Tetons and the Snake River
Photo by Ansel Adams
Ansel Adams

Thursday, January 21st, 2010 6:31 PM EST

Ansel Adams

Musician, teacher, scientist, advocate, conservationist?these are some of the terms that describe the most renowned photographer in American history?Ansel Adams. He grew up in San Francisco where he was born in 1902 and was introduced to the expanse of California's Yosemite Valley while on a family vacation at the age of fourteen. At this time he was also given a No. 1 Brownie Box camera. These two seemingly small events strongly influenced the course of Adams's life. Fascinated by photography and impressed with the beauty of the Sierra mountains, Adams worked with a photofinisher in commercial processing in San Francisco during the winter and returned to Yosemite every summer.

For four years, beginning at age seventeen, he was the custodian of the Sierra Club's LeConte Memorial Building in Yosemite. This introduced him to an arena that became a driving force throughout the rest of his life?the preservation and conservation of wilderness areas and national parks in the United States. Among his many later accomplishments in this field, he served as board member and, ultimately, director of the Sierra Club and as environmental spokesperson for land protection before Congress. He also conducted annual photographic workshops in Yosemite that combined appreciation of the landscape's aesthetic beauty with technical instruction.

As a teenager, Adams decided to become a concert pianist, but by 1930, after viewing negatives made by east coast photographer Paul Strand, he chose instead a career in photography. His decision to become a full-time photographer contributed to the formation of a new vision in photography in the West. Adams, with other California Bay Area photographers?Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift, and John Paul Edwards?founded Group f/64 in protest to the sentimental and imitative style prevalent in the long-standing, turn-of-the-century, photographic trend of pictorialism. The name f/64 refers to the smallest lens opening on the camera through which light passes: images photographed at this setting yield sharp focus and fine detail of subject matter. This loose organization of photographers concentrated on exploring what they termed "straight" or pure photography. They emphasized form and texture, rather than soft focus and emotionalism, and translated scale and detail into an organic, sometimes abstract, design. By 1935, Adams published his first book, Making a Photograph, which was enthusiastically received. Six years later, his groundbreaking Zone System was formulated, which introduced a way for the amateur and professional alike to determine and control the exposure and development of prints for maximum visual acuity.

Adams's sense of social responsibility and obligation to share knowledge with succeeding generations is evident in his life's work. Over the years, he became well known for the clarity of his instruction and his hands-on workshop approach to the medium. He influenced generations of photographers through his teaching and publishing. Adams served the field of photography in many capacities: for example, he was a guest lecturer and course instructor at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; founder of the first department of photography at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco; and author of numerous books.

He was instrumental in the formation of the museum and research center at the University of Arizona in Tucson, known today as the Center for Creative Photography. Adams's dream was to ensure the preservation and conservation of photographs as well as to make them available for public education purposes. Today, the Ansel Adams Archive at the Center includes his fine prints, correspondence, negatives, study prints, and memorabilia.

His technical ability in the darkroom remains unsurpassed. He set the standard for black-and-white printing for the Pacific coast group, and his discriminating taste and meticulously produced prints continue to amaze those who see his original work. His large encompassing landscapes, for which he is best known, are inspired by the archetypal nineteenth-century idealized panorama, which was a typical genre in early painted and photographic depictions of the American West. Adams was influenced by these examples, but he was also an experimenter and a modernist.

His close-up, intense studies of isolated natural objects that capture nature's most intimate details were often made on the same day as his more famous dramatic vistas. Adams advocated the role of photography as a fine art inspiring new ways of seeing and communicating. All art is a vision penetrating the illusions of reality, and photography is one form of this vision and revelation. . . . My approach to photography is based upon my belief in the vigor and values of the world of nature, in aspects of grandeur and minutiae all about us. Adams remained active as a photographer and conservationist until his death in April 1984. The following year, a mountain peak on the southeast boundary of Yosemite National Park was officially named Mount Ansel Adams in his honor. In the same year, as a testament to his public popularity, his autobiography appeared on best-seller lists across the United States. Ansel Adams's view of America, produced in over half a century of imagery, invites us to reexamine our visible world from the most intimate details in nature to the broadest of landscapes.

For further information, see:
www.anseladams.com and www.creativephotography.org
(Depository of Ansel?s archives)