Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams


Inductee Sponsor: Professional Photographers of California


Ansel Adams once said, “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.” This must have been some time into his photographic career because his first love was music. Even after visiting and falling in love with the Sierras it was still years later that Adams began to flirt with the idea of photography as a career.


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Although Adams had become an accomplished pianist by the mid 1920s, he soon found that his hands were too small to become a professional, concert pianist. During his extensive study of the piano Ansel had taken a job of retouching photographs. To relieve some of the boredom often associated with the repetitive nature of retouching photographs, Adams connected with his uncle who was a Sierra Club member at Yosemite National Park to tag along on one of the wilderness trips. Of course he would take along his camera, from which he produced many of his first beautiful images of the park. Becoming more interested in the photographic process and learning that he would never be a concert pianist, Ansel dedicated his life to photography. Although dedicated to the art and science of photography now, Ansel continued to study and play the piano.

It was difficult for a passionate musician to practice when hiking in the mountains for months at a time. However, Ansel was lucky to find a studio in Yosemite run by Harry Best. Mr. Best allowed Ansel to practice whenever he chose. It was during these practice sessions that Ansel met his wife-to-be, Virginia Best. They married on January 2, 1928. During their years together they had two children, Michael and Anne. After Virginia’s father’s death in 1936 Ansel and Virginia took over the studio in Yosemite but enhanced it with photography supplies and souvenirs. Another of their many projects and adventures together was making and publishing a children’s book. “Virginia was my good fortune. I could not have achieved what I have without her sublime understanding and tolerance over these many decades. Shortly after our marriage was over I wrote:

To Virginia
I would write you my love in myriad shining lines,
Verse upon verse as fresh as swaying pines
Upon a snowy hill. Any yet I know
I have no power to sound the deeps below
The world of vision and of flesh and voice
Wherein we wonder. You, my heart’s first choice,
Are as the flowing winds upon the lea,
And as the ageless earth and shimmering sea.

Adams was actively involved in developing techniques for commercial as well as art photography. One of his most famous techniques is the Zone System. This system is a codification of creating technically proficient images. It divides the range of light into ten tones, or zones, from total black (zone zero) to pure white (zone ten). He was friends and associates with many well-known photographers and art historians. Because he was so actively involved with the art scene, he was the initiator and the genius behind many new and now historic projects and groups. Due to his extensive visits to Yosemite and concern for the environment, President and Mrs. Johnson asked Adams in 1965 to prepare a book, A More Beautiful America, which would benefit the improvement of our environment. Other projects included the f/64 Group, member of the board of directors for the Sierra Club, lobbyist for the creation of a new National Park, gallery owner, art critic and author. Adams also assisted Beaumont and Nancy Newhall (both well-known and respected art historians) to establish the first department of photography in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Ansel is accredited for helping to make photography appreciated as a fine art form.

Adams worked for the government as the official photographer of the Mural Project, which was to travel the American West and document the Indian reservations and national parks. After receiving several Guggenheim Fellowships he was able to take an extended trip to Alaska. During the late 1960s, Adams and Edward Weston’s sons, Cole and Brett, formed the Friends of Photography, which eventually turned into the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Adams later years were dedicated to teaching and publishing his books.

His achievements and awards are countless. Ansel’s appeal to the world is profound. He died on April 22, 1984 from heart failure. Ansel Adams was inducted into the Photography Hall of Fame in 1984 based on his passion and dedication to the advancement of the art and science of photography.

By Lori Oden for IPHF