Ansel Adams, October 1979. Photo Frank LeonardoNew York Post ArchivesGetty Images

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10 things to know about Ansel Adams

A guide to the pioneering photographer and environmentalist forever identified with the majesty of the American West

  • 1
  • His love of nature was sparked by his native California

Adams, born in 1902, grew up in a house amid the dunes of the Golden Gate — the strait between San Francisco and Marin County — before the famous bridge linking the two headlands was built. The area around San Francisco was still wild then, and he would go on long hikes which helped him escape troubling aspects of his childhood, such as his unhappy schooling and his parents’ financial worries.

  • 2
  • He might have become a concert pianist

Adams taught himself how to read music and play the piano, and it seemed destined to be his career. But while he dedicated himself to mastering the instrument, from 1916 onwards he also began to visit Yosemite National Park every summer. ‘The splendour of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious,’ he would later write. ‘There was light everywhere. A new era began for me.’ He began to translate that light into imagery, with a Kodak Box Brownie camera. 

As his attachment to Yosemite grew, Adams became more involved with the Sierra Club, the organisation behind the national park. It was through the Sierra Club that he met his future wife, Virginia. For years, he struggled to balance his commitment to the piano in San Francisco and his love of Yosemite and Virginia. His wife, and the national park, eventually won. ‘Music is wonderful but the musical world is bunk — so much petty doings, so much pose and insincerity and distorted values,’ he wrote to her in 1927. ‘I find myself looking back on the Golden Days in Yosemite with supreme envy. I think I came closer to really living then than at any other time of my life, because I was closer to elemental things.’ 

  • 3
  • His ‘visualisation’ technique proved to be his breakthrough

Now using a Korona View camera, Adams grew increasingly accomplished but was yet to replicate on film his profound feelings about Yosemite — ‘to pour into the magic little box his wonder and his ecstasy,’ as a friend would write. He finally did so in 1927. He wanted to capture the ‘majesty’ of the Half Dome rock formation, but only had one plate left. So he did something different: picturing the image he wanted, ‘a brooding form, with deep shadows and a distant sharp white peak against a dark sky’, he realised that a yellow filter would not capture the drama of the image as he saw it. Instead, he used a red filter with a long exposure. Finally, he said, he had achieved ‘my first conscious visualisation’, which allowed him to capture ‘not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me’. 

  • 4
  • He practised pure — or straight — photography

Adams’ ‘visualisation’ strategy marked a shift away from Pictorialism, a much more manipulated photographic style, which had influenced his early work. His desire for sharper focus and deeper tone and contrast (he called it ‘an austere and blazing poetry of the real’) led to him becoming a leading figure in pure — or straight — photography. Two encounters enhanced his commitment. In 1930, he met the photographer Paul Strand, a pioneer of pure aesthetics. And then in 1933 he met Alfred Stieglitz, the most powerful figure in American modernist photography. After looking through Adams’ portfolio, Stieglitz declared they were ‘some of the finest photographs I have ever seen’. 

  • 5
  • He was a technical genius, consulted by Polaroid and Hasselblad 

Arguably no other photographer of his era knew more about photography than Adams. He wrote ten technical manuals on the discipline, and even advised major figures like Strand and Edward Weston, his friend and fellow West Coast photographer. He also consulted for Polaroid and Hasselblad. Without such technical mastery he would not have been able to react with such immediacy to the quickly changing conditions of landscape. 

One of his most famous works, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941, needed snap judgements of immense sophistication to capture the momentary effect of sunset light on the foreground, and establish a balanced tone and focus with the distant peaks, evanescent clouds and darkening sky. 

  • 6
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson was not a fan

Adams’ photographs only occasionally featured people, which prompted Henri Cartier-Bresson to make the pejorative comment that ‘the world is falling to pieces and all Adams and Weston photograph is rocks and trees’. But while Adams’ images did not address the urban realities and struggles captured by Cartier-Bresson and his ilk, they did address a broader concern with ‘the world falling to pieces’: they became crucial in the US’s environmental movement.

  • 7
  • Adams fought for the wilderness he loved

As a key figure in the Sierra Club, Adams was involved in persistent lobbying of local and national politicians for the environmental cause. A portfolio of Adams’ prints from one of the Sierra Club’s High Trips into the Yosemite in 1929 was among the treasures that featured in a sale at Christie’s in April 2017. Many of his greatest photographs were taken on an assignment that reflected his ecological aims: in 1941, the US Department of the Interior commissioned him to make a series of images of national parks for its HQ.

One of these images, The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, featured in Christie’s auction, while another, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, is a personal work that was created while on the same government assignment. The commission also marked a shift in his production, as he began to make vast prints of exceptional technical brilliance.

  • 8
  • Photographs became vast murals in Adams’ hands

Given the scale of the landscape he was in thrall to, it is no wonder Adams experimented with large-scale images from the 1940s onwards. These ‘murals’ would vary in size, but could stretch to around 1.5 metres  wide. Later in life, Adams repeatedly returned to earlier images and enlarged them. 

Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California, was initially taken in 1938, but the 139 cm-wide print was made in the early 1970s. Adams wrote that the mural treatment was ‘necessary from the point of view of majesty and dramatic force’. This print was one of approximately 200 commissioned by a California-based organisation between 1969 and 1975, a collaboration that saw Adams advising on wall colour, frames, curation and print choice. At this time Adams began accepting corporate commissions, and many of his mural prints on the market today were created in this context. 

  • 9
  • He found a ‘greater sense of colour’ through black-and-white images

Adams ventured into the use of colour, often for commercial assignments, but occasionally for artistic experimentation. Between 1946 and 1948, in particular, when a Guggenheim Fellowship again allowed him to explore the National Parks, he photographed prolifically on Kodachrome film. As a result, his work undoubtedly changed: the close-up dynamics of Church, Sunset, Rear, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, c. 1948, typify the greater significance of broad, flat areas of colour in these pictures. 

Perhaps his most visible colour images were the 60 feet-wide Coloramas that later appeared in Grand Central Station. But he was never entirely happy with colour film. ‘I can get — for me — a far greater sense of “colour” through a well-planned and executed black-and-white image than I have ever achieved with colour photography,’ he said.

  • 10
  • It was only in later in life that he enjoyed the financial rewards of his artistry

Throughout his career Adams was forced to take on commercial work to make ends meet. ‘I have to do something in the relatively near future to regain the right track in photography,’ he wrote to a friend in 1938. ‘I am literally swamped with “commercial” work — necessary for practical reasons, but very restraining to my creative work.’ It was only from the 1970s until his death in 1984, when Adams concentrated on publishing enormously popular books, as well as making prints, that he achieved financial rewards commensurate with the respect he commanded in the art world.