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.

Born on February 20, 1902, Ansel grew up in a house situated on the dunes west of San Francisco. The house remained mostly intact after the great earthquake in 1906. Ansel did too, for the most part. After the initial shock the family decided to take refuge outside. As Ansel was playing in the garden a terrible aftershock hit and threw Ansel’s four-year-old frame face down onto a low brick wall. If you will look closely at his portraits you will see that his crooked nose was never repaired. The doctor, at the time, told his parents to wait until he matured to achieve a better aesthetic repair. Ansel said that, “apparently I never matured, as I have yet to see a surgeon about it.”

As Adams grew up around the beautiful California coast and countryside he began to appreciate exploration and beauty. However, in spite of his thirst for adventure he was often ill as a child. Often in bed for several weeks at a time, his Aunt Mary would give him books to pass the time. One of the books was entitled In the Heart of the Sierras. Because he loved the outdoors, he quickly fell in love with what the author was writing and illustrating. In 1916 Ansel convinced his parents to take a vacation to Yosemite. Ansel would return every year of his life. On the first trip Ansel’s father gave him his first camera. It was a Kodak #1 Box Brownie. This was his first introduction to photography. However, Ansel remained faithful to his love for music.

Before his introduction to photography in 1916, Ansel was interested in music. Despite his usual distaste for discipline, music somehow momentarily changed his character. He would practice diligently. Adams began to feel the true passion of music when all of the practice began to mean something and evolve into an actual musical piece. “The change from a hyperactive Sloppy Joe was not overnight, but was sufficiently abrupt to make some startled people ask, ‘What happened?’ I still recall that the Bach Inventions taxed my concentration, especially when a sunny breeze carrying the sound of the ocean stole through the open window.”

The “Sloppy Joe”, also known as Ansel Adams, could practice music religiously but could not sit still through traditional schooling. He would have rather been outside collecting insects and exploring. It was his father’s decision that the world would be Ansel’s educator for one year. Although Carlie Adams, Ansel’s father, had a strong belief in traditional, rigid education he was sensitive enough to understand that his son was unique. In order to somewhat tame his son’s wild heart he took Ansel out of school for one year and required him to visit the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco everyday. Adams was introduced to the arts and celebration of artists such as Cezanne, Gauguin, Monet and Picasso. The combination of Ansel’s exposure to the world for one year and the discipline of the piano, Adams was able to finish his formal education.

Adams was not only an accomplished pianist, photographer conservationist and educator; he was a poet as well.


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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