Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams was born in San Francisco on 20th February, 1902. His original ambition was to become a concert pianist, but this changed after a trip to Yosemite National Park in 1916 when he took his first photographs.

Adams worked as a photo technician and as a caretaker at the Sierra Club in Yosemite Valley before he was able to become a full-time photographer. His first two collections of landscape photographs, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras (1927) and Taos Pueblo (1930), were published in limited editions. His first one-man show was held in San Francisco in 1932. This was followed by another in New York in 1936.

Greatly influenced by the work of Paul Strand, Adams was one of the founders with Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham of the Group f/64. Members of the group tended to use large cameras and small apertures to capture a wider range of different textures.

Throughout his early career, Adams combined commercial assignments and his own work. This included Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail (1938); Illustrated guide to Yosemite Valley (1940); a book about the plight of interned Japanese-Americans, Born Free and Equal (1944), Yosemite and the High Sierra (1948) and My Camera in Yosemite Valley (1949). In all, Adams published twenty-four photographic books on the National Parks of America. As one critic has argued: "Adams created a body of work which has come to exemplify not only the purist approach to the medium, but to many people the definitive pictorial statement on the American western landscape."

In 1940 Adams also helped to set up the department of photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Four years later he established the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, the first academic department to teach photography as a profession. He was for a time also a member of the Photo League.

In 1953 Adams collaborated with Dorothea Lange on a photo essay on the Mormons in Utah for Life Magazine. He also established a photography workshop in Yosemite. Ansel Adams died in Carmel, California on 22nd April, in 1984.

Primary Sources

(1) Adrian Searle, Ansel Adams, The Guardian (9th July 2002)

The pleasure of an Adams photograph lies in the quality he brings to, and draws out of, the rocks and ponds, the trees and falls. The world in an Adams photograph is filled with variegated shadow and tone, crisp texture and radiant light. As much as he was alert to geology and mass, he also saw nature, and its relation to the flat, bounded plane of the photograph, in terms of shapes, tonality, graphic variety and detail. The lyricism of his work is tempered by a great deal of artifice, his images manipulated by the use of lens filters and work in the darkroom. He makes you invent colour where there is none, and feel immanence where no feeling is.