Ansel Adams

A series of photography blogs about famous photographers starting with Ansel Adams

The point of this series is too inspire others to try something different and let this inspiration lead you in to a natural progression with creativity. Even if it is only to try some Black and White film out for yourself with an old Zorki, or simply turning your full colour images into Mono. This may lead onto something completely different, who knows till you give it a try.

ANSEL ADAMS (1902-1984)  SELF PORTRAIT, C. 1950One of the most famous photographers was Ansel Adams an American photographer who is widely known for his modern day representations that are made on calendars, posters, and in books. He is best remembered as a prominent figure in black and white photography. Ansel Adams was a great environmentalist too. The multi-dimensional genius in Adams made him develop the Zone System which determines proper exposure and adjusts the contrast of the final print. Adams was a guiding light in developing the field of photography with his teachings and practices of resolution, clarity and the importance of sharpness in images. Adams was a great lover of large-format cameras which were considered trouble because of their sizes, weights, setup time, and film cost but their high resolution helped ensure sharpness in his images. Adams is also greatly known for being the founder of Group f/64 which was a group of seven 20th century San Francisco photographers sharing photographic style characterized by sharp-focused and carefully framed images seen through a particularly Western (U.S.) viewpoint. Adams’ photographs are widely distributed around the world even today.

Adams Ansel basically pioneered the west though film. Taking beautiful landscape photographs before they gathered main stream popularity. Often traveling alone he reached remote places many but the indians had seen before.

The childhood of Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams was born on 20 February 1902 in San Francisco, California to parents Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray Adams who were of an affluent family. Adams got his name from his uncle Ansel Easton. The Adams family originally hailed from New England and migrated from the north of Ireland in the early 18th century. Adams’ grandfather had set up a prosperous lumber business which his father continued upon but when it was Adams’ time to take up the family business he condemned the idea of cutting down redwood forests and declined to take up the job.

 In 1903 Adams’ family moved to the Seacliff neighborhood and the new house was set in a beautiful landscape view of the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands. However disaster arose for the family when San Francisco was ripped apart by the 18 April 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Adams was just 4 years old when he witnessed an aftershock that threw him face down breaking his nose. Doctors stated that he would have a normal nose as he grew up which never happened.

 Ansel Adams frequently fell ill as a child. He did not have too many friends and was an impatient kid who was always curious and interested about nature from a very early age. With the Panic of 1907 (a banking crises that attacked America) and the death of his grandfather Adams’ father ran losses in the family business which led to great financial changes in the family. By 1912 his family had lost their affluent standard of living. Adams was an inattentive and a restless kid which resulted in him being thrown out of several private schools. He received his further education from his Aunt Mary and father who private tutored him. He was pulled out of school at the age of 15 by his father. Soon Adams resumed his formal education and was enrolled at the Mrs. Kate M. Wilkins Private School from where he graduated from eighth grade on 8 June 1917. Adams shared a warm relation with his father but had an uncomfortable bonding with his mother who disapproved of his photographic interest.

 Ansel Adams learnt piano all by himself at the age of 12. He focused on music in the later years of his youth.

Ansel Adams Photography

In 1921 his first photographs got published. In 1922 Best’s Studio started selling Adams’ Yosemite prints. His early photographs reflected careful composition and sensitivity to tonal balance. It was during this while that Ansel Adams was still interested to make a career in music. After several more years he finally decided to become a concert pianist of limited range, an accompanist, or a piano teacher after struggling with bruises in hands.

 In the mid 1920s Ansel Adams experimented with soft-focus, etching, Bromoil Process, and on certain other photographic techniques of the pictorial photographers, such as Photo-Secession leader Alfred Stieglitz who was known for bringing photography on an equal artistic plane with painting by trying to mimic it. Adams was innovative in his approach as he did not use hand-coloring which was popular at the time. He used various types of lenses in order to attain different effects, but eventually rejected ‘pictorialism’ and took up a better realistic approach that relied more heavily on sharp focus, heightened contrast, precise exposure, and darkroom craftsmanship.

 In 1927 Ansel Adams made his first portfolio “Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras” in his very own new style which included his famous image “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome” which he captured with his Korona view camera using glass plates and a dark red filter (to heighten the tonal contrasts). 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” reflecting his inner confidence on his photographic excellence. Adams’ first portfolio was sponsored and promoted by Albert Bender, an arts-connected businessman making Adams become successful and earning him something like $3,900. Soon Adams was contacted for commercial assignments to photograph the wealthy patrons who bought his portfolio. Adams photos were carefully touched and crafted which made him realize the importance of reproducing a photograph properly. Albert Bender invited Adams to join the prestigious Roxburghe Club where Adams learnt fine printing and high standards in book arts which included printing techniques, inks, design, and layout which he applied in his later projects. Adams had insufficient equipments and had no proper darkroom.

 Between 1929 and 1942, Ansel Adams’s matured and excelled in his work to become more established. In the 1930s Adams produced and experimented with his works the most. His works included everything from detailed close-ups, mountains to factories. In 1930 Adams’ second portfolio ‘Taos Pueblo’ was published (accompanied by text) by writer Mary Hunter Austin. Adams got introduced to Stieglitz’s circle in New Mexico which included painter Georgia O’Keeffe, artist John Marin, and photographer Paul Strand, all of whom created famous works during their stays in the Southwest. Adams was a great talker which combined with his excellent piano playing skills to make him earn great many elite friends.

 In 1931 Ansel Adams was able to put up his first solo museum exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution with the help of his friends and Washington connections. This exhibition included 60 prints taken by Adams in the High Sierra. Adams received great appreciations which include an excellent review from the Washington Post, “His photographs are like portraits of the giant peaks, which seem to be inhabited by mythical gods”. Adams was not satisfied with himself and he wanted to emulate Paul Strand. He thought of broadening his subject matter to include still life and close-up photos in order to attain higher quality by “visualizing” each image before taking it. He started stressing on the use of small apertures and long exposures in natural light, which created sharp details with a wide range of focus. In 1932 Adams participated in a group show at the M. H. de Young Museum with Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston and they soon formed Group f/64, which followed “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”.

 In 1933 Ansel Adams opened his very own art and photography gallery in San Francisco (founded on Stieglitz’s examples) which went on to become Danysh Gallery as Adams could not continue with his commitments due to his other works and engagements. In 1933 Adams brought out his ‘Rose and Driftwood’ which is regarded as the finest ever still photographs portfolio done by him.

Adams started writing essays in photography magazines. In the 1930s he used his photography in creating awareness for wilderness preservation. He was greatly disturbed by the increasing cutting down and de-charming of Yosemite Valley by commercial development, including a pool hall, bowling alley, golf course, shops, and automobile traffic. In 1935 he wrote his first instructional book ‘Making a Photograph’. His efforts in nature and environmental awareness are noteworthy. In 1935 he took new photos of the Sierra which include one of his most famous photographs, “Clearing Winter Storm” that captured the entire valley just as a winter storm relented, leaving a fresh coat of snow.

 In 1936 Ansel Adams made a collection of al his recent works and organized a solo show which was named “An American Place” and held at the Stieglitz gallery in New York. In the 1930s Adams also did several commercial assignments to supplement the income from the struggling Best’s Studio. His clients include names like Kodak, Fortune magazine, Pacific Gas and Electric, AT&T, and the American Trust Company.

Ansel Adams (1902-1984), american photographer. Moon and Half Dome. Gelatin silver photograph.

Ansel Adams personal development

In 1938 he created a limited-edition book “Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail” which was introduced as part of the Sierra Club’s efforts to secure the designation of Sequoia and Kings Canyon as national parks.

 In 1939 Ansel Adams was made the editor of ‘U.S. Camera’ which was the most popular photography magazine at that time. In 1940 Ansel organized ‘A Pageant of Photography’ which is regarded as a very important and largest photography show in the West till today which was visited by millions of enthusiasts. During 1940-1941 Ansel completed (with the help of his wife) the very successful children’s book, “Illustrated Guide to Yosemite Valley”. Adams gave several photography workshops in Detroit and his pupils included future photographer Todd Webb. In 1941 Adams started teaching at the Art Center School of Los Angeles, which included the training of military photographers.

 In 1941 Ansel Adams went on a trip to New Mexico just weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack where he shot his most famous photograph “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” which was a scene of the Moon rising above a modest village with snow-covered mountains in the background, under a dominating black sky. The photograph got more famous with Adams’ description in his later books of how it was made. In 1943 Moonrise was first published on ‘U.S. Camera’. In 1944 Moonrise had its first formal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Several prints of the photo were made in the 1970s. The total value of these original prints exceeds $25,000,000 which is the highest price paid for a single print. It reached $609,600 at Sotheby’s New York auction in 2006.

 In September 1941 he went into a contract with the Department of the Interior to use photographs of National Parks, Indian reservations, and other locations into making mural-sized prints for decoration of the Department’s new building. In 1945 Adams was invited to form the first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA) and he asked Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston to be guest lecturers and Minor White to be the lead instructor. The department produced great many future notable photographers. In 1946 he received the first of three Guggenheim fellowships to photograph every National Park.

 In 1952 Ansel Adams co-founded the magazine Aperture, which was quest for a serious journal of photography showcasing its best practitioners and newest innovations. In 1954 his article on ‘Mission San Xavier del Bac’, with text by longtime friend Nancy Newhall, was enlarged into a book. In June 1955, Adams began his annual workshops and also taught thousands of students until 1981.

 Ansel Adams published his fourth portfolio, ‘What Majestic Word’ in 1963. In the 1960s Adams’ images were showcased in several mainstream art galleries. 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 which was titled ‘Fiat Lux’ after the University’s motto was published in 1967 which is currently housed in the Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside.

 In 1974 Ansel Adams brought out one of his major retrospective exhibition at the ‘Metropolitan Museum of Art’. In the 1970s he spent most of his time curating and re-printing negatives from his vault to supply to art museums and also use in the creation of his departments of photography.

Famous works

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

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico – 1941

Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California – 1944

Aspens, Northern New Mexico – 1958

Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, California – 1960

El Capitan, Winter, Sunrise – 1968

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