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Ansel Adams - History

Ansel Adams - History

Ansel Adams

1902- 1984


Ansel Adams was born on February 20, 1902, in San Francisco California. He had a hard time in school and was educated mostly by private tutors. He became interested in the piano at the age of 12 and it became one of the centers of his life. He was an avid outdoorsman exploring the area around the San Francisco area. He first visited Yosemite park in 1916. He visited Yosemite frequently and married Virginia Best who inherited the studio from he father. Virginia and Adams operated the studio until 1971.

After his marriage in 1928, he abandoned his attempts at a career in music and concentrated on his photography. In 1931 he put on his first solo photo show of photos from the High Sierras. In 1941 Ansels began working for the Department of Interior and many of his most famous photos were done for the US government.

Ansel Adams was known for his striking and majestic landscapes. An important figure in American photographic circles for over five decades, Adams co-founded the first museum department of photography as a fine art, at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1940.

Ansel Adams - Biography and Legacy

Ansel Easton Adams was born on the 20 th of February 1902, in San Francisco. He was the only child of Charles Hitchcock Adams and Olive Bray. Charles was a successful businessman but the family were already sheltered financially due to Ansel's paternal grandfather who was a wealthy timber baron. The family lived the Californian idyll in a house looking beyond sand dunes onto the Pacific Ocean. However, in 1907 the family lost most of their wealth in the financial crisis. Charles tried in vain to rebuild the family fortune, but their changed financial situation put a new strain on a family residence that was also home to Olive's sister and her elderly father. Ansel's mother grew somewhat ambivalent towards her son and so it fell to Charles to nurture his son's latent talents and interests.

Adams did not adapt to school life. He was a painfully shy boy and his sensitivity was not helped by a badly disfigured nose which he acquired, aged just four, following a serious fall during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. His low self-esteem was only made worse by teasing and bullying from classmates and, having moved schools several times, his father took the decision to have his son privately tutored. During these formative years Adams often took solace in nature, becoming lost in long walks in the forest and among the sand dunes that abutted the family home. At the age of twelve, Adams found a new distraction in the piano. He taught himself to read music and very soon, he was taking formal piano lessons. His enthusiasm for music led to a dogged pursuit of a career as a concert musician that would continue into his mid-twenties. Throughout the 1920s Adams pursued music and photography equally, though still holding on to the hope that he might soon make the grade as a concert pianist. Despite his best efforts, it became increasingly clear that he did not have what it took to be a professional musician.

Adams's passion for music, and the personal discipline that demanded of him, would transfer then to his other creative pursuit, photography. Indeed, Adams believed that photography could give vent to the same feelings he experienced through his music. His first attraction to photography came indeed through his love of the natural landscape and a yearning to capture something of that overwhelming experience on film. That process had been set in motion when, aged 14, Adam was given a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie Camera ahead of family trips to Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Early Training and Work

Adams joined the Sierra Club in 1919, an environmental organization founded in 1892 by conservationist John Muir. Soon thereafter, he was given a summer job as custodian of the LeConte Memorial Lodge, the Club's headquarters in Yosemite. The lodge would provide the 17-year-old Adams with accommodation during summer trips to Yosemite and he would accompany the Lodge on its annual trips in the Sierra Nevada, producing a series of photographic portfolios on its behalf. Most of his early photographs were landscapes viewed on memorable climbs. Indeed, the Sierra Club was instrumental to Adams's early success as an exhibiting photographer. They published his first photographs and writings in a 1922 bulletin and gave Adams his first solo exhibition at their headquarters in San Francisco in 1928. Six years later he was elected to the Sierra Club's board of directors.

In 1926 Adams met the philanthropist Albert Bender. Bender, who was to become Adams's first benefactor, was well connected within San Francisco's community of writers and artists and it was he who suggested to Adams that he create a saleable portfolio of his mountain pictures. The portfolio of eighteen prints was titled Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras (1927) and was printed in an edition of 100. It included Monolith, The Face of the Half Dome, which Adams considered to be his first truly important photograph. Bender had been so invested in Adams's talent in fact that he bought the first ten portfolios for himself and sought out buyers for the remainder. Adams's friendship with Bender would also bring him into contact with other artists and photographers, including the photographer Edward Weston, who he met at Bender's home in 1927.

Following a long courtship (he had practiced his piano in her family home) Adams married Virginia Best, an aspiring singer and the daughter of landscape painter Harry Best, in 1928. The couple had two children (a girl, Anne, and a boy, Michael). Virginia's father owned a gallery in Yosemite, where Adams would later exhibit his photographs. Virginia, who acted as producer, archivist and proofreader for her husband, later inherited the gallery from her father and the family continued to run the gallery until 1971 (it has since changed its name to the Ansel Adams Gallery and is still in operation today).

Mature Period

Adams first visited Taos, New Mexico in 1930, and returned on numerous occasions to photograph the landscape and architecture of the Southwest.

In 1930, while on a trip to Taos Adams met American photographer Paul Strand, the architect of so-called Straight Photography. Their meeting proved to be a decisive moment for Adams who was won over by Strand's modernist approach to his art. With Straight Photography, Strand had advocated the use of large format (over hand-held) cameras to create finely detailed, high contrast, flat images with the end-goal of producing semi-abstractions and/or geometric repetitions within the picture frame. Strand's images were reliant moreover on size and context for their full effect and his images were always intended to be hung on the walls of dedicated photographic galleries. After his meeting with Strand, and having viewed with admiration some of his recent New Mexico negatives, Adams returned to San Francisco ready to devote his life and career to the art of photography.

Adams's reputation soared in 1931 following his first solo exhibition, featuring sixty of his photographs of the Sierra Nevada mountains, at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The following year Adams travelled to New York where he met Alfred Stieglitz, known as the father of modern American photography, at his famous gallery An American Place. At their appointment, Stieglitz is said to have looked through Adams's portfolio twice, and in total silence, before telling Adams that his were some of the best photographs he had ever seen. The two became close friends, corresponding frequently about photography and other matters of mutual interest. Adams held an exhibition at An American Place in 1936, the first solo exhibition by a photographer since Paul Strand had exhibited there some 20 years earlier.

In 1932, Adams founded Group f/64 with Edward Weston. Active between 1932 and 1935, f/64 comprised a group of photographers - including Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, Consuelo Kanaga, Henry Swift, Alma Lavenson, and Sonya Noskowiak - that advocated Straight and unmanipulated photography over Pictorialism. Pictorialism favored traditional, soft-focus images, which were printed from manipulated negatives that produced prints more reminiscent of oil paintings than photographs. The group's name, f/64, referred to their use of the smallest aperture setting (f-stop) on a camera that created an image with the sharpest depth of field. This approach contradicted Strand's preference for flat images, but the members were still united in their drive to pursue a "pure" unmanipulated style of photography that was devoid of tricks and pictorial manipulation.

During the early 1930s Adams wrote for the magazine Camera Craft and published the influential book Making a Photograph (1935), in which he demonstrated a technical, but straightforward and approachable way of writing about photography. Making a Photograph was a great success and continued the newly established tradition of the photography manual. Illustrated with high quality reproductions of his photographs, and technical commentary about how to "make" (rather than "take") the best photographs, the book merely enhanced Adams's burgeoning reputation.

Later, in 1944, the book The American Annual of Photography 1944, Volume Fifty-Eight was published. The first essay in the book, which also featured examples of his photography, was Adams's "A Personal Credo, 1943". In the essay, Adams explained how the use of his "Zone System" allowed the photographer to pre-visualize the final image. "The Zone System" was described as a "tool" for controlling the picture image based on a foreknowledge of four interlocked variables that were unique to the medium of photography: sensitivity of the negative paper, exposure time, lighting and studio development. The "Zone System" was a way to measure gradations (ten in total) of natural light (0 = black IX = white) with the various gradations in shade falling somewhere between those limits. As Adams described "pre-visualization" would exist "at, or before, the moment of exposure of the negative" and from "that moment on to the final print, the process [would be] chiefly one of craft."

Despite his increased stature in the field of fine art photography, however, Adams continued to struggle financially. To bring in income, he took on a variety of commercial projects: for the National Park Service, Kodak, Zeiss, IBM, AT&T, and the University of California. He also worked for magazines including Life, Fortune, and Arizona Highways. Adams put his technical knowledge to use as a photographic consultant for Polaroid and Hasselblad too. Although he was kept busy with commissions and other commercial work, including the production of photography manuals, the financial strain of life as a professional photographer troubled him for most of his life.

Arguably his most satisfying personal triumph began in 1936 when, in his capacity as a member of its board of directors, the Sierra Club sent Adams to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the creation of a Kings Canyon National Park. Armed with his portfolios, he met with politicians in the hope that they might be persuaded by the region's overwhelming natural beauty (as captured in his photographs). Though he left without assurances, he published a book of his photographs of the Sierra Nevada two years later, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. Adams sent a copy of the book to the National Park Service and Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior. Ickes duly forwarded the book to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was so moved by Adams's photographs of the canyon he signed legislation allowing for the creation of Kings Canyon National Park in 1940.

Late Period

Adams was committed throughout his professional life to the promotion of photography as a fine art. In 1940, he helped to establish the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, later co-curating its first exhibition Sixty Photographs: A Survey of Camera Aesthetics with the department's first curator Beaumont Newhall. In the years that followed, he developed a close friendship with Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, traveling with them to the Southwest and New England in the late 1940s. In addition to their work at the museum, Adams and Nancy Newhall collaborated in the 1950s and 1960s on several books and exhibitions.

Adams's willingness to share his knowledge of photography meant he was much in demand as a teacher and in 1941 he took up a teaching post at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. The same year, Adams was commissioned to photograph the National Parks by Secretary of the Interior (Harold Ickes). The resulting photographs were meant to be printed at mural size and hung at the Washington D.C. Department of the Interior building. However, the project was halted later that year when funding for the project was withdrawn (an unforeseen consequence of America's participation in World War II). Though he never produced the large-scale prints for the Interior Department, Adams remained so committed to the project that he applied for, and received, a Guggenheim grant to complete the project in 1946. He created an enormous body of work for the project that was published as a book and a limited-edition portfolio.

Though his most important and influential work was probably behind him, in his later years Adams spent much of his time working on books of his photographs and reinterpreting his earlier negatives very often to dramatic new effect. In 1952, with Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, Dorothea Lange, Minor White and others, he co-founded the high-end photography magazine Aperture. In 1967 he helped set up the Friends of Photography, a group founded to promote photography as a fine art. Adams remained an active member of the Sierra Club until 1971 (acting as its president from 1934). He died in Monterey, California in 1984, aged eighty-two. In his honor, a section of the Sierra Nevada mountains that he loved so much was renamed the Ansel Adams Wilderness shortly after his passing.

The Legacy of Ansel Adams

As a conservationist, writer, teacher, and photographer, Ansel Adams has been profoundly influential on future generations of artists, photographers, and environmentalists. There can be little doubt that he produced some of the most iconic images of the great American wilderness. Following in a long tradition of American landscape photographers, including Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, Timothy O'Sullivan, and William Henry Jackson, Adams brought landscape photography into the realm of modernism by fusing technical precision with a profound and abiding love of the natural world. His work has inspired a range of artists and photographers working in the landscape tradition, from Eliot Porter and Robert Adams, to Edward Burtynsky and Richard Misrach. The subject of countless documentaries, books, essays, and exhibitions, Adams's images appear on living room and museum walls, proving that his photographs of the great American landscape continue to resonate. In 1980 Adams was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter. The award was in recognition of Adams's contribution to photography and the preservation of the great American landscape. In his citation, President Carter stated that "It is through [Adams's] foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans."


  • In the mid-19 th century, the painted American landscape was most readily associated with the so-called Hudson River School. The School tended towards idyllic tableaus showing scenes of calm pastoralism. It was a style disparaged (albeit somewhat harshly) by modernists who thought the Hudson tradition in photography merely reinforced the conservative taste for wistful picture narratives. Adams believed that, if approached in a spirit of the age of modernity, landscape photography might in fact match music or poetry in its potential to stimulate a sense of higher contemplation in the spectator. Adams's goal then was to capture the true majesty of the natural world within a single frame and, if he could achieve this using a combination of technical skill, dogged leg-work and intuition, then the better the chances of producing landscapes that were more than just pictorial.
  • Though his fame is founded on his iconic American landscapes, Adams also produced a small number of still life studies. Like his landscapes, Adams brought a modern sensibility to what was a traditional painterly genre. Without distorting the objects in front of his lens (as was, say, Weston's preference), Adams used sharp focus to emphasize primary elements and relations between objects that might have ordinarily gone unnoticed. In this sense he demonstrated how the photographer could invite the spectator to consider the beauty of everyday things by using the camera to remove, or "liberate", the objects from their original setting.
  • As co-founder and active member of Group f/64, Adams and his colleagues took Paul Strand'sStraight Photography principles and customized them to the ends of promoting a higher art. Whereas Strand's images were flat (by design), Adams's were all about ultra-sharp depth of field (the appellation f/64 was an optical reference to the aperture setting (f/64) that produced the finest picture detail). However, Adams brought an added level of personal commitment to his technical know-how. Led by his affinity with the natural world, he would often trek between dawn and dusk in order to find the right location from which to secure his images.
  • Adams was known not just for the brilliance of his images, but for his technical expertise too. His book Making a Photograph (1935) was a highly distinguished instructions manual illustrated with his own prints. It was through his pursuit of technical mastery indeed that Adams and Fred Archer developed what became known later as the "Zone System," a method by which the photographer could "pre-visualize" the tonal quality of the final image at the very point of taking the picture.

Ansel Adams - History

Ansel Adams Photographing in the High Sierra by Ron Partridge

In the history of American conservation, few have worked as long and as effectively to preserve wilderness and to articulate the “wilderness idea” as Ansel Adams. Entering his seventh decade of active involvement, he remains as much a crusader. Wilderness has always been for Adams “a mystique: a valid, intangible, non-materialistic experience.” Through his photographs he has touched countless people with a sense of that mystique and a realization of the importance of preserving the last remaining wilderness lands. This inspirational legacy of Adams ‘ art constitutes his major significance as an environmentalist. In addition, he has been an important activist in the work of several conservation groups and has personally lobbied congressmen, cabinet officers and Presidents on behalf of wilderness values.

Ansel Adams was born on February 20, 1902, in San Francisco and grew up in the dunes area by the Golden Gate . In those days the Pacific surf and fog were a much more evident influence than the surrounding city. Ansel’s earliest memory is of lying in his carriage watching low fog move across the sky.

Because the lad found difficulty fitting in at school, his parents decided to have him tutored at home. The lack of siblings and schoolmates may well have helped turn him early to an interest in nature. As a youngster, he has recalled, he was always “more responsive to wild environments than to urban…the surf and dunes, the storms and fogs of the Golden Gate, the thickets of Lobos Creek and the grim headlands of Land’s End. As a small child I had played in the crisp winter snow at Carson City, and seen the stately oaks at Atherton on the hot, brittle fields rising towards the San Mateo Hills and beyond to the madrone-lush folds of the Santa Cruz Mountains. A few months among the beaches and rain forests of Puget Sound had made indelible the scents of sea and spruce, tar and sawdust. Such early images are often as clear and compelling in memory as the actual vistas of today.”

At 12 he began to play the piano. His talent quickly became apparent, and it was decided that he should take lessons. Thus began years of musical training that would later carry over into the precise craft and interpretive subtlety of the photographer.

Ansel’s father, Charles H. Adams, a businessman who in his own youth had been discouraged from pursuing a passionate love of nature and science, was determined that his son would be free to follow his own interests, wherever they might lead. So in 1915 he bought Ansel a year’s pass to the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Almost every day that year the 13-year-old wandered through the fair, experiencing whichever of the myriad exhibits attracted his fancy. He also began to take pictures of the fair and of the Golden Gate area with a Brownie box camera. He would then painstakingly assemble them in albums which he later described as “photo-diaries.”

The following spring came a more momentous experience—a first visit to Yosemite National Park . “A month before the great event I was given Hutchings’ In the Heart of the Sierra , and pored over it, building fantasies of Indians and bears, of huge waterfalls and precipices…of remoteness and magic. The known qualities of the sea merged with the unknown qualities of rivers and waterfalls, the redwoods of Santa Cruz with the Sequoia-gods of Wawona. The days became prisons of impatience and restlessness. Finally, the train at Oakland ! All day long we rode, over the Coast Range …down across the heat-shimmering San Joaquin Valley , up through the even hotter foothills to the threshold of Yosemite . I can still feel the furnace blasts of air buffeting through the coaches, and hear the pounding, roaring exhaust of the locomotive reechoing from the steep walls of the Merced Canyon . Then arrival at El Portal, and a night spent in an oven of a hotel, with the roar of the river beating through the sleepless hours until dawn. And finally, in the bright morning, the grand, dusty, jolting ride in an open motor bus up the deepening, greening gorge to Yosemite .

“That first impression of the valley—white water, azaleas, cool fir caverns, tall pines and stolid oaks, cliffs rising to undreamed-of heights, the poignant sounds and smells of the Sierra…was a culmination of experience so intense as to be almost painful. From that day in 1916 my life has been colored and modulated by the great earth gesture of the Sierra.”

With his Brownie camera he eagerly set out to explore the new-found beauty of the valley. Returning to San Francisco with a consuming desire to learn photography, he went to work for a photo-finisher. The following year he was again photographing Yosemite and, indeed, he has photographed Yosemite every year since. In 1918 he had his first intoxicating trip into the high country of the Sierra under the trail-wise guidance of Francis Holman, an ornithologist. From this trip, much to the horror of his mother, he came back with a wispy beard. Obligingly he shaved it off, but in later years his big black beard would become a trademark.

The next summer Ansel got a job as custodian of the Sierra Club’s Le Conte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite Valley . Despite myriad duties he found ample time for photography and early morning runs up to Glacier Point. These early years also afforded him an opportunity to meet some of the great conservationists of the day, among them Joseph N. LeConte, William E. Colby and Stephen T. Mather, first director of the National Park Service. Ansel continued working summers at the Le Conte Lodge until 1924. In 1925 and 1926 he accompanied the Le Conte family on long journeys into the Kings River Sierra. Through the 1920s he made many climbs in the Sierra high country, including several first ascents. “Francis Holman and I would ‘scramble,’” he recalled in an interview in Backpacker . “We used window sash cord, an eighth of an inch thick and very strong. Of course, if one of us fell, it would have cut us in two…In a sense, it’s a miracle I’m alive because we did have some hazardous experiences and didn’t know anything about climbing technique.”

Through these early high-country experiences, Ansel became aware of aesthetic qualities in the wilderness that he had not anticipated. “I was climbing the long ridge west of Mt. Clark…I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching push up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light ….I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks. There area no words to convey the moods of those moments.”

By this time his photography was becoming increasingly important, exercising a claim on his time and energy that was competing with a beckoning career as a concert pianist. One spring day in 1927 he perched precariously on a cliff with his camera and the unwieldy photographic glass plates of the day. He hoped to capture an imposing perspective of the face of Half Dome, the snow-laden high country and a crystal-clear sky. Only two unexposed plates remained. With one he made a conventional exposure. Suddenly, he realized that he wanted an image with more emotional impact. “I knew so little about photography then, it was a miracle I got anything. But that was the first time I realized how the print was going to look—what I now call visualization—and was actually thinking about the emotional effect of the image…I began to visualize the black rock and deep sky. I really wanted to give it a monumental, dark quality. So I used the last plate I had with a No. 29-F red filter…and got this exciting picture.”

A half-century later, “Monolith—the Face of Half Dome” remains one of Adams ‘ most compelling studies. It bears clear witness to that “pointed awareness of the light” which he experienced on the ridge of Mt. Clark .

In 1927 Ansel met Albert Bender, a perceptive and generous patron of the arts. Bender took to the young photographer at once. Recognizing an extraordinary talent, he proposed that Ansel issue a collection of his mountain photographs. The result, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras , was stunningly beautiful. Thanks to Bender’s encouragement, Ansel became aware for the first time of the potential of a photographic career. He also found a degree of financial security, enough so that the next year he married his Yosemite sweetheart, Virginia Best, daughter of the painter Harry Best, who had a studio in the valley. For years young Ansel had come to the Best home to practice on their piano. In Virginia he found someone sharing his interests in both music and the natural world.

Through Bender, Ansel found stimulating friendships with poets and writers such as Robinson Jeffers and Mary Austin. He made the photographs to illustrate a Mary Austin text on the Taos Pueblo, receiving equal billing with the author. This was unusual for a photographer in those days and a measure of how rapidly he was distinguishing himself. Yet he was still ambivalent about the future. Many of his friends insisted that photography, unlike music, was not capable of expressing the finer emotions of art. But there was persuasive counter-evidence. On one of his visits to Taos he met the noted photographer Paul Strand. Chancing to see some of Strand’s negative of the New Mexico landscape, Ansel was mesmerized. On the strength of the negatives alone—it was sometime later that he first saw Strand ‘s prints—Ansel became convinced of the expressive power of photography and resolved to devote himself entirely to its challenge.

The perception of photography as too mechanical and “realistic” to be a truly fine art was then still widespread. Partly in reaction, “pictorial” photographers tried in various ways to soften realism, resorting to soft-focus lenses, brush strokes on the negative, soft-texture papers—anything that would make their photographs not look like photographs. But some independent spirits such as Edward Weston were taking the opposite tack, producing sharply focused pictures and printing on glossy papers. “Such prints retain most of the original negative quality. Subterfuge becomes impossible. Every defect is exposed, all weakness equally with strength. I want the sharp beauty a lens can so exactly render,” said Weston.

Ansel realized that, as Imogen Cunningham said, “there are fewer good photographers than painters. There is a reason. The machine does not do the whole thing.” He also realized that the two-dimensional, monotone nature of a black and white photographic image was in itself a radical departure from reality and needed no further embellishments. He was readily converted toWeston’s and Strand ‘s approach. Looking over many of his negatives, he saw he would have to start over. After 1931 he steadfastly objected to use of the word “pictorial” in reference to his work.

With West Coast photographers of a similar bent, among them Weston, Cunningham, and Willard Van Dyke, he formed Group f /64. The number designates a very small lens aperture capable of producing an image with maximum definition. The group’s advocacy of “straight” photography had a revolutionary influence on attitudes in the world of photography.

Running counter to the work of Adams and Weston in the 1930s was another view—that artistic themes should be “socially significant,” meaning directly concerned with man’s works and ideologies. Many, especially East Coast and European intellectuals, felt Ansel’s love of the beauty of nature to be sentimental and naïve. French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson was saying, “The world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks!” In his response to such criticism, Weston spoke for Adams as well as himself. “It seems so utterly naïve that landscape—not that of the pictorial school—is not considered of ‘social significance’ when it has a far more important bearing on the human race of any locale than excrescences called cities. By landscapes, I mean every physical aspect of a region—weather, soil, wildflowers, mountain peaks—and its effect on the psyche and physical appearance of the people.”

In 1933 Adams met the old master Alfred Stieglitz, who exerted a further clarifying influence on his artistic direction. Adams wrote to Paul Strand, “I am perplexed, amazed and touched at the impact of his force on my own spirit. I would not have believed before I met him that a man could be so psychically and emotionally powerful.” Stieglitz was very impressed with young Adams and his photographs. He introduced him to the artists O’Keeffe, Marin and Dove and presented a one-man show of Ansel’s work at his New York studio, An American Place, in 1936. Adams was the first new photographer Stieglitz had introduced to the public at An American Place since Paul Strand in 1917. In a letter to Ansel in 1938 Stieglitz said, “It is good for me to know that there is Ansel Adams loose somewhere in the world of ours.” Lovers of photography were not the only ones glad to have Ansel Adams loose in this world. Lovers of wilderness echoed this feeling. Referring to Adams ‘ relationship to the wilderness, David Brower remarked: “That Ansel Adams came to be recognized as one of the great photographers of this century is a tribute to the places that informed him.”

Brower, first executive director of the Sierra Club, once wrote: “It is hard to tell which has shaped the other more—Ansel Adams or the Sierra Club. What does matter is that the mutuality was important.” The Adams tie with what was to become one of the nation’s best-known conservation organizations began to assume significance in the early 1930s when Ansel served as a guide and official photographer on the club’s annual high-country outings. On several of these trips he produced mock Greek tragedies with such exuberant titles as “Exhaustos” and “The Trudgin’ Women.” On the 1934 outing the group decided to christen a beautiful unnamed peak Mt. Ansel Adams in honor of their irrepressible playwright-photographer.

In 1932-4 Virginia Adams served on the Sierra Club’s board of directors. Then someone nominated Ansel, which precipitated a humorous situation. Ansel insisted that Virginia , having done a fine job on the board, should remain on it. Virginia insisted with equal force that she was too busy with their baby son Michael and that it was Ansel’s turn. In the end Ansel was elected. He quickly proved such a valuable member that he repeatedly was reelected by the club membership until his voluntary retirement in 1971.

Adams was chosen in 1936 to represent the club at a national and state parks conference in Washington to be attended by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture. The club wanted him to present its proposal for a wilderness park in the Kings River Sierra, feeling that his photographs of the area would be very persuasive. The Sierra Club was mindful of the key role photography had played in the creation of earlier parks. The photographs of Carleton Watkins (for whom Yosemite’s Mt. Watkins is names) had influenced the unprecedented decision to set aside Yosemite Valley as a state park in 1864, and the photographs of William Henry Jackson had figured in Congress’ decision to create the first national park, Yellowstone , in 1872.

When Ansel reached Washington , he carried his portfolio to the offices of the heads of the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service and to key congressmen to show them why there should be a Kings Canyon National Park . One happy result of the visit was an invitation from Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes to do a photomural of his landscapes for the new Interior Department building. The desired park legislation did not materialize that year, but the effort continued. In 1938 Ansel brought out an elegant limited-edition book entitled Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail . It was subsidized by a prominent Sierra Club member, Walter Starr, as a memorial tribute to a son who had died on a climb in the Minarets. About this volume Stieglitz said: “What perfect photography…I am an idolater of perfect workmanship of any kind. And this is truly perfect workmanship.” Georgia O’Keeffe described it as “like a trip in the high country again.”

A letter from the National Park Service the following January said, “Recently we transmitted to Secretary Ickes the complimentary copy of your new Sierra Nevada portfolio which you sent to the National Park Service. Yesterday the Secretary took it to the White House and showed it to the President, who was so impressed with it that the Secretary gave it to him. In later discussion, Secretary Ickes expressed his keen desire to have a copy for his use also.”

Shortly thereafter, Ickes wrote: “My dear Mr. Adams: I am enthusiastic about the book— The John Muir Trail —which you were so generous as to send me. The pictures are extraordinarily fine and impressive. I hope before this session of Congress adjourns the John Muir National Park in the Kings Canyon area will be a legal fact. Then we can be sure that your descendants and mine will be able to take as beautiful pictures as you have taken—that is, provided they have your skill and artistry.”

Kings Canyon National Park finally became a reality in 1940 after energetic lobbying by Ickes and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Of the Kings Canyon campaign, Ansel later recalled: “With what one may call arrogant modesty, I think many of my pictures…have an excitement in them which commands more attention than if they were the same scene not composed or adequately printed…I think the pictures I had of the Kings Canyon-Sequoia region did have a helpful effect in getting Congress to pass the bill. But no one will ever know whether it was one percent or five percent, or whether it was entirely imaginary.”

After establishment of the park, National Park Service Direct Arno Cammerer wrote the photographer: “I realize that a silent but most effective voice in the campaign was your book,Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail . So long as that book is in existence, it will go on justifying the park.”

In 1941 Adams began the photomural project for the Interior Department, only to be interrupted by the war. During the war he served as a photographic consultant to the Armed Services and worked with Dorothea Lange for the Office of War Information.

In 1946 a Guggenheim fellowship enabled him to visit and photograph many of the national parks and monuments. The fellowship was renewed in 1948. From this body of work came a series of portfolios and books which document what by now was a firm personal dedication to celebrating America ‘s natural wonders through the art of the camera.

“Dear Mr. Adams,” a woman admirer wrote in a letter in 1975, “In writing to you, I almost feel that I am writing to John Muir, or to Yosemite Valley itself. I am overawed, but I will try to speak.” Ansel Adams has had a love affair with the grandeur of Yosemite for nearly three fourths of a century. He was married at Yosemite . His son Michael was born there. He was one of the originators of the Bracebridge Dinner, a Christmas festival at the park’s Ahwahnee Hotel dating from 1927, and continued to direct this traditional pageant through 1972. In 1937 Virginia inherited Best’s Studio and the Adamses became full-time Yosemite residents. Virginia has operated the studio in marked contrast to the cheap “curio” quality of so many national park concessions.

Each year increasing multitudes have visited the park, a trend that became acute after World War II. In a story Ansel likes to tell, William Colby and John Muir around 1910 were gazing at the magnificent vista from Glacier Point when Muir said to Colby, “Will, won’t it be wonderful when a million people can see what we are seeing today?” To both men a million was surely a fanciful number. They hardly could have anticipated that two generations later Yosemite visits would exceed 2.5 million per year.

This crush of people visiting Yosemite and other national parks, which had been “set apart for the use, observation, health, and pleasure of the people,” puts pressure on another mandate of the Park Service’s founding principles: “that the national parks must be maintained in absolutely unimpaired form for the use of future generations…”* Not only are the numbers of visitors of concern so are the attitudes and activities they bring with them, which sometimes are more of the resort genre then the contemplative appreciation of nature practiced by John Muir.

*The National Park Service Act, which established the service in 1916, directed it to promote and regulate the national parks and monuments so as “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic object and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

In letters and articles Ansel raised an early voice against these potentially destructive attitudes. “The imposition of commercial ‘resortism’ violates the true function of national parks,” he wrote in 1945. “One weakness in our appreciation of nature is the emphasis placed upon scenery , which in its exploited aspect is merely a gargantuan curio. Things are appreciated for size, unusuality, and scarcity more than for their subtleties and emotional relationship to everyday life. In a 1948 letter calling for some regulation of these activities, he asked: “Is it a matter of ‘snobbery’ that the priest does not permit the sale of peanuts in the aisles of the church? Is it snobbery that the Metropolitan Museum of Art objects to my playing my portable radio in the Egyptian Room?”

Writing in 1959 to Bruce Kilgore of the National Parks Association, he declared: “Our difficulties lie in the fact that we are always worrying about the symptoms—we should be attacking the root cause of the desecration of wilderness and park ideals. Curios are simply one kind of symptom…The syndrome is what we have to overcome.”

In the 1950’s, the National Park Service, responding with a “more the merrier” attitude to the spiraling numbers of visitors, instituted a program called “ Mission 66: designed to provide more roads and accommodations—and thus to promote still more visitation. Mission 66 exhibited a sort of Chamber of Commerce mentality. Ansel described it as “a very two-dimensional idea when we consider mood and experience and emotional state-of-being. It never enters these people’s minds at all. They just want everybody to see it isn’t it beautiful?…something to be seen and note experienced.”

As part of Mission 66, the Park Service expedited its redesigning and rebuilding of the Tioga Road through the heart of the Yosemite high country. Ansel was especially upset by the dynamiting of a three-mile stretch through strikingly beautiful glacially polished granite in the Tenaya Lake area. Ansel thought the Sierra Club did not take a strong enough stand on this “improvement”. He fired off angry telegrams in July 1958, to the Secretaries of the Interior and Commerce and the director of the Park Service. “As an individual and not as a director of the Sierra Club,” he wired, “I wish to lodge a most sincere and severe protest against the desecration of Tenaya Lake…which is being perpetrated by the ruthless construction of the new Tioga Road for the National Park Service by the Bureau of Public Roads. The catastrophic damage is entirely unnecessary and violates the principles expressed in the National Part Organic Act of 1916….I consider this desecration as an act of disregard of these basic conservation principles which approaches criminal negligence on the part of the bureaus concerned. I urgently request you order an immediate cessation of work on the Tioga Road in the Tenaya Lake area until a truly competent group can study the problems and suggest ways and means of accomplishing completion of this project with minimum damage. I have never opposed appropriate improvement of the Tioga Road but in 40 years’ experience in national park and wilderness areas I have never witnessed such an insensitive disregard of prime national park values.”

Simultaneously he tendered his resignation from the Sierra Club board so he could be free to protest without embarrassing the club. In his resignation letter he wrote President Harold Bradley who had been far more critical of the Tioga Road redesign than the board: “I cannot go along with the Sierra Club in their attitude of compromise and persuasion.” In another angry letter he said, “While we are acting like gentlemen—and, I fear, timid ones at that—the Tioga Road will be lost…urbanization of Yosemite will continue….”

Bradley replied: “As you know, I cannot myself accept a resignation. The Board will have to act upon it at the next meeting….I appreciate your motives in proffering it, but I shall be greatly surprised it [is] accepted.” It was not.

Ansel’s Tioga protest drew wide attention both within and beyond the club. Work on the road was halted for 12 days, and club Executive Director Dave Brower inspected the route with Park Service Director Conad L. Wirth. But the damage already had been done. Work resumed with only a minor modification. “We wiggled it a little,” said Wirth.

In a Sierra Club Bulletin lament headed “Tenaya Tragedy,” Ansel wrote: “I am an artist who also appreciated science and engineering, and I know we can’t keep everything in a glass case—with the keys given only to a privileged few. Nevertheless, I want people to experience the magic of wildness there is no use fooling ourselves that nature with a slick highway running through it is any longer wild….While the National Park Service is open to most severe criticism in this Tenaya Lake road mater, so are the conservationists, who should have been alert to possible damage. I, personally, must assume my share of the blame because I failed to do my part before most of the damage was accomplished.” In a wistful later letter he reflected: “Wilderness is rapidly becoming one of those aspects of the American dream which is more of the past than of the present. Wilderness is not only a condition of nature, but a state of mind and mood and heart. It cannot be confined to the museum-case status—seen only as a passing diorama from superlative throughways.”

Ansel also became involved in other conservation organizations and issues. For a number of years he served as president of the Trustees for Conservation, set up in 1954 to engage in lobbying activities that the Sierra Club and other groups might fear to pursue actively because of possible jeopardy to their tax-deductible status. He became vice chairman of the Sierra Natural Resources Council, organized in 1957 to fight a proposed Mammoth Pass road.

In 1955 Adams and Nancy Newhall organized an exhibit at the Le Conte Lodge called “This Is the American Earth.” Ansel described it as the first endeavor of its kind to relate to conservation at “both the sociological and esthetic level.” The exhibit was circulated in the United States by the Smithsonian Institution and abroad by the United States Information Service. In the course of 1959, with the editorial help of Dave Brower and the aid of a McGraw Foundation gift of $15,000, it was made into a book, the first of the Sierra Club exhibit format series which would have a profound success in awakening many Americans to the beauty of our wild areas and the need to preserve them. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas hailed This Is the American Earth as “one of the great statements in the history of conservation.”

In 1962 Ansel moved to Carmel Highlands in Monterey County , where he still lives today in a house over-looking the Pacific and the magnificent Big Sur coast. In the mid-sixties he was prominently involved in a battle against construction of an oil refinery at Moss Landing, a fishing harbor on Monterey Bay with two ecologically significant estuarine sloughs. The refinery proposal, which generated intense feelings, pro and con, in the Monterey Bay area, also attracted national attention. Ansel and other opponents eventually carried the day when Humble Oil decided to go elsewhere in 1966.

That same year the proposed siting of a power plant at Diablo Canyon in California started an internal debate in the Sierra Club that eventually grew into a controversial board election in 1969 and the resignation of Executive Director David Brower.

Adams and Brower first met on a Sierra trail in 1933, and they became close friends. As early as 1937 the photographer had proposed creating the post of executive secretary for Brower, and he backed him enthusiastically when the club finally appointed Brower executive director 15 years later. In a 1963 letter to the club’s president, Ansel called Brower “the greatest single force in conservation.”

But in 1968 increasing differences within the club on the proper management of club policy and finances, as well as the Diablo Canyon question, led Adams to join with other directors and members in a move to elect a slate of directors opposed to Brower. In the 1969 board election Adams headed the successful anti-Brower slate. Defeated as a board candidate, Brower announced his resignation as executive director.

The Brower fight and the role he felt compelled to play in it were personally painful for Adams . This was probably the most traumatic fight he has ever been involved in. Adams continued as a Sierra Club director until 1971, when he voluntarily retired after 37 years of continuous service on the board. Brower went on to found another conservation organization, Friends of the Earth, which now has members in 24 countries. He is now chairman of its board. Time has diminished the intensity of feeling that was generated by that election. Today Adams expresses great admiration for the extraordinary conservation achievements of Brower. He was especially pleased when the club in 1977 gave Brower its John Muir award, which he had recommended several times, even during the disagreement.

“Sometimes I do think I get to places just when God is ready to have someone click the shutter!” Adams once remarked whimsically. An example of such a happy merger of preparation and chance is the story of one of Ansel’s most celebrated images. Her is his own account, as published in Backpacker: “When I took my moonrise picture, the one with the church and the graveyard at Hernandez , New Mexico , I was driving back to Santa Fe from the Chama Valley and I saw this wonderful scene out the window. The reaction was so strong I practically drove off the road. I got out the tripod and camera, took the front part of the lens off, screwed it on the back of the shutter and began composing and focusing. All the time I was trying to think of what I’d have to do to make the picture. I couldn’t find my exposure meter, but I know the moon’s luminance was 250 candles per square foot and that was placed on Zone VII of the exposure scale. That gave me a shutter speed of a sixtieth of a second at f /8 with a film speed of ASA 64. The filter factor was 3X, so that made the basic exposure a twentieth of a second. I exposed for a long second at f /32, made one picture, and while I was turning the holder around and pulling out the slide to make a duplicate, the sunlight went off the crosses. I got the picture by about 15 seconds!

“If I had spent more time in the Chama Valley , I would have missed the entire thing. If I had come home earlier, I would have missed it. So there’s always an element of chance in photography. If you have practiced and practiced, the process is intuitive. You suddenly recognize something, and you react.”

Adams ‘ photography has embraced a tremendous range of subject mater, but his most famous and popular images are his landscapes of the American West. Most critics would probably agree that in the realm of the grand landscape Adams is in a class by himself.

He dislikes the term “nature photographer,” but he seems even more dismayed by a popular misconception that photography like his, which involves readily identifiable subjects, is “realistic.” He is not concerned, he says, with the mere recording of external reality—what he calls the “external event”—but is intent on conveying the emotional content of a scene, the “internal event.” Perhaps this is why he has worked almost exclusively in black and white. As Wallace Stegner remarked, “In black and white there is a cooler distance between the world and its symbolic representation.”

Inevitably, Adams has been compared to the landscape photographers of the nineteenth century, William Henry Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan, as well as nineteenth century painters of the sublime landscape, such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt. It might be argued that Adams is one of the last in the Romantic tradition. But there is a point beyond which such comparisons cannot be carried. Adams himself feels that the Romantic artists were “sincere but limited ‘scene’ painters” who were primarily “commemorating in dramatic style the huge ‘external events’ of landscapes….Few examples of what I call the internal event were revealed.”

According to critic Jon Holmes, “There is something in Adams ‘ spirit reminiscent of pioneer Western photographers. Adams ‘ subject matter—awesome nature—is the same. Through the years he has certainly put in enough miles leading mules laden with equipment over the Sierras to equal the stamina and endurance of [Jackson and O’Sullivan]. His tools are better than theirs, but as both recorder and printmaker, his craft is far greater. Adams , in addition, has that quality which, in 1932, his close friend, Edward Weston, described in a letter to him as ‘seeing plus.’”

John Szarkowski of New York ‘s Museum of Modern Art has said: “What Adams ‘ pictures show us is 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.”

“The effect of the natural scene on the artist is an emotional one,” Adams himself told me. “He visualizes his work, bringing in the quality of esthetics, to try to convey an emotion.” On another occasion he remarked: “It’s really the impact of recognition….Photographing ‘scenery’ is the very thing I don’t believe in, because that’s often a two-dimensional affair. So the element of immediate, emotional impact is very important.”

Dave Brower aptly describes that impact. “We say beauty because Ansel had seen it first and had interpreted it with a strength that was identifiable at a hundred yards. If there were an Ansel Adams print you would know it. It just sort of sang out….The last time I went to a show of his…I watched the other people and I remember there was one young man, he’d go from photograph to photograph and he’d spend about 10 minutes in front of each, looking, and exploring every tonal quality, every bit of what had happened there….That was moving, just to watch that, to watch somebody absorbing Ansel.”

Ansel’s photography has had great impact indeed, not only in awakening people to the beauty of nature but in inspiring many other photographers to turn their efforts to the natural scene and to use photography in the interests of environmental preservation. The publicizing of wilderness can be a double-edged sword, however. In recent years environmentalists, including Adams , have come to an awareness of a dilemma: that wild areas once publicized and saved from the depredations of the loggers or miners may, because of their fame, become “loved to death” by backpackers and other visitors, through sheer weight of numbers. Critic Szarkowski has suggested that “to photograph beautifully a choice vestigial remnant of natural landscape is not necessarily to do a great favor to its future. This problem is now understood, intuitively or otherwise, by many younger photographers….It is difficult today for an ambitious young photographer to photograph a pristine snowcapped mountain without including the parking lot in the foreground as a self-protecting note of irony. In these terms Adams ‘ pictures are perhaps anachronisms. They are perhaps the last confident and deeply felt pictures of their tradition….It does not seem likely that a photographer of the future will be able to bring to the heroic wild landscape the passion, trust, and belief that Adams has brought to it.”

One of the rewards of Adams ‘ fame is entrée in important places where he can press his viewpoint on conservation. In 1975 President Gerald Ford invited him to the White House, and Ansel did not hesitate to turn the visit into more than a social call. He expressed concern to the President over what he saw as negative trends in the national parks. Commercial exploitation and poor management, he said, were threatening the primeval natural qualities of the parks. Now was Mr. Ford’s chance, he urged, to do something. He handed the President a memorandum proposing new initiatives for the parks. “Our National Park System encompasses the Crown Jewels of the American Heritage,” the memo said. “The Park Idea has not received the Presidential and Congressional support and concern that the time require. You have an unsurpassed opportunity to make an historic and lasting contribution by initiating a major new effort to bring the Park System and the Park Service into our nation’s third century.”

He also presented a print of his “ Yosemite : Clearing Winter Storm” and urged: “Now, Mr. President, every time you look up at this picture, I want you to remember your obligation to the national parks.”

Mr. Ford, who had been a ranger in Yellowstone during one of his youthful summers, replied, “If anyone has the basic feeling for parks, I have.” But to Ansel’s disappointment, only minor steps followed.

Since Yosemite is Ansel’s first love, he has always taken an active interest in policies affecting the park, whether speaking to Presidents about its management in the broad sense or to superintendents about the locating of road signs. In a letter to one superintendent, he wrote: “ Yosemite is a somewhat fragile experience you cannot do much harm to the cliffs but you can dislocate the ‘mood’ and the subtle qualities of the place which are without parallel in the world.” To Will Colby he had written in 1952: “Everyone has a right to visit Yosemite . But no one has the privilege of usurping it, distorting it, and making it less attractive to those who seek its experience in its simpler, unmanipulated state….The preservation of the primeval qualities does not relate to the mere protection of material objects. The significance of the objects of nature the significance which concerns poets, dreamers, conservationists and citizens-at-large, relates to the ‘presence of nature.’ This is mood, the magic of personal experience, the awareness of a certain purity of condition .”

Ansel’s opinions on Yosemite have not always endeared him to the park’s major concessioner, Yosemite Park and Curry Company. Nor have they always been heeded by the Park Service, Tenaya Lake being only one case in point. In the early 1970s the Park Service was drawing up a master plan for the future management of Yosemite that could also serve as a model for other national parks. While environmentalists essentially were ignored, much heed was paid to the views of the Curry Company. When this and other facts became known, there was a nationwide furor. Assistant Secretary of the Interior Nathaniel P. Reed exclaimed that the plan “appeared to have been written by the concessioner.” The Park Service was ordered to start over, this time with public participation. Partly as a result of the controversy, Park Service Director Ronald Walker resigned.

Adams had declared in 1971: “ Yosemite Valley itself is one of the great shrines of the world and—belonging to all our people—must be both protected and appropriately accessible.” He urged a “bold” management plan that would remove most of the automobiles and visitor facilities that now deface the valley. But in 1978 another plan unveiled by the Park Service fell far short of that goal. Ansel complained vigorously to both Park Service Director William J. Whalen and Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus, telling the Secretary the plan was “only a slight reshuffle of the status quo.” The Park Service subsequently accepted some of Ansel’s suggestions for reducing auto traffic in the valley, but did almost nothing about moving commercial facilities. Ansel’s hope is that Secretary Andrus and if necessary Congress will insist on better.

The magnificent Big Sur coast south of his home in Monterey County has long occupied a special place in Ansel’s heart. His great dream is during his lifetime to see the coast given lasting protection. He is actively leading a national effort to check the development that threatens the magnificence of that region. Ansel sees the present hodgepodge of regulatory agencies concerned with land use on the Big Sur coast as incapable of controlling continued development. He has been working closely with The Wilderness Society and California ‘s Senator Alan Cranston and Congressmen Phillip Burton and Leon Panetta to establish federal protection for the coast. In this cause he has made several trips to Washington, one of them including a fruitful meeting with President Carter. After three years of work by Adams and his associates, legislation is expected to be introduced this year to create a Big Sur National Scenic Area. Prospects for passage appear very good.

In a recent statement to his fellow citizens of Monterey County , Adams said, “I am nearly 78 years old and I have lived in Carmel Highlands for the past 17 years. Perhaps the greatest joy I will ever find in my lifetime is the opportunity to protect the unsurpassed natural beauty of our coastline for our children and grandchildren….Let us not go down in history as the generation that stood silently by while the Big Sur coast was developed and its natural beauty destroyed. Let us, instead, leave a splendid legacy for our children….If we join together to accomplish the preservation of our Big Sur Coast I will feel I have had a life fully lived.”

Another major conservation priority for Adams is the preservation of Alaska lands, an effort in which he has been an active participant since his first visit to Alaska more than 30 years ago. He is a member of Americans for Alaska , a group of nationally prominent individuals committed to the preservation of Alaska wilderness. As with Big Sur , he has worked primarily with The Wilderness Society on the Alaska National Interest Lands legislation. In his meetings with the President and important members of Congress he has spoken persuasively on behalf of Alaskan wilderness.

Ansel Adams will be remembered for his wide range of conservation activities and his inspirational commitment over more than half a century. But his foremost contribution to “the American Earth” has been the remarkable impact of his photography on the consciousness of Americans.

In the address entitled “The Role of the Artist in Conservation,” Adams declared, “I believe the approach of the artist and the approach of the environmentalist are fairly close in that both are, to a rather impressive degree, concerned with the ‘affirmation of life’….Response to natural beauty is one of the foundations of the environmental movement.”

In a 1970 Chubb fellowship lecture at Yale University , he said, “Wilderness, to me at least, is a ‘mystique’ a valid, intangible, non-materialistic experience. The right to experience is a fundamental right, just as is the right to possess, the right to believe or the right to work or right to security. The concept that there are other (and equally important) values than those of obvious material and financial character is one that we must nourish and support to the utmost.”

Adams has been referred to as “the visual John Muir.” As Muir’s contemporary writings had an inspirational effect on the appreciation of Americans for wilderness, Adams ‘ photography has had similar effect in modern times. Adams has celebrated the same essential qualities of wilderness as Muir and in particular has celebrated the same “ Range of Light ,” the Sierra Nevada .

The broad philosophical effect on attitudes toward the natural world, while hard to quantify and isolate in terms of dates and numbers, is the most fundamental and important element of the environmental movement. It transcends any of the issues and events involved. It is the essence of Adams ‘ greatness that he has so eloquently communicated a philosophical vision of the land and our relationship to it. That vision, and its eloquence, is what make Ansel Adams one of the truly significant figures in environmental history.

Brock Evans, now associate executive director of the Sierra Club, wrote a letter in 1968 to Ansel that movingly describes the impact of Ansel’s photography. “Ansel, I have never told you this,” the letter said, “but you are in a most direct way responsible in large part for my love of the land and my passion for my job. I was born and raised in Ohio , and never really had much contact with raw, wild nature, until about the spring of 1961. I was just finishing my first year at the University of Michigan Law School, and I happened to pick up a copy of ‘ Yosemite ,’ that beautiful book edited by Charlotte Mauk, with John Muir’s writings, and your incomparable pictures. I remember rushing back to my room all during final exams, reading and re-reading the book, being absorbed in the magnificent pictures, and playing beautiful music on my record player. It was like another world, and the words and the pictures stunned me and moved me more deeply about nature than I ever had been before. I had a job that summer in Glacier National Park, my first time to see any mountains and, having already been prepared by the book, stepping off the train into the mountains and smelling the pines was as if a lost chord was touched deep inside me, and it has been humming ever since. I have looked now for seven years to try and find a copy of that book for my own, but apparently it is out of print and only available in libraries. But you were a hero to me, as you must be to many, many others, long before I ever knew you. Than beautiful book helped to change my life in ways that I still only vaguely understand.”

Robert Turnage is a graduate student at Yale University’s School of Forestry and School of Organization and Management and a graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has worked at The Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite and as a trail crewman in Yellowstone National Park .

A History of Photography in America’s National Parks

From Ansel Adams to Rebecca Norris Webb, we trace the symbiotic relationship that the parks and photography have developed over 150 years.

Ansel Adams, Noon Clouds, Glacier Park, Montana, 1942

From Ansel Adams to Rebecca Norris Webb, we trace the symbiotic relationship that the parks and photography have developed over 150 years.

Carleton Watkins, The Yo Semite Valley from the Mariposa Trail, ca. 1876. Boudoir card
Courtesy George Eastman Museum, museum accession

When the United States Congress first voted to protect California’s Yosemite Valley in 1864, most people living in the country had never set foot in the American West, let alone experienced the sublimity of Half Dome and El Capitan first hand. Instead, photographs were crucial to conservation efforts, with Carleton Watkins’s mammoth-plate images of Yosemite Valley sealing the decision to grant the land to the State of California and later establish it as a national park.

By the time Ansel Adams was at his height of exploring and photographing the Yosemite Valley in the 1930s and ’40s, more and more tourists were flocking to the parks. The urgency to carefully preserve park ecosystems became a primary focus for land and wildlife conservation groups like the Sierra Club. Adams’s iconic photographs, along with his work for the Sierra Club, established the parks as globally recognized icons and fostered a sense of national pride for their conservation.

Over the course of their history, the national parks have faced numerous threats, both political and environmental. Along the way, over six generations of photographers, including Adams, have been drawn to the parks, bearing witness to their changing landscapes, examining the implications of public land use, and capturing their grandeur.

When Aperture and George Eastman Museum first published Picturing America’s National Parks in 2016, we sought to tell the story of how photography has shaped the parks over their hundred-year history. The book brings together some of the finest landscape photography from America’s most magnificent and sacred environments, examining how photographs have defined the way we see both the parks and America itself.

Since then, threats to America’s national parks have increased, from the reduction of public land protections to prioritizing mining and other industries. In a climate of heightened environmental and political tension, the work explored in Picturing America’s National Parks is relevant now more than ever. Now, on the occasion of Ansel Adams’s birthday, we look back on photographers whose work helped to shape the history of the parks and ensure their survival.

For a limited time, purchase Picturing America’s National Parks at a discount, and $5 from each sale will be donated to the Sierra Club Foundation.

Ansel Adams, Noon Clouds, Glacier Park, Montana, 1942
© The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust, courtesy George Eastman Museum and The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams’s lifelong passion for the national parks began in 1916 when, at the age of fourteen, he convinced his parents to take him on vacation to the Yosemite Valley. Equipped with a No. 1 Brownie camera that his parents had given him, Adams took his first images of Yosemite that year. Soon after, he became involved with the Sierra Club, leading tours and participating in trips to the Yosemite High Country. He was eventually elected to the board of directors and lobbied for additional areas to be set aside as national parks and monuments. His images of the parks have come to represent the grandeur of the American landscape, conjuring a sense of pride for American viewers in both the land itself and the preservation of these spaces through the National Park Service. Adams’s photographs have also had broad international appeal, establishing the national parks as globally recognizable icons.

Marion Belanger, Alligator in Swamp, 2002 from the series Everglades
© the artist

Marion Belanger

In 2004, Marion Belanger served as artist in residence at Everglades National Park in Florida, an area with a complicated history. Considered potential farmland by early settlers, it was drained for development in the early 1900s, impacting the delicate ecosystem of plants and animals that live along the waterways advocates lobbied for the area to be made into a national park, which it became in 1947. Belanger’s body of work draws on this unsettled history, documenting sites within the park, as well as those just beyond its borders. Ultimately, her work calls into question the ways that we divide land, making invisible borders that establish what is “important” to preserve and subdividing the fragile ecosystems that have survived for thousands of years.

Mitch Epstein, Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska, 2007
© Black River Productions, Ltd./Mitch Epstein, courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Mitch Epstein

Mitch Epstein began his series American Power in 2003. Like the photographs of Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, Epstein’s work confronts the viewer with issues of land preservation, now incorporating elements of our twenty-first-century debates on climate change. The photographs comment on America’s energy-driven lifestyle and reliance on fossil fuels. The series includes an image of Exit Glacier at Kenai Fjords National Park in Alaska, the only landmark in the park accessible by car Epstein’s photograph freezes the glacier in time, an effort to preserve the changing landscape—which, despite its status as a protected national park, is not immune to climate change—prompting us to pause and consider our own impact on the world.

Roger Minick, Family at Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, 1980 from the series Sightseers
© the artist

Roger Minick

While teaching an Ansel Adams workshop at Yosemite National Park in 1976, Roger Minick was inspired to begin a series on sightseers. He was particularly interested in how people experienced the parks, the infrastructure that guided their visits, and the sense of awe that struck them at each vista, as if they were on a religious pilgrimage. While Minick’s work serves as a time capsule of 1980s American culture, it also pokes fun at our obsession with these spaces and the ways the parks are both contained and consumed.

Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs, Pommes Frites, 2005
© the artists and courtesy RaebervonStenglin, Sies, + Höke, Peter Lav Gallery

Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs

Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs approach nature as a place of creation, both through natural acts and what we impose on the landscape. The views in their images are disrupted by a commodity culture that is constantly seeking more from the environment. Pommes Frites (2005) depicts an attentive audience of french fries enjoying the view at the edge of the Grand Canyon. These fried potato strips are no different than the thousands of visitors who stand at the rim and perform the typical reaction of awe. With humor and play, Onorato and Krebs portray a culture where the divided highway and fast food are as iconic as the grand vista of any national park.

John Pfahl, 2 Balanced Rock Drive, Springdale, Utah, June 1980 from the series Picture Windows
© the artist, courtesy George Eastman Museum

While most people experience the national parks during day trips or vacation excursions, a select few own homes or businesses that overlook the preserved landscapes. In his series Picture Windows, John Pfahl sought out these destinations, framing his photographs behind glass. His images depict beautiful landscapes as if already framed pictures on a wall, highlighting the fact that these spaces have risen to the status of art and represent symbols of national identity. Yet they also draw attention to the man-made aspects that disrupt the views. With the same careful balance of preservation and access that the park system navigates, Pfahl’s images demonstrate how we can simultaneously enjoy nature and alter it with our presence.

David Benjamin Sherry, Sunrise on Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley, California, 2013
© the artist, courtesy the artist and Salon 94, New York

David Benjamin Sherry

David Benjamin Sherry’s photograph Sunrise on Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley, California (2013) seems all too familiar. It brings to mind Edward Weston’s photographs of Death Valley, and Minor White’s ability to abstract landscapes into pure form and emotion. This feeling of déjà vu is purposeful on Sherry’s part, as he reimages classic black-and-white views with a wash of monochromatic color. By rephotographing vistas that have become emblems of American national identity and applying a dizzying hue, Sherry sends our sense of reality into a tailspin. For him, this experience parallels that of coming out as a gay man, as he establishes his own queer gaze in a world full of expectations, conventions, and standards that do not always align with his own.

Rebecca Norris Webb, Ghost Mountain, 2009
© the artist/Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco

Rebecca Norris Webb

In her series My Dakota, Rebecca Norris Webb explores her home state of South Dakota, including Badlands National Park and the surrounding area. Attempting to capture what the open space of the West felt like to someone who grew up there, Norris Webb was dealt an unexpected blow when her brother passed away. As she wandered, her photographic journey paralleled her emotional one. Norris Webb’s meandering paths of travel and grief resulted in photographs that serve as meditations on life, death, home, and family.

Michael Matthew Woodlee, Chris, Campground Ranger, Tuolumne Meadows Campground, 2014 from the series Yos-E-Mite
© the artist

Michael Matthew Woodlee

Michael Matthew Woodlee’s images reveal a side of Yosemite that is exceedingly ordinary, as if it is just another common campground. National parks require caretakers, which is in reality a twofold job. While employees and volunteers are responsible for providing services for guests, they are also charged with preserving the spaces for generations to come. The everyday lives of these workers include tasks such as cleaning buildings, fixing trails, taking tolls at the front gate, and staffing gift shops and restaurants. Yet these workers have the unique experience of inhabiting the places that others visit only on vacation. In Woodley’s photos, one might even forget that a sweeping natural vista is perhaps just outside the frame, prompting the viewer to wonder if the workers experience the same phenomenon, inattentive to the beauty that surrounds them as they go about their day-to-day tasks to preserve it.

4. San Francisco From Twin Peaks,1953

San Francisco from Twin Peaks by Ansel Adams , 1953, via the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

A much different image than typical Ansel Adams photography, here we see San Francisco sprawling out before Twin Peaks, two large hills that sit within the city. Shadows from the clouds darken different areas of the city, making it look small and toy-like. The strong contrast between light and dark in this photo creates a chaotic visual drama among the buildings and streets, quite a change from Adams’s usual tranquil photos of nature.

Fun Fact 1: Adams is from San Francisco and was 4 years old on April 18, 1906, when the city was devastated by an earthquake. His only injury was a broken nose that he never had properly set.

Ansel Adams in Our Time

Ansel Adams in Our Time, making its only West Coast stop at the Portland Art Museum, celebrates the remarkable artistry and visual legacy of the acclaimed American landscape photographer and educator. More than 100 photographs by Adams, from his earliest marketed prints to his world-renowned Western vistas, trace the artist’s development and maturation over five decades while pointing to his continuing influence on landscape photography today. Eighty images by artists working both before and after Adams, interspersed among his vintage prints, provide a deeper perspective on themes central to his practice, demonstrate the power of his legacy, and will spark critical conversations about the state of the American landscape in the 21st century. Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and curated by Karen Haas, the MFA’s Lane Senior Curator of Photographs, Ansel Adams in Our Time draws from the outstanding Lane Collection of more than 6,000 American modernist photographs, works on paper, and paintings. Deeply thoughtful and dedicated collectors, Saundra and the late William Lane forged a long-term relationship with Adams, over time acquiring 450 of his photographs. The Lane collection includes many iconic works such as Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park (ca. 1937), as well as a range of quieter but no less impactful photographs like Grass and Burned Stump, Sierra Nevada, California (1958).

Ansel Adams in Our Time demonstrates the artist’s embrace of the American landscape as a singular yet remarkably wide-ranging photographic subject. The exhibition’s seven thematic sections chart his influences, his own artistic development and creative range, and the many ways that photographers frame the landscape today. Highlights include Adams’s early pictorialist works of the Yosemite Valley, emerging modernist views of San Francisco and the American Southwest, and mature photographic celebrations of national parklands including Yellowstone in Wyoming, Glacier Bay National Monument in Alaska, and Hawaii National Park. Photographs by contemporary artists Jonathan Calm, Zig Jackson, and Will Wilson question concepts of land ownership and belonging in the American West, while Binh Danh, Abelardo Morell, and Catherine Opie point to the continued fascination with and documentation of the nation’s national parks.

Although he produced glorious views, Adams did not turn away from the more troubling aspects of land use and the threat of environmental destruction. He documented drought conditions and ghost towns, and even experiences of interned Japanese Americans at the Manzanar War Relocation Center during World War II. Indeed, Adams’s magnificent landscape photographs push beyond the visual pleasure that the terrain provides, exposing realities that continue to resonate deeply today. Similarly, works by contemporary artists including Laura McPhee, Trevor Paglen, Wendy Red Star, and Bryan Schutmaat demonstrate photography’s critical role in documenting both the environmental promise and crises facing the American West today.

Throughout the run of the exhibition, a wide range of programming relating to themes explored in Ansel Adams in Our Time will take place primarily online. From a discussion about Adams’s early career with Rebecca A. Senf, Ph.D., author of the new book Making A Photographer: The Early Work of Ansel Adams, to talks and webinars that address access, environmental concerns, and racism in the American landscape, audiences near to and far from Portland will be able to engage with Adams and his legacy during this critical time in our nation’s history.

Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and curated by Karen Haas, Lane Senior Curator of Photographs at the MFA. Curated for Portland by Julia Dolan, Ph.D., The Minor White Curator of Photography.

How much are original Ansel Adams photographs worth? Ansel Adams photographs can be worth a lot of money for original prints or portfolios. For major photographs, the auction price has occasionally exceeded $600,000, while other original prints can often be had for a few thousand dollars.

How much is a signed, original Ansel Adams print worth? Auction prices have ranged anywhere from $722,500 for an oversized 39 x 52 inch print of Clearing Winter Storm done in the 1950s to around $1,000 for a small initialed print or a print of a less popular image.

The Mystery of Ansel Adams’ Denali Photo

Denali and Wonder Lake, Denali National Park, Alaska, 1947, 1948.

Photograph by Ansel Adams Collection Center for Creative Photography © 2016 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

By Erik Johnson, Denali Historian

Renowned photographer Ansel Adams snapped one of the most iconic images of Denali but its exact date was a mystery because it was not detailed in his notes. Various sources used 1947 or 1948—or both years—in the photograph’s citation however, the mystery was recently solved.

Astronomer Donald Olson used a combination of astronomy, parallax, and existing records to calculate the exact date and time of Adams’ famous photograph. He recently published the findings in Further Adventures of the Celestial Sleuth: Using Astronomy to Solve More Mysteries in Art, History and Literature. Olson calculated the photo's exact date and time as 3:42 am on July 15, 1948.

Although the year of the photo was a mystery to many, those who are well-versed in historic Superintendent Reports (available in Denali's Museum Collection) already knew the month and year Adams visited.

From the July 1948 Report:

“Ansel Adams, nationally known photographer, and son, Michael, were here 10 days . . . part of his assignment to photograph Park Service areas for an illustrated book. Mr. Adams was enthusiastically gratified as he was loaned transportation and ranger cabin accommodations.”


In the spring of 1929 Adams and his wife traveled to New Mexico to photograph the landscape there and to visit with friends. In Santa Fe, New Mexico they spent almost two months with writer Mary Hunter Austin, and within a short time Adams and Austin agreed that they should collaborate on a book about the area around Santa Fe. Austin introduced Adams to her friend and Santa Fe arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, whose husband Tony Lujan [she spelled her last name differently from her husband] was a member of the Taos tribal council. Through Lujan's influence, Adams was given permission by the Taos Indians to photograph in and around the then relatively unknown Taos Pueblo. [3]

After taking some initial photographs, Adams contacted his friend and patron Albert M. Bender, who had previously produced Adams' first portfolio of prints Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras. Bender enthusiastically agreed to sponsor a book based on this new work, and he contacted his friends at the Grabhorn Press to produce it. Adams and Austin continued to work independently on their respective parts of the book they did not see each other's work until the book was ready to print. [4] Adams said he picked the final selection of images to match Austin's prose, and in part because of this her text is said to have "mirrored the sturdy repetitions of the pueblo architecture" [4] as seen in many of the photographs.

In spite of the book's title one of Adams' signature images from the book was taken at San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, which is not part of the pueblo itself but is located several miles away. He was captivated by the massive walls and buttresses of the church, saying they "seem an outcropping of the earth rather than merely an object constructed upon it." [4] At the same time, the church was an embodiment of the ongoing cultural conflicts in the area between the Indian and Hispanic cultures it was a Catholic church built in Indian style and represented how the Taos Indians' survival was achieved in part through cultural adaptation by necessity.

Although it was published in book form, Taos Pueblo was illustrated with true photographic prints hand-produced by Adams. Adams insisted that the book have a consistent appearance throughout, and to meet his high standards a special paper was created that was used for both the text and the photographs. To do this he enlisted the help of Will Dassonville, a friend and producer of photographic papers in the Bay Area. Dassonville ordered a warm-colored, rag-base paper from a New England mill, then divided the order into two batches. The first went to the Grabhorn Press for the text pages, and the second was custom-coated by Dassonville with a silver-bromide emulsion. Adams was able to print directly on the latter paper, which had an exceptional tonal range and a matte surface, and develop it in his darkroom. Over a period of several months during the fall of 1929, Adams personally made nearly 1,300 prints for the book edition. [3]

The book was published in a limited edition of 100 signed and numbered copies, plus eight artist's copies, each containing twelve original prints. Bender set the price of the book at $75 per copy, which was a very high figure during the Great Depression when the average annual income for an American family was about $1,300. [5] Bender, however, reached out to his wealthy friends, and within two years the edition was sold out. [3] Bender quipped: "I note the Stock Market reports only Ansel Adams photographs as the sole commodity that is on the rise." [6]

With the cooperation of Adams, in 1977 the New York Graphic Society published a facsimile edition of the original, using gravure prints rather than original photographs. It was produced in a limited edition of 950 copies, each signed by Adams. In the afterword to that edition, photographic historian Weston Naef wrote:

With Taos Pueblo we see a commitment to light and form as the essential building blocks of a picture. Every exposure was made in the most brilliant sunshine which in turn created deep shadows. Sunlight and shadow are at the same time the photographer’s friend and foe. Neither films nor papers can record the two extremes of bright sun and deep shadow equally well, and an unhappy tonal compromise is often the result. Rich shadow detail is here realized simultaneously with delicate highlights in a way that proves Adams’ native sense for the toughest technical problems of the medium, and how to solve them.” [7]

In September, 2011, a copy of the original 1930 edition was offered for sale for $85,000. [2] In 2014, rare book dealers were offering available original copies for $65,000 and $75,000 and between $1,500 and $3,000 for the 1977 facsimile edition. [8]

  1. ^"Taos Pueblo by Ansel Adams" . Retrieved 2011-09-06 .
  2. ^ ab
  3. "Ansel Adams, Mary Austin /Taos Pueblo" . Retrieved 2011-09-06 .
  4. ^ abc
  5. Adams, Ansel Mary Street Alinder (1996). Ansel Adams: An Autobiography. NY: Little, Brown & Co. pp. 72–74. ISBN0-8212-2241-4 .
  6. ^ abc
  7. Spaulding, Jonathan (1995). Ansel Adams and the American Landscape, A Biography. Berkeley: University of California press. pp. 78–82. ISBN0-520-08992-8 .
  8. ^
  9. "1930's Lifestyles and Social Trends" . Retrieved 2011-09-06 .
  10. ^
  11. Hammond, Ann (2002). Ansel Adams: Devine Performance. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 20–22. ISBN0-300-09241-5 .
  12. ^
  13. Adams, Ansel Mary Austin (1977). Taos Pueblo. Boston: New York Graphic Society. p. Afterword.
  14. ^Abebooks query

Media related to Taos Pueblo as photographed by Ansel Adams at Wikimedia Commons

Watch the video: Ansel Adams (January 2022).