Until he got his first camera at 14, the American photographer Ansel Adams wanted to be a concert pianist. The camera was a Kodak Brownie box camera that had been introduced in 1900 by George Eastman, the founder of Kodak. It sold for $1 and made taking pictures available to a wide audience of Americans (“You press the button, we do the rest,” Eastman’s advertising proclaimed). For Ansel Adams, who would grow up to be the premier photographer of the American landscape, that camera was destiny.
Indeed, as his photography career developed, it would be Ansel Adams along with his friends, photographers Edward Weston and Alfred Steiglitz, whose work would give photography the status of art and lead the Museum of Modern Art to establish a Department of Photography.
Adams had gotten the camera from his father while the family was visiting Yosemite National Park, the locale of some of the most famous photographs of his career and his favorite place to explore. He had taught himself to play the piano, and now he taught himself to take photographs. Adams’s black-and-white photographs of the American landscape, particularly of the West and its national parks, gave the nation an indelible understanding of its environmental heritage and were instrumental in preserving the wilderness and parkland of that heritage. In the tradition of 19th-century American landscape painters like Thomas Cole and Frederic Church and Transcendental writers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ansel Adams offered the 20th century his version of their gospel of nature. He was an early advocate of the environmentalism that Theodore Roosevelt had championed during his presidency.
His concern for the environment led him to join the Sierra Club at 17 and to spend summers as a “keeper” at the club lodge in Yosemite. By the time he was 32, he had been elected to the Sierra Club board of directors. His first photographs were published by the Sierra Club in its 1922 Bulletin, and the first exhibit of his work was held at the Sierra Club in San Francisco in 1928.
His San Francisco home, near the Golden Gate Bridge, gave him an early love of nature, allowing him to explore the natural environment and climb the dunes along the bay. But it also left its mark. Adams was only 4 when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hit, destroying most of the city. The family survived but during the powerful aftershock, the little boy fell against a wall in the garden and broke his nose. It was never reset and remained crooked all his life.
Adams’s art of photography was all about the visual, about capturing a three-dimensional world in a two-dimensional medium and making it look both real and otherworldly. His insistence on “straight photography,” that is, images unretouched in the darkroom, meant that all the artistry had to be in his own eye and in his ability to compose the picture. Adams began taking close-up pictures of ordinary objects like pine cones and leaves, trying to photograph them as straightforwardly as possible. Unlike a painter who can create his or her own version of reality, a photographer essentially must start with the already-existing reality that the three-dimensional world presents. The artistic creativity is in the angle, the lighting, and camera technique that will present his view of it.
Adams favored a large-format high-resolution camera, in contrast to his childhood Brownie, and relied on shutter speed, aperture size, and various filters to fulfill his artistic vision. An early and famous photograph, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, was taken using a red filter, which gave the picture its stunning contrasts. It depicts the Yosemite National Park icon, a granite rock formation rising nearly 5,000 feet from the valley floor. With Adams’s addition of the filter, blackening the sky, the Half Dome appears even more hugely imposing. Like the artist Paul Cezanne who did paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire over and over, Adams would photograph the Half Dome some 22 more times. He later began lowering the horizon in his photographs to give a greater sense of sky and mountain.
Adams developed a method of taking photographs that made the most of the art and technology of the camera by controlling how film was exposed to brightness. Because he photographed almost exclusively in black and white, this method gave his pictures greater contrast and clarity. (Color photography did not reproduce well at that time and he spoke of it as like playing an out-of-tune piano. He could get subtler effects in black and white.) With photographer Fred Archer, and building on the 19th-century work with light-sensitive material of Ferdinand Hurter and Vero Driffield, Adams formulated what he called the Zone System. This was a method for visualizing and defining the range of darks and lights in a photograph prior to taking it, based on regulating the camera’s shutter speed and aperture size. But even without a light meter, Adams could gauge lighting. He took a famous picture, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, without any technology, calculating the exposure in his head by using the known formula for the luminance of the moon.
Adams was also working to imbue his photographs with an emotional quality that would reflect how he felt in taking the picture. Ultimately his Zone System gave photographers the sense of more artistic control over their work and gave his own photographs their distinguishing clarity and depth. As he said in his autobiography, “It is easy to take a photograph, but it is harder to make a masterpiece in photography than in any other art medium.”
Certainly photography and the camera are distinctive elements of 20th-century culture. They propel the great engine of media, movies, spectacle, publicity, celebrity, and now, even the Internet. In the 21st century, the visual has become the dominant aspect of American culture. As Susan Sontag says in her book, On Photography, the camera “changed seeing itself,” promoting “the value of appearances... as the camera records them”:
Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality, and of realism.
Even ideas of beauty were affected by the camera, Sontag says. “New conventions about what was beautiful took hold... in the fracturing, dislocating vision that only the camera supplies,” giving views that the eye does not usually notice or isolate. Photography, she says, has a “commitment to pure seeing,” though conflicted by its historical dilemma of “truth-telling” versus “beauty.” Today, the computer has undermined the truth-telling, documentary role of photography. It can photoshop and change images to suit. The old saying, “The camera doesn’t lie,” no longer applies.
The camera itself did not come into being until the 19th century, but its progenitor, the camera obscura, a box with a pinhole to admit light, had been known as far back as 5th century BC in China. When light entered the pinhole, an upside-down image was cast on a tablet or the wall. The camera obscura was frequently used by artists like Vermeer in the 17th century to capture an image they wished to draw or paint. The problem, however, was not capturing the image; it was figuring out a way to make the image last. In 1826, a Frenchman named Joseph Nicephore Niepce applied bitumen to a pewter plate to preserve the image in his camera obscura, but this proved impractical. His partner, Louis Daguerre, found a better way by 1836, using a copper plate coated with silver to produce what became known as daguerreotypes. People who posed for their portraits had to hold the pose for a half hour or longer as the daguerreotype developed.
In the United States, the camera became a vehicle for documenting history; Matthew Brady’s photographs in the 1860s of the Civil War stunned the nation as the toll of battle became real. So too during the Vietnam War and ever after, war has been waged right in front of us on our living room televisions. But photography’s dilemma between truth-telling and beauty remains. For Ansel Adams, photography was all about beauty, all about art. Few of his photographs have any people in them; he preferred the images of natural landscape he found in the American West. The French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was critical: “The world is falling to pieces and all Adams and Weston photograph is rocks and trees.” In his own defense Adams said,
I know I shall be castigated by a large group of people today, but I was trained to assume that art related to the elusive quality of beauty and that the purpose of art was concerned with the elevation of the spirit (horrible Victorian notion!!).
His is America the Beautiful, awe-inspiring in its grandeur as he portrayed it, leaving it to others to record and document history. It would be photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange who showed the dark side and the suffering of humanity during the Depression and the Dust Bowl; later, photographers like Weegee and Diane Arbus would extensively chronicle the people on the margins of urban United States.
Photography, because of its value as a document, had a long struggle to be considered as art. It gained credibility when Ansel Adams, in alliance with six other San Francisco photographers, including Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, formed Group f/64 (the name refers to the smallest aperture on the large-format camera Adams and others used) to promote an aesthetic of photography. They staged an exhibit that caught the attention of the San Francisco De Young Museum of Art, which then organized an exhibition of their photographs. The East Coast establishment took notice. By 1940, the Museum of Modern Art had established its own Department of Photography. Today its collection includes some 25,000 photographs.
Adams was fortunate early on to have a wealthy patron, Albert M. Bender, a San Francisco insurance executive, who generously supported his work and financed his first portfolio of High Sierra photographs in 1927. Becoming more widely known and beginning to meet influential photographers like Paul Strand and painter Georgia O’Keefe, Adams produced a second portfolio, Taos Pueblo, and in 1931 had his first one-man exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute. Then during the 1930s, his career took off. He opened his own gallery in San Francisco and he began publishing essays about photography as well as an instructional book, Making Photographs. He produced a limited edition book of Sierra Nevada photographs to support the Sierra Club’s efforts at preservation and testified before Congress about the club’s work. He was also venturing into the New York City photography scene where he became friends with Alfred Steiglitz and Edward Steichen. In 1936, Adams had a one-man show at Steiglitz’s gallery, An American Place.
In addition to his own photography, Adams, always financially pressed, needed to make a living. He took on many commercial assignments, including work for Kodak, AT&T, and IBM and Life and Fortune magazines. He became friends with Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, who retained him as a consultant to take photographs with Polaroid cameras. Adams also contracted with the Department of the Interior in 1941 to photograph National Parks and Indian reservations and produced the mural-sized pictures used in the Department’s new offices. During World War II, Adams did photography assignments for the military. Disturbed by the internment of Japanese families in California during the war, he produced a photo-essay about them, which was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art.
Adams won many honors for his photography, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, with a citation reading:
At one with the power of the American landscape, and renowned for the patient skill and timeless beauty of his work, photographer Ansel Adams has been visionary in his efforts to preserve the 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 monument himself, and by photographers as a national institution. It is through his foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans.
Carter also commissioned Adams to photograph him for his official presidential portrait, the first that was not a painting. Adams was the recipient of three Guggenheim fellowships and was given honorary doctorates by both Harvard and Yale. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1966 and in 2007 was named to the California Hall of Fame. He had conducted an annual workshop for more than 25 years to teach other photographers his methods and founded the first fine arts department of photography (at the California School of Fine Arts). Adams wrote 10 books on photography and edited nearly four dozen books of his photographs, some in collaboration with Nancy Newhall, a historian and art critic associated with the Museum of Modern Art. One of their most successful was published by the Sierra Club, This Is the American Earth, which includes Ad-ams’s stunning photographs of the Western landscape as well as those of Margaret Bourke-White, Edward Weston, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, among others. It is a fitting testimony to Ansel Adams’s lifelong quest to reveal the beauty of the wild and the art of photography.
Ansel Easton Adams was born on February 20, 1902, in San Francisco. He was the only child of Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray Adams. He was apparently inattentive in school and was tutored at home for a time until he was sent to a private school where he graduated from the eighth grade. The family fortunes had declined in a 1907 downturn, but his father seems to have continued to foster young Ansel’s interests, buying him a telescope as well as the Brownie camera, and taking the family on excursions to Yosemite. Ansel taught himself to play the piano, nurturing dreams of becoming a concert pianist, and took music lessons for many years even after he turned to a career path in photography.
Adams met his future wife, Virginia Best, on one of his trips to Yosemite, and they were married in 1928. They had two children, Michael and Anne. In later life, Adams devoted much of his time to curating and printing his photographs for museum exhibitions and to writing and lecturing about photography and the environment. He began writing an autobiography, which he left unfinished (another writer, Mary Street Alinder, completed it after his death). Adams died of a heart attack at the age of 82 in Monterey, California, on April 22, 1984. His ashes were scattered on Mount Ansel Adams in California, one of several places in the state named for him. His photographs are in museums and private collections, and an archive of his work is at the John P. Schaefer Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Adams, Ansel and Mary Street Alinder. Ansel Adams, an Autobiography. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1985.
Adams, Ansel and Nancy Newhall. This Is the American Earth. San Francisco, CA: The Sierra Club, 1960.
Galassi, Peter. Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1981.
Newhall, Nancy. Eloquent Light. New York: Aperture, 1980.
Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.
Stillman, Andrea G., ed. Ansel Adams: 400 Photographs. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 2007.