Profiles in Photography: Ansel Adams
Here at Beach Camera, we’re big on photography. We like cameras, photos, and everything that has anything to do with those subjects. I, personally, like to look over photographs with the rest of the crew and I actually enjoy it when History Geek mentions that one of those photos is famous for changing photography history or even just general human history. Sometimes I feel like I ought to fly down to thank the guy’s professors and teachers for teaching him about these things and teaching him how to explain them to anyone — including a bird.
All of this is going somewhere — just let me get to the point.
Over the past few months, we’ve discussed various famous photographs. Starting now, we’ll spend some time discussing famous and important photographers. And, to start this off, we’re going to go with someone who has had one of their photographs mentioned on our site.
That’s right, folks. Today we’re going to talk a bit about Ansel Adams.
Ansel Adams is most well-known for two major things in photography. The first is his breath-taking photographs of the natural landscape in the American west. He is also known for working to develop the Zone System. Adams was born in 1902 in San Francisco, California to well-to-do parents. His grandfather had founded a prosperous lumber business which his father ran. Hyperactive and a bit of a hypochondriac, Adams was dismissed from school several times until his father took him out of school entirely, letting his education continue by means of private tutors — including himself and Ansel’s Aunt Mary — and Ansel’s own study. Ansel was drawn to the natural world and spent much of his childhood exploring the area around him, collecting bugs and exploring the nearby Lobos Creek all the way up to Lands End.
Ansel’s passion for nature and photography began on a family trip to Yosemite Park in 1916. On this trip Adams, equipped with a Kodak Brownie, took his first photographs of outdoor landscapes. He returned the next year with better equipment and tripods and worked to capture more images and to perfect his technique. During the winter, he learned how to find his way around a dark room by working part time at a local San Francisco photo-finisher. Adams also joined every camera club he could find, visited photography and art exhibits in the nearby museums, and devoured any photography magazine he could get his hands on. He explored the High Sierra with a retired geologist, Francis Holman, whom Adams called “Uncle Frank.”
Ansel met his wife while touring Yosemite. He married Victoria Best whose family owned the Best Studio, an art studio in the Yosemite area.
When he was 17, Ansel joined the Sierra Club and began working with the group to help preserve the American landscape and wildlife. He was hired to work as the club’s visitor center summer caretaker from 1920 – 1924. Ansel remained a member of the Sierra Club throughout his life and served both as a director and as a member of the board.
Adams spent his summers ranging through the Yosemite Park area and taking photographs. During the other seasons, he worked on his music and gave lessons in piano-playing. In 1921, the Best Studio published his first photographs of the Yosemite area. He continued to hone his photography and darkroom techniques, working with the Bromoil Process and other techniques favored by the pictorial photographers. He did not experiment with coloring his photos, however, as he felt that the Photo-Secession movement would be better served by using lenses, focus, contrast, and lighting as well as darkroom techniques to achieve its goals of elevating photography to a fine art.
Adams produced his first portfolio in 1927, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras which showcased his new techniques as well as his famous photograph Monolith, the Face of the Half-Dome. With backing from Albert Bender, this portfolio went on to become quite successful and gave Adams contacts within the photography world that would allow him to spend his life doing what he loved best — photographing the natural landscape. Throughout the 1930s, Adams continued to experiment with new techniques and work to improve his own photography. He sided with the realists over the pictorialists when it came to photography and founded the Group f/64 with M. H. de Young Museum, Imogen Cunningham, and Edward Weston. The Group f/64 advocated “pure” or “straight” photography which disdained the use of colors, soft focus lenses, and lens effects that altered the image from the way a person would naturally view it. Under these constraints, even Ansel’s own Monolith would have been impermissible.
In the face of the Great Depression in the 1930s, many photographers felt that “art for art’s sake” was useless and instead turned their craft towards the goal of helping their causes. Adams began using his photography to preserve the wilderness during this era while other photographers used their efforts to capture some of the most iconic images of the Great Depression.
During the 1940s, Adams worked with the US Department of the Interior to take photographs of the nation’s most beautiful national parks. However, Adams was not very rigorous about noting the dates when his photos were taken, causing him to almost lose ownership of one of his most famous works Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. Adams was highly-sought after and was invited to join the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit but was passed over when he could not be available before July 1, 1942. During WWII, Adams was disturbed to hear about the internment of Japanese-Americans and obtained permission to travel to the Manzanar War Relocation Center. His photos from this trip were exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art and later formed an exhibit called Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans. Adams also worked with the US military on many different photographic projects, including getting images of secret Japanese military installations in the Alaskan Aleutians.
In 1952, Adams founded the Aperture magazine with several others. This magazine was intended to be a place for serious discussion of photography with articles describing the latest innovations and techniques in the photographic realm. At this point, Adams considered himself to be on the downward slope of his career. He continued to work commercially until the 1970s when he retired. He refused to work with color photography, however, preferring black-and-white photography and developing the Zone System for measuring the proper length of exposure for various effects. He would later state that he wished he had been able to better master the technique of controlling and manipulating color as well as he did black-and-white photography.
– da Bird