Who Was Ansel Adams?
Ansel Easton Adams (February 20, 1902 – April 22, 1984) was a landscape photographer and environmentalist known for his black-and-white images of the American West. He helped found Group f/64, an association of photographers advocating "pure" photography which favored sharp focus and the use of the full tonal range of a photograph. He and Fred Archer developed an exacting system of image-making called the Zone System, 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 United States Department of the Interior to make photographs of national parks. For his work and his persistent advocacy, which helped expand the National Park system, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980.
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.
The Spirit Of Influence
For many, when thinking about or viewing black and white nature photography, Ansel Adams immediately comes to mind. Beginning in the early 1920's and spanning a career of the next 40+ years, Adams photographed many of the natural areas that millions of us enjoy each year and that the majority of us as landscape photographers deeply appreciate including the Sierra Nevada, the Desert Southwest and many of our National Parks.
In direct defiance of the Pictorialism movement of the mid-1920's, Ansel began photographing landscapes in a realistic way, using small apertures for sharp focus and greater depth of field, heightened contrast and precise exposure. This type of photography had a direct influence on nature photography today. In 1941, the National Park service commissioned Adams to photograph the parks. Here are a few examples of his work, which are under public domain as part of the national archives.
Looking across forest to mountains and clouds, "In Glacier National Park," Montana.; From the series Ansel Adams Photographs of National Parks and Monuments, compiled 1941 - 1942. Ansel Adams - This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 519863.
View of plateau, snow covered mountain in background, "Long's Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park," Colorado.; From the series Ansel Adams Photographs of National Parks and Monuments, compiled 1941 - 1942. Ansel Adams - This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 519970.
Ansel Adams The Tetons and the Snake River (1942) Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. National Archives and Records Administration, Records of the National Park Service. (79-AAG-1) Ansel Adams - This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 519904.
A Better Vantage Point
As a landscape photographer, I am always looking for new, creative perspectives. One of my favorite Ansel Adams stories was In 1943, when 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.
Conservation And Care From The Very Start
At age 17, Adams joined the Sierra Club, 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 1923. 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. Adams participated in the club's annual High Trips, later becoming assistant manager and official photographer for the trips. He is credited with several first ascents in the Sierra Nevada.
In his autobiography, Adams expressed his concern about Americans' loss of connection to nature in the course of industrialization and the exploitation of the land's natural resources. 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.
For his conservation efforts, Adams received the Sierra Club John Muir Award in 1963. In 1968, he was awarded the Conservation Service Award, the highest award of the Department of the Interior. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, for "his efforts to preserve this country's wild and scenic areas, both on film and on earth. Drawn to the beauty of nature's monuments, he is regarded by environmentalists as a national institution.
My Personal Appreciation
Interestingly enough, as a child and young adult I expressed my love for art through drawings with pencil and black ink. I rarely produced artwork with any color at all. Fast forward to today and I am widely known for my colorful landscape photography and rarely produce work specifically with monochrome editing in mind. That being said, I truly do appreciate a quality black and white photograph and feel that often times they can be more thought provoking and have a more lasting effect on the viewer than a bright colorful photograph. As a result, I have begun creating a few black and white images of my own that you can view below. No matter which type of photography you enjoy, there is no way that you can doubt the influence and the gifts that Ansel Adams has given us through the lens of his camera.