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Profile: Ansel Adams


Artist, teacher, mentor, writer, musician, outdoorsman, preservationist, photographer. These are some words of many that describe the life and work of Ansel Adams that spanned most of the 20th century.

A native of San Francisco, Ansel spent many years travelling throughout the American west, scouring desert landscapes and lush mountain ranges for majestic shots and thrilling adventures. Co-founder of Group f/64, he was one champion of “straight photography,” breaking with the then popular “Pictorialism” known for its hazy, dreamlike qualities. Utilizing large format cameras and a small aperture setting, he, and other photographers like him, aimed to present the world “as it is,” emphasizing clarity and detail. As both an artist and outdoorsman, Adams used photography to encapsulate images of the great outdoors in a way that not only demonstrated the capacity for a camera to capture the beauty of a landscape, but the capacity for the earth to provide it..

While Adams printed many well-known photos of western landscapes and sights along the trails of Yosemite, he taught many valuable lessons and techniques during his lifetime including the Zone System technique and the importance of visualization when referring to the emotional-mental aspect of creating a photograph.

Known as a master of the dark room, Adams created hundreds of breath-taking prints which presented his unique view of the world and heightened understanding of lighting, composition, and the value of capturing everything from black, through gray, to white in his shade ranges. These ranges distinguished Adams among the crowd of photographers of the time. According to John Sarkowski from the New York Museum of Modern Art, his photos were “…different from what we see in any landscape photographer before him. They are concerned, it seems to me, not with the description of object—the rocks, trees, and water that are the nominal parts of his pictures—but with the description of the light that they modulate, the light that justifies their relationship to each other.” This particular attention to the spectrum from light to dark allowed him to produce images of the finest quality and aesthetic pleasure.

Adams found a comfortable place among an array of artists of the era as he occupied his time both behind the camera and at the piano bench, establishing early on his emotional and artistic capabilities. In his younger years, Adams quickly found a place in the business of Albert Bender, an art patron. This symbiotic relationship led to many others as Adams’ work boomed and he met the likes of poets Mary Austin and Robinson Jeffers. Collaboration among the artists marked Adam’s unusually rapid level of success, especially on his trips to Taos where he photographed accompanying landscapes to Austin’s texts on the place. Here, Adams also met Paul Strand, a fellow photographer, who further convinced him of the emotional impact a photo can have as a work of art; a debated concept at the time.

Adams’ experience allowed him to use photography as an art form and as a means to promote the things he cherished dearly, most notably natural preservation. Many occasions spent in the rocky terrains of Californian mountain ranges made nature’s appeal nearly irresistible to him. Photography allowed him to keep these priceless moments in his memory forever, and, in turn, give viewers of his work a similar, yet personally curated version. Working with a range of artistic and political figures added “lobbyist” to his already extensive hat collection. This work of his was particularly vital in a rapidly modernizing and politically charged world. Vigorous work in the public and artistic sphere made his life into one full of adventure and inspiration for. many generations to come.

Photos by Ansel Adam, available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 519872., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15325348