Who Was Ansel Adams?

He’s probably the most famous landscape photographer of all time, but did you know that American photographer Ansel Adams almost became a concert pianist at the age of 18?

And had it not been for one trip to Yosemite National Park in 1916 that changed photography forever we may never have heard of him, the zonal exposure mode and Group F/64.

Listen to the podcast below or read through his story.

Who Was Ansel Adams?

Ansel Adams was an iconic mid-west USA photographer best known for his black and white photography. He’s probably the most revered landscape photographer of his time.

His pioneering work in exposure and passion for the outdoors altered photography for the better and created a new breed of photographers who had a passion for intricate detail and preservation of the environment. I’m going to take you through a timeline of Ansel’s life with some interesting facts behind the man and share with you a few stories about his life.

Ansel Adams wearing a hat leaning on a post

What was Ansel Adams’ Childhood Like?

Born February 20 1902 in Fillmore district of San Francisco he was an only child. Living in San Francisco he was a victim of the infamous 1906 earthquake.

This was an event that caused him injuries resulting in a broken nose which wasn’t reset correctly and therefore left him with a crooked nose for the rest of his life. He was a child that was, like many, excitable but this energy did conflict with frequent sickness and even hypochondria.

He never settled for sports or found a way of using up his abundance of energy through games – but nature seemed to be his calming influence.

As he moved through his childhood music also became a passion of Ansel’s.
He self-taught himself the piano from around the age of 12 and was taught at private schools thanks to his family’s wealth.
But as that started to dry up mixed with Ansel’s inattentive behaviour (which meant he was kicked out of a few private schools) his father, Charles Adams, pulled him out of school and found him private tutors instead.

Charles was a picture of modesty, morality, and social responsibility. Ansel and Charles were closely bonded and many interests of sustainability and environmentalism that Charles championed, rubbed off on his son.

The area around San Francisco was still wild back 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.

Ansel Adams & Yosemite National Park

It was the Adams family’s visit to Yosemite National Park in 1916 that ignited a spark inside Ansel. His father gave him his first camera during that stay, an Eastman Kodak Brownie box camera.

Ansel enjoyed the experience so much that he returned to Yosemite on his own the next year with better cameras and a tripod. During the winters of 1917 and 1918, he learned basic darkroom techniques while working part-time for a San Francisco photograph finisher.

Photography was starting to take over Ansel’s life.

In 1919 he joined the Sierra Club and spent the first of four summers in Yosemite Valley, as “keeper” of the club’s LeConte Memorial Lodge. He became friends with many of the club’s leaders, who were founders of America’s nascent conservation movement. He met his wife, Virginia Best, in Yosemite; they were married in 1928.

Each summer the club conducted a month-long trip to the Sierra Nevada. As a photographer of these outings, Ansel began to realize that he could earn enough to survive — indeed, that he was far more likely to prosper as a photographer than as a concert pianist.

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Image: Ansel Adams National Archives 79 aa v01 9c344a 1024
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Ansel Adams and the F/64 Group

Ansel’s first published portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras, marked a professional breakthrough and led to a number of commercial commissions.
It included his famous image Monolith, the Face of Half Dome. The image depicts a huge granite summit in Yosemite that reaches 5,000 feet above the valley.

In April 1927, he climbed to a rock cliff known as the “Diving Board” to capture the winning shot.

In the same year, Ansel met photographer, Edward Weston. They became increasingly important to each other as friends and colleagues. The renowned Group f/64, was founded in 1932.

Although loosely organized and relatively short-lived, Group f/64 brought the new West Coast vision of straight photography to national attention and influence.

Yosemite Valley in black and white ala Ansel Adams

The ‘Visualisation’ Approach to Photography

Over time he changed from his Kodak Brownie to using a Korona View camera, Ansel grew increasingly more and more accomplished but was yet to replicate on film his profound feelings about Yosemite.

He wanted to capture the ‘majesty’ of the Half Dome rock formation, but only had one plate left. He did something different: picturing the image he wanted, described as

….‘a brooding form, with deep shadows and a distant sharp white peak against a dark sky’

He realised to achieve that vision a yellow lens filter would not capture the drama of the image as he saw it. Instead, he used a red filter with a long exposure.
And 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’.

Ansel Adams and The Tetons & Snake River

One of the most praised works from Ansel is The Tetons and the Snake River, taken at Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming in 1942.

Did you know it also became one of the images chosen by NASA and Carl Sagan to be carried on the Voyager I and 2 spacecraft in 1977? NASA and the US government believed the photo captured the landscape so well that it would be ideal for showing extra-terrestrial life what Earth’s environment was like.

Snake River Valley in the Tetons by Ansel Adams
'The Tetons and the Snake River' Copyright Ansel Adams (1942)

Did Ansel Adams Shoot Colour Photos?

Whilst probably known best for his black and white landscapes Ansel Adams did actually venture into the use of colour photography often for commercial assignments.

Between 1946 and 1948 a Guggenheim Fellowship allowed him to explore the National Parks, he photographed prolifically on Kodachrome film. Perhaps his most striking 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.

Ansel Adams Created The Zone System for Exposure

Adams’s technical mastery was the stuff of legend. More than any creative photographer, before or since, he revelled in the theory and practice of photography.

He served as principal photographic consultant to Polaroid and Hasselblad and, informally, to many other photographic concerns. Adams developed the famous and highly complex “zone system” of controlling and relating exposure and development, enabling photographers to creatively visualize an image and produce a photograph that matched and expressed that visualization.

The Zone System provides a calibrated scale of brightness, from Zone 0 (black) through shades of grey to Zone X (white).

The photographer can take light readings of key elements in a scene and use the Zone System to determine how the film must be exposed, developed, and printed to achieve the desired brightness or darkness in the final image. Although it originated from black-and-white sheet film, the Zone System has been applied to images captured on roll film and to digital photography.

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How Did Ansel Adams Die?

But it all camera to a sad end when Ansel died from cardiovascular disease on April 22, 1984, in the intensive-care unit at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in Monterey, California, at age 82.

He was surrounded by his wife and two children Michael and Anne, and five grandchildren. His body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered on the famous Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

When he died, he left behind a 40,000-plus photo archive, many of which were never printed because he simply didn’t have the time. Curators discovered thousands of negatives tucked inside shoe boxes, but they weren’t all black-and-white landscape photos—some were in colour, and there were even some portraits.

Ansel Adams was also the author behind many of my favourite photography quotes….

“A photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into.”

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”

“A good photograph is knowing where to stand.”

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

Cliffs of the Pali, Oahu, Hawaii, c. 1948. Ansel Adams
Image: The Cliffs of the Pali, Oahu, Hawaii, c. 1948 by Ansel Adams

The Legacy of Ansel Adams

Adams produced ten volumes of technical manuals on photography, which are said to be the most influential books ever written on the subject. He worked for eighteen or more hours per day, for days and weeks on end. There were no vacations, no holidays, and no days off in Ansel’s life.

In 1975, Adams co-founded the Center for Creative Photography (CCP), one of the world’s finest academic art museums and research facilities for the history of photography. Located on the University of Arizona Campus in Tucson, the Center for Creative Photography is now home to more than 110,000 works by 2,200 photographers. 

Throughout his career, Adams always developed and exposed his photos himself in his own makeshift darkroom. And in 1979, President Jimmy Carter commissioned Ansel to make the first official photographic portrait of a U.S. president.

Jeffrey Pang from Berkeley, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0
Image: CC Attribution Jeffrey Pang from Berkeley, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0

Who Was Ansel Adams? Final Words

Do you feel you know a little more about one of photography’s most revered sons? Are there any other facts you’d like to share with us about Ansel Adams? Let me know.

Bookmark and save this article about landscape photographer Ansel Adams so you can find it again in the future. If you’ve got any other questions about photography chances are you’ll find the answers in our other articles and tutorials below.

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