Ansel Adams: Beyond Black and WhiteA man of great talent and a brilliant mind, Ansel Adams is one of the most widely-acclaimed photographers in conservationist record. While officially possessing only a grammar school education, Adams was awarded six honorary degrees from schools including Berkley and Harvard. His photographs are often hailed as some of the most important pieces of art in conservation and worldwide history. The motivations behind his seemingly basic art are profound and full of political commentary. Adams' wide range of appeal spanned from some of the most intellectual thinkers in America to Playboy Magazine and from die-hard conservationists to those in the avant garde art scene. Also a classical musician and profound idealist, Adams was an asset to the conservation movement.
Although Adams' classical music training was the primary focus in his youth, a gift of a Kodak Number 1 Box Brownie camera from his parents in the summer of 1916 drew Adams' young, active mind in a new direction: Photography. Months before, in the spring of 1916, Adams had read a copy of James M. Hutching's In the Heart of the Sierras, and it had inspired him to see the stunning place described in the book. Some may say one of the first pictures Adams shot was an indication of his talent; the shot was taken from on top of a stump, and it had collapsed underneath him just as he was about the take the picture. The final product was a picture taken as Adams was falling, a perfect shot taken at 180 degrees. Through his trip to the Sierras, Adams quickly developed a love for photography. He took a part-time job working as a "dark room monkey," picking up and dropping off orders for his employer and helping in the dark room, developing and printing film.
With no formal way in which to learn the art of photography, Adams absorbed as much information from his workplace as possible. But to continue his education and be closer to the mountains that inspired him, Adams took a job as a caretaker at the Sierra Club's LeConte Lodge in 1920. By this time, he had traveled to Yosemite National Park many times and felt he was more than capable of living inside this place that struck him as so fantastic. Through this experience, Adams met many of the Sierra Club's members and created strong friendships with very important people in the conservation society including Joseph LeConte, one of the foremost conservation scientists at the time. In this environment, Adams would begin to evolve as a photographer and as a conservationist.
Perhaps one of the reasons Adams felt so strongly connected to the great wilderness was because of how it greatly improved his health. Somewhat sickly and slightly manic about germs and disease prior to living in Yosemite, Adams began to feel stronger, mentally and physically, the longer he spent there. He developed the stamina to haul his camera equipment with him through the back country treks that were becoming commonplace for him. His mental stability improved and he practiced the great discipline he had learned as a young piano player, waiting hours for the right light to shoot a certain scene. The wilderness had taken hold of Adams, sending him on trips into untamed regions. He photographed the wilderness using the techniques of the time and also the ideals of ancient art. The 'wildness' of these pure, unadulterated areas is what fed such inspiration to Adams.
During the times Adams spent back in San Francisco, away from Yosemite, he studied Greek, business, accounting, and again, piano. Though Adams loved the outdoors, his love for the piano went unfulfilled in the summers he spent in Yosemite. Winters back in San Francisco were a chance for Adams to reconnect with his love of music. However, after inquiring the whereabouts of a piano he could use during the summers in Yosemite, Adams met Harry Best. Best was a landscape painter who lived in Yosemite full-time during the summers, and also had a piano. Adams was pleased when he learned Best would allow him to use this piano, and even more so when he met Best's daughter, Virginia. He and Virginia spent an ample amount of time together, and though only 17 at the time they met, a romantic, long-term relationship eventually developed.
The tough switch from the outdoors Adams loved in the summers to the winters spent away from the wilderness and Virginia kept him alert to what he must accomplish to attain the sort of life that was not only comfortable for him, but Virginia as well. He spent the winters giving piano lessons and pursuing work in the photography field. Though music was taking the lead in Adams' life at the time, he still used photography to help establish himself in society. He told his father in a letter he felt photography would be only a hobby for him, but the summers in the Sierras proved to move him in a way music could not. He lamented his ability in music, realizing that to become a true master he would need years more experience. His indecision between his two loves led him to delay his marriage to Virginia, who was patient and forgiving throughout.
Adams continued to further his education in both music and photography, spending a total of five summers in Yosemite. A break finally came, in 1926, when Albert Bender (one of San Francisco's leading art patrons) saw Adams' work, and they agreed to develop a portfolio of photos from the Sierras. The portfolio was published in 1927, called Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras. One hundred copies were released. The price set for Adams' prints was fifty dollars for a set of 18 prints, which was considered high for the time (especially for such an unknown artist). Through Bender's connections and standing in the art community, the collection sold in unheard-of quantities. Bender's firm belief in the talent Adams possessed influenced many buyers into buying the compilation sight unseen. This was the beginning of Adams' introduction to the world of high art.
Though Adams was well accepted into the art community, he still spent much of his time wavering between his photography and his music. With the headlines hailing "Couple Hikes to the Altar," Adams and Virginia finally married in 1928 (January 2nd), and this would force Adams into a decision. His love of artists like Paul Strand and the writings of Edward Carpenter and John Muir led Adams closer to what he felt was his true calling: The outdoors. The effects that the gold rush, hydraulic mining and general inhabiting of the Sierras showed plainly on the great mountains, and many of Adams' favorite authors spoke out against further devastation of the area. It was largely during this period in his life when Adams sought to bring his love of photography and his growing concern for conservation together.
In the spring of 1928 Adams began working with Mary Austin, a well-established international writer in her sixties. They made final plans in 1929 to collaborate on a project involving Taos Pueblo, an ancient Indian community. Although Adams was intimidated by Austin's demanding nature at the beginning of their partnership, he grew to enjoy her company and skill. Taos Pueblo would be the final product of their collaboration, one of Austin's last works. She was one of many impressive characters Adams would work with. Adams worked with Modernists, such as Mabel Luhan. During the time he spent working on Taos Pueblo he met John Marin and Georgia O'Keeffe. Adams was being exposed to many different styles, as each of these talented artists opened doors for him to explore. Escapism, modernism and art as a statement of culture were only some of the artistic disciplines Adams absorbed during this time.
In the early 1930's, Adams wrote his first photography review about Edward Weston's most current exhibition in the local arts journal, the Fortnightly. Although Adams had been unimpressed with Weston's work when he had first seen it (in 1928), his new understanding of modernism led him to praise Weston's efforts. This led to a sort of camaraderie between Weston and Adams, which proved to be beneficial to both. In 1931, Weston agreed to help support Group f/64. The group was named after one of the smallest settings of common camera lenses at the time. The group was set on carrying forth the ideals of precision through their photography, and to put forth their beliefs of photography. Including Weston, Adams, Willard VanDyke, John Paul Edwards, and Imogen Cunningham, the group proved to be full of some of the most influential personalities of the time. Adams and f/64 seemed ultimately concerned with realism in photography. Adams would debate those who supported new, soft photography. It was at this time that Dadaism, cubism, and collage photos were becoming popular. f/64 fought against this type of construed photography, and continued to go forth with modern developments in photography while straying very little from the natural effect they had always stood by.
Though in the midst of economic depression, Adams managed to make a decent living through commercial assignments, lectures, sales of his work and largely his work in Yosemite. The tourism in Yosemite had grown to massive proportions, and Adams was quite well-known around the area for his eccentricity. When the Curry Company (the reigning tourism agency at the time for Yosemite) wanted to expand their winter program, they requested Adams take the photographs for their promotion. As America edged out of the Depression, the upward rise of the economy left many Americans with extra money and extra time. Though this was a time of great improvement in national morale and economy, many conservationists (including Adams) questioned the hordes of tourists pouring into the nation's parks. His concerns, however, were put on the back burner, with Virginia pregnant, growing responsibility in the Sierra Club, and continued work in his father-in-law's studio.
Over the years following the birth of his children (a boy in1933 and a girl in 1935) and his father-in-law's death (in 1936), Adams continued to develop in the art community. At this same time he accepted a position on the Board of Directors for the Sierra Club, on which he served for 37 years, and his gallery opened in San Francisco in 1933. He also began to increase his political involvement in environment issues. This political interest was piqued by artists like Dorothea Lange and the Sierra Club's members. In 1933, Adams went to Washington, D.C. to lobby in favor of the Kings River National Park Bill. The bill was passed in 1940, with Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House. Roosevelt kept a copy of Adams' book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail in the White House while he was in office. By this time Ansel Adams had become a commonly-known name, one respected by people in all walks of American life.
Adams had strong connections with many influential people throughout his lifetime. He met Presidents Johnson, Carter, Ford, and Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes. He used his standing as a well-known and well-respected photographer to aid the conservation movement. Between 1938 and 1983, Adams wrote and contributed to many books. The books ranged from children's travel books to pictures contributed to serious political issues in novels. His photographs detailing the Japanese Americans in internment camps broke new ground for civil rights. He was pictured on the cover of Time Magazine in September of 1979. All of these things helped him put forth his values and ideals surrounding the conservation movement that he so strongly supported. In 1980, Adams was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest medal a civilian can receive. In 1983, a year before his death, Adams consented to do a Playboy Interview in which he openly opposed President Reagan. This prompted Reagan to invite Adams to the White House to discuss conservation. Adams' books carried a strong conservation theme: eleven of his twenty collective works involved the outdoors in some way (his other writing focused on the camera and how it should be used). He wrote children's books that sought to teach children about the beauty of the outdoors in their own terms. Adams was a very outspoken man who was passionately in defense of the outdoors. Even with his death came a statement of preservation.
On April 22, 1984, Adams passed away due to heart failure. He chose not to have a funeral, just a small concert, performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy, for his friends and family. Adams was survived by his wife, Virginia, and his two children. That same year, Congress enlarged the Minarets Wilderness, near Yosemite, to over 200,000 acres and renamed it the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Exactly one year after Adams' death, on April 22, 1985, an 11,000 foot mountain on the boundary of the Yosemite Wilderness was named Mount Ansel Adams. Adams' brilliance and adventurous spirit lead him to be one of the rugged, yet refined pioneers of the conservation movement; he was able to spend endless hours in the mountains living in the rough and yet he was also able to sit in the White House as a celebrated guest. Jonathon Spaulding may have said it best in his book Ansel Adams and the American Landscape: "Yosemite remained the homeland of his creative spirit and the photographic subject to which he endlessly returned."
Adams, Ansel. Ansel Adams, an Autobiography, Bulfinch Press, 1996.
Spaulding, Jonathon. Ansel Adams and the American Landscape, University of California Press 1998.
www.anseladams.com. Best's Studio, 2006. Information retrieved on 4-10-06. Gallery of Adams work.
Burns, Ric (Producer). Steeplechase Films Inc and the Sierra Club, 2002. Ansel Adams, A Documentary Film.
www.historyplace.com/unitedstates/adams/index.html. The History Place, 1999. Information retrieved on 4-10-06