Ansel Adams, America’s most beloved wilderness photographers, shunned romanticism to reveal the raw beauty of the outdoors.
Ansel Easton Adams, arguably the most famous pioneering modern nature and landscape photographer, was born in February 1902 in San Francisco, the only child in a comfortable family. Four years later, the city was struck by a devastating magnitude 7.9 earthquake that claimed more than 3,000 lives and left much of the city in ruins. The family fell on hard times in the unrelated financial crisis that followed in 1907, during which the New York Stock Exchange lost half its value over a few weeks.
Adams did not fit it at school, his painful shyness exacerbated by his severely broken nose suffered during the earthquake, a disfigurement that remained with him for the rest of his life. After Adams changed schools several times, his father decided to have him tutored. During his formative years, Ansel took solace in nature, taking long walks in the forest and sand dunes that surrounded the family home.
‘The single most important component of a camera is the 12 inches behind it’ – Ansel Adams
Although he was equally interested in music and photography, it became apparent that he wasn’t cut out to be a professional musician. He then poured his energies into photography, a skill he’d acquired since age 14 when he was given a Kodak Box Brownie Camera to take on family trips to the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the majestic Yosemite National Park.
Adams joined the Sierra Club, one of the world’s oldest environmental preservation societies, in 1918. At age 17, he was given a summer job as custodian of the LeConte Memorial Lodge, the club’s headquarters in Yosemite, and produced photographic portfolios on the Lodge’s behalf. Most of his early photographs were landscapes taken on exhilarating climbs, which boosted his early success as an exhibiting photographer.
In 1926 Adams met Albert Bender, a philanthropist well connected within San Francisco’s community of writers and artists who suggested to Adams that he create a saleable portfolio of his mountain pictures. The 18-print portfolio titled Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras (1927) was printed in an edition of 100. It included Monolith, The Face of the Half Dome, which Adams regarded as his first truly important photograph. The friendship would also bring Adams into contact with other artists and photographers, including the photographer Edward Weston, whom he met at Bender’s home in 1927.
Adams first visited Taos, New Mexico, in 1930, and returned many times to photograph the landscape and vernacular architecture of the Southwest. There Adams met the photographer, Paul Strand, whose modernist Straight Photography approach immediately won Adams’ heart. Strand advocated the use of large format (rather than hand-held) cameras to create finely detailed, high contrast, flat images that produced semi-abstractions or geometric pattern within the picture frame. Strand’s images were reliant moreover on size and context for their full effect and his images were always intended to be hung on the walls of dedicated photographic galleries. After his meeting with Strand, and having viewed with admiration some of his recent New Mexico negatives, Adams returned to San Francisco ready to devote his life and career to the art of photography.
Adams’s reputation soared in 1931 following his first solo exhibition, featuring 60 of his photographs of the Sierra Nevada mountains, at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The following year Adams travelled to New York where he met Alfred Stieglitz, known as the father of modern American photography, at his famous gallery, An American Place. Stieglitz is said to have looked through Adams’s portfolio twice, and in total silence, before telling Adams that his were some of the best photographs he had ever seen. The two became close friends, corresponding frequently about photography and other matters of mutual interest.
Adams founded the photographers’ cooperative Group f/64 with Edward Weston that was active between 1932 and 1935 and included noted photographers Imogen Cunningham,Willard Van Dyke, Consuelo Kanaga, Henry Swift, Alma Lavenson, and Sonya Noskowiak. The group advocated Straight and unmanipulated photography over “Pictorialism”, which favoured traditional, soft-focus images, which were printed from manipulated negatives that produced prints more reminiscent of oil paintings than photographs. The group’s name, f/64, referred to their use of the smallest aperture setting (f-stop) on a camera that created an image with the sharpest depth of field.
During the early 1930s Adams wrote for the magazine Camera Craft and published the book Making a Photograph (1935), which was a great success and continued the newly established tradition of the photography manual.
‘To photograph truthfully and effectively is to see beneath the surfaces’ – Ansel Adams
Adams was also credited for his Zone System, a tool for controlling the picture image based on a four interlocked variables unique to photography: the sensitivity of the negative paper, exposure time, lighting and studio development.