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Ansel Adams: Iconic American West Photographer

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

Who was Ansel Adams?

Born in San Francisco on February 20, 1902, Ansel Adams’ childhood was not an easy one. He bore the scars physically after the famous earthquake of 1906 tossed him into a garden wall, resulting in a broken nose that remained crooked all his life. Sickly and, what by today’s terms would be deemed hyperactivity disorder, the restless child was kicked out of multiple schools before being educated at home by family and several tutors.

Having self-taught himself to play piano, his first love, a family trip to Yosemite National Parkat fourteen years old could very well be said to be the catalyst for what became an iconic career in photography.

Years later in 1928, as if fate intervened, Adams married the daughter of the owner of Best’s Studio, Virginia Best. Despite piano and photography being shared passions, by 1930 Adams had decided to devote his life to photography. His wife’s family’s studio passed on to Virginia after the death of her father. Today it operates as the Ansel Adams Gallery.

The publication of his first portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, gave Adams his big break leading to commercial work. Adams spent time with artists Paul Strand and Georgia O’Keeffe, influencing his interests in the wilderness and spurring him to make protecting wilderness areas a personal cause.

The articles Adams wrote for the popular photography press brought him fame in photography circles by 1935. Adams was a pioneer in writing articles so technical in nature that they shed light on practical problems of photography never handled before. As his reputation expanded, so did Adams’ body of work as well as a commission to write his first guidebook, Making a Photograph. Illustrated with all his own photographs, the book became a huge success and, while a bit harder to obtain, is still sought after today. By the time the book was published, Adams had already experienced success as his subject matter, the environment of his beloved West Coast, was rooted.

He became known for jaw dropping black and white photographs of the American west. Raved about by art critics as works that were painstakingly composed and technically precise, Adams’ became known as one of the great photographers. His iconic black and white images are credit with photography being recognized as a fine art. In addition, his work helped promote the conservation of wilderness areas across the country.    

The Iconic Work of Ansel Adams

While photographers before Adams, like Carleton Watkins, made the American West their subject matter, none had the eye that Ansel Adams had. Where Watkins captured the physical detail of the land, it was said that Adams captured the weather with his ability to show the minutest of details. His work provoked emotions ranging from excitement to pleasure and from wonder to sobering moods of the gravity of a natural world changing in the blink of an eye.

In 1936, the significance of Adams’ work took the spotlight when Alfred Stieglitz, an advocate for the modernist movement of art, gave him a one-artist show. The fact that this was the first one-artist show ever for a new photographer in Stieglitz’s gallery was met with much criticism by critics. In their eyes, Adams’ contemporaries were taking up work that was more of a priority. Nonetheless, Adams used his growing prominence to elevate photography as a fine art in the eyes of the public.

Adams’ scenic images of Yosemite National Park today remain some of the most iconic works in the history of photography. For six decades Adams captured what he saw of the American wilderness. He shared his view of the wilderness that made him one of the most recognized photographers in the world, all from a boy who at fourteen picked up a camera during a family trip to Yosemite National Park.

Once again, Adams’ unique ability to capture nature unlike anyone else brought him to the attention of the National Park Service in 1941. The park service commissioned Ansel Adams to create a photo mural for the Department of the Interior Building in Washington, D.C. Who better to execute a mural depicting nature embodied and protected by the U.S. National Parks? While the project was halted due to World War II, close to two hundred and twenty-six photos taken by Adams for the project are still held by the National Archives Still Picture Branch today. The pictures were taken in a dozen national parks which included the Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, and Adams’ beloved Yosemite National Park.

While his love of the West Coast fueled his legendary photography career and spurred him to become a committed environmentalist, Adams did not back away from the human cause. His visit during World War II to the internment camp in Manzanar, California impacted him greatly. Adams’ experience taking pictures at the camp brought his attention to the injustices being carried out against Japanese Americans. Those in his circle say he believed taking those pictures was one of the most important works of his lifetime. 

It was Adam’s persistence in showing people and photographers alike that photography was a fine art that brought about the first curatorial department ever devoted to photography as an art form at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Six years later he went on to establish the first academic department to teach photography as a profession through the California School of Fine Arts. Today the San Francisco Art Institute is the most prestigious school of higher education in contemporary art. Interested students who visit the BFA in photography page will see it proudly states “SFAI is home to the first "fine art" photography program in the country founded by Ansel Adams.”

In 1980, Ansel Adams was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter. One of the highest honors an artist can receive, it was an acknowledgment of Adams’ years of work as a photographer as well as his contributions as an environmentalist. Carter’s citation read “It is through [Adams’s] foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans.”


The importance of Ansel Adams’ Work

Today the artistry of Ansel Adams remains a vital part of the world of photography. Adams’ is one of the most studied photographers by photography students across the country. His meticulously crafted images are some of the hardest if not altogether impossible to recreate. Despite the advances we continue to see in technology, the depth and quality of his original works can not be duplicated. Photography students studying Ansel Adams learn that Adams was a master at creating film negatives. He remains the master of dark room processing. Still, despite his techniques being unable to translate to today’s digital photography, the characteristics of his photography can be studied and assimilated by today’s photographers. The importance of Ansel Adams’ work today for photographers is in the abundance of priceless knowledge it offers through careful study. 


 (Sidebar) If You’re Already Here …

Whether you live in Colorado or happen to be visiting, you will have an opportunity to see Ansel Adams’ work on display. Along with artists Ernest H. Brooks II and Dorothy Kerper Monnolly, Adams’ work on water will be exhibited from June 4 to October 31, 2021. Titled Fragile Waters, Adams’ photographs are said to be a dialogue on water conservation. These early prints of Adams are said to be some of the most iconic images in the history of photography. The exhibit will take place at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo, Colorado.


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