast in parts, but only partly cloudy in others, and the sun shines through to illuminate the scene and reflect off the river in these places.
The Tetons and the Snake River (1942)

Romantic landscape artists Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran portrayed the Grand Canyon and Yosemite during the 19th century, followed by photographers Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, and George Fiske.[82] Adams’s work is unique from his predecessors because of his interest in the transient and ephemeral.[30] He photographed at varying times of the day and of the year, capturing the landscape’s changing light and atmosphere.[83][39][84]

His grand, highly detailed images originated in his interest in the natural environment.[39] His black-and-white photographs were not pure documents, but reflected a sublime experience of nature as a spiritual place.[17] With increasing environmental degradation in the West during the 20th century, his photos show a commitment to conservation.[83]

Adams's images of the West became the foremost record of what many of the National Parks were like before tourism; his images and his persistent advocacy helped expand the National Park system. He used his works to promote many of the goals of the Sierra Club and of the nascent environmental movement, but always insisted that, for his photographs, "beauty comes first."

Art critic John Szarkowski wrote "Ansel Adams attuned himself more precisely than any photographer before him to a visual understanding of the specific quality of the light that fell on a specific place at a specific moment. For Adams the natural landscape is not a fixed and solid sculpture but an insubstantial image, as transient as the light that continually redefines it. This sensibility to the specificity of light was the motive that forced Adams to develop his legendary photographic technique."[85]

In 1955 Edward Steichen selected Adams's Mount Williamson for the world-touring Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Family of Man,[86] which was seen by nine million visitors. At 10 x 12 feet, his was the largest print in the exhibition, presented floor-to-ceiling in a prominent position as the backdrop to the section "Relationships"[87] as a reminder of the essential reliance of humanity on the soil. However, despite its striking and prominent display, Adams expressed displeasure at the "gross" enlargement and "poor" quality of the print.[88]

Environmental protection[edit]

Realistic about land development and the subsequent loss of habitat, Adams advocated for balanced growth but was troubled by the ravages of "progress". He stated, "We all know the tragedy of the dustbowls, the cruel unforgivable erosions of the soil, the depletion of fish or game, and the shrinking of the noble forests. And we know that such catastrophes shrivel the spirit of the people... The wilderness is pushed back, man is everywhere. Solitude, so vital to the individual man, is almost nowhere."[89]

Group f/64[edit]

In 1932, Adams helped form the anti‐pictorialist Group f/64, a loose and relatively short-lived association of like-minded “straight” or “pure” photographers on the West Coast whose members included Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham. The modernist group favoured sharp focus—f/64 being a very small aperture setting that gives great depth of field on large-format view cameras—contact printing, precisely exposed images of natural forms and found objects, and the use of the entire tonal range of a photograph.[30][90][39][91][17]

Adams wrote the group's manifesto, written for their exhibition at the De Young Museum:

Group f.64 limits its members and invitational names to those workers who are striving to define photography as an art-form by a 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 technic [sic], composition or ideas, 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 of culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.[92]

Adams later developed this purist approach into the Zone System.[91]

The Zone System[edit]

Adams brought an exacting craft based on scientific principles to his photographic work. With Fred Archer, he developed the Zone System, a technique for managing negative exposure, development, and printing.[93][94] Based on the late 19th century sensitometry studies of Hurter and Driffield, the system provides photographers with a systematic method of precisely defining the relationship between the way they visualize the photographic subject and the final results. Although it originated with black-and-white sheet film, the Zone System is also applicable to roll film, both black-and-white and color, negative and reversal, and to digital photography.

Adams described the system as "not an invention of mine; it is a codification of the principles of sensitometry, worked out by Fred Archer and myself at the Art Center School in Los Angeles, around 1939–40."[95]

Adams taught these techniques to thousands of amateur photographers through his workshops and publications, such as the Morgan & Morgan Basic Photo Series. He produced ten volumes of technical manuals on photography.

Photography department at MoMA[edit]

In 1940,[91] with trustee David H. McAlpin and curator Beaumont Newhall, Adams helped establish the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. MoMA was the first major American art museum to establish a photography department.[96][92] He acted as McAlpin and Newhall’s primary advisor,[97] and Peter Galassi, the chief curator of the department in later years, said “Adams's dedication and boundless energy were vital to the creation of the department and to its programs in its early years.”[98] For those who had sought institutional recognition for photography, the founding of the department was an important moment, marking the medium’s recognition as a subject equal to painting and sculpture.[99]

On December 31, 1940, the department opened its first exhibition, Sixty Photographs: A Survey of Camera Esthetics,[100] which resembled large survey exhibitions that Adams and Newhall had previously mounted independently.[101] The exhibition took aesthetic quality as a guiding principle,[99] a philosophy that ran counter to that of many writers and critics, who argued that the medium’s more vernacular use as a means of communication should be more fully represented.[102] Photographer Ralph Steiner, writing for PM, complained “on the whole it [MoMA] seems to regard photography as soft music at high tea rather than as a jazz at a beefsteak supper.”[103] Tom Maloney, publisher of U.S. Camera, wrote that the exhibition was “very choice, very pristine, very small, very ultra.”[104] According to Newhall, the exhibition was meant to showcase artistic excellence and “not to define but to suggest the possibilities of photographic vision.”[100]

Awards and honors[edit]

Adams received a number of awards during his lifetime and posthumously, and there have been a few awards named for him.[105]

Adams's photograph The Tetons and the Snake River was one of the 115 images recorded on the Voyager Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft. These images were selected to convey information about humans, plants and animals, and geological features of the Earth to a possible alien civilization.

Adams received an honorary artium doctor degree from Harvard University and an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Yale University. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966.[106]

In 1968, he was awarded the Conservation Service Award by the Department of the Interior. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

Adams received the Sierra Club John Muir Award in 1963,[107] the Hasselblad Award in 1981,[108] and was inducted into the California Hall of Fame by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver in 2007.[109]

The Minarets Wilderness in the Inyo National Forest and a 11,760-foot (3,580 m) peak therein were renamed the Ansel Adams Wilderness and Mount Ansel Adams respectively in 1985.

The Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography was established in 1971,[107] and the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation was established in 1980 by The Wilderness Society.[110] The Wilderness Society also has a large permanent gallery of his work on display at its Washington, D.C. headquarters.[110]



Color images[edit]

Adams was known mostly for his boldly printed, large format black-and-white images, but he also worked extensively with color.[111] However, he preferred black-and-white photography, which he believed could be manipulated to produce a wide range of bold, expressive tones, and he felt constricted by the rigidity of the color process.[112] Most of his color work was done on assignments, and he did not consider his color work to be important or expressive, even explicitly forbidding any posthumous exploitation of his color work.

Notable photographs[edit]

  • Monolith, The Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, 1927.
  • Rose and Driftwood, San Francisco, California, 1932.
  • Georgia O'Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, 1937.
  • Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, 1940.[81]
  • Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California, 1960.
  • Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941.
  • Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California, 1944.
  • Aspens, Northern New Mexico, 1958.
  • El Capitan, Winter Sunrise, 1968.



Technical books[edit]

  • Making a Photograph, 1935.
  • Camera and Lens: The Creative Approach, 1948. ISBN 0-8212-0716-4.
  • The Negative: Exposure and Development, 1949. ISBN 0-8212-0717-2.
  • The Print: Contact Printing and Enlarging, 1950. ISBN 0-8212-0718-0.
  • Natural Light Photography, 1952. ISBN 0-8212-0719-9.
  • Artificial Light Photography, 1956. ISBN 0-8212-0720-2.
  • Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs, 1983. ISBN 0-8212-1750-X.
  • The Camera, 1995. ISBN 0-8212-2184-1.
  • The Negative, 1995. ISBN 0-8212-2186-8.
  • The Print, 1995. ISBN 0-8212-2187-6.

Photographic books[edit]



  1. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 192, states that the image caption for Moonrise in U.S. Camera 1943 was inaccurate, citing discrepancies in several technical details.
  2. ^ Although verbal agreement was given on September 30, 1941, the contract was actually approved on November 3 and backdated to October 14 (Wright & Armor 1988, p. vi).
  3. ^ David Elmore of the High Altitude Observatory in Boulder, Colorado, determined that Moonrise was taken on October 31, 1941, at 4:03 pm (Callahan 1981, pp. 30–31). Dennis di Cicco of Sky & Telescope magazine noticed that the moon's position at the time Elmore had determined 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 (di Cicco 1991, pp. 529–33).


  1. ^ Adams 1985, p. 4.
  2. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 4.
  3. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 2.
  4. ^ a b Sierra Club 2008a.
  5. ^ Whittington 2010.
  6. ^ a b Alinder 1996, p. 6.
  7. ^ Adams 1985, p. 14.
  8. ^ Golden Gate 2010.
  9. ^ Aitken 1951, pp. 284–286.
  10. ^ Adams 1985, p. 40.
  11. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 9.
  12. ^ a b Alinder 1996, p. 11.
  13. ^ Adams 1985, p. 18.
  14. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 276.
  15. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 52.
  16. ^ Adams 1985, p. 45.
  17. ^ a b c Turnage 2018.
  18. ^ a b A. Hammond, p. 15
  19. ^ Stillman 2007, p. 12.
  20. ^ Adams 1985, p. 53.
  21. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 36.
  22. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 23.
  23. ^ Sierra Club 2018.
  24. ^ Sierra Club 2010.
  25. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 47.
  26. ^ Adams 1985, p. 9.
  27. ^ Adams 1985, p. 27.
  28. ^ Alinder et al. 1988, p. 3.
  29. ^ Adams 1985, p. 28.
  30. ^ a b c Szarkowski 2018.
  31. ^ Alinder 1996, pp. 38–42.
  32. ^ Adams 1985, p. 76.
  33. ^ Alinder et al. 1988, p. 30.
  34. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 62.
  35. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 68.
  36. ^ Russell 1984.
  37. ^ ArtInfo 2006.
  38. ^ Alinder 1996, pp. 73–74.
  39. ^ a b c d Morgan 2018.
  40. ^ Oxford University Press 2003.
  41. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 77.
  42. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 87.
  43. ^ Adams 1985, p. 115.
  44. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 114.
  45. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 102.
  46. ^ Vicki Goldberg (2019-01-19). "Ansel Adams in a New Light". The New York Times. Retrieved 2019-01-19.
  47. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 120.
  48. ^ Bohnacker 2013.
  49. ^ a b Alinder 1996, p. 158.
  50. ^ Hamlin 2003.
  51. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 159.
  52. ^ Adams 1985, p. 312.
  53. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 239.
  54. ^ Adams 1981, p. 127.
  55. ^ Adams 1985, pp. 273–275.
  56. ^ Adams 1983, pp. 40–43.
  57. ^ Maloney 1942, pp. 88–89.
  58. ^ Adams 1983, p. 42.
  59. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 192.
  60. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 193.
  61. ^ Andrew Smith Gallery 2008.
  62. ^ Alinder 1996, pp. 189–199.
  63. ^ Wright & Armor 1988, p. vi.
  64. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 201.
  65. ^ a b Alinder 1996, p. 172.
  66. ^ a b Alinder 1996, p. 173.
  67. ^ Adams 1985, p. 263.
  68. ^ O'Toole 2010, p. 24.
  69. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 175.
  70. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 217.
  71. ^ Vernacular Language North, p. 5.
  72. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 251.
  73. ^ Adams 1985, p. 316.
  74. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 260.
  75. ^ Adams 1985, p. 375.
  76. ^ a b A. Hammond, p. 108
  77. ^ Goldbloom 1990, p. 3.
  78. ^ Alinder 1996, pp. 294–295.
  79. ^ Center for Creative Photography.
  80. ^ Alinder et al. 1988, p. 396.
  81. ^ a b Ilnytzky 2010.
  82. ^ Alinder 1996, p. 33.
  83. ^ a b Wells 2005.
  84. ^ Lorenz 2003.
  85. ^ Szarkowski 1976.
  86. ^ Mason 1955.
  87. ^ Sollors 2018.
  88. ^ Sandeen 1995.
  89. ^ Adams 1985, pp. 290–291.
  90. ^ World Enclyclopedia 2018.
  91. ^ a b c Soccio 2016.
  92. ^ a b O'Toole 2010.
  93. ^ Encyclopedia Americana 2006.
  94. ^ Robinson 2007.
  95. ^ Dowdell 1973.
  96. ^ Benezit Dictionary of Artists 2018.
  97. ^ O'Toole 2010, p. 14.
  98. ^ Museum of Modern Art 2003.
  99. ^ a b O'Toole 2010, p. 10.
  100. ^ a b Museum of Modern Art 2018.
  101. ^ O'Toole 2010, p. 174.
  102. ^ O'Toole 2010, p. 13.
  103. ^ O'Toole 2010, p. 180.
  104. ^ O'Toole 2010, p. 181.
  105. ^ American Academy of Arts and Sciences 2011.
  106. ^ a b Sierra Club 2008b.
  107. ^ Hasselblad Foundation 1981.
  108. ^ California Museum 2007.
  109. ^ a b Wilderness Society n.d.
  110. ^ Center for Creative Photography 2010.
  111. ^ Woodward n.d.


External links[edit]