Ansel Adams Outdoor Photography
April 5, 2012
Filed under Feature Stories
Ansel Adams’ recognition as an outdoor icon is evident in the words of an American president. In presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Adams in 1980, President Jimmy Carter said, “Drawn to the beauty of nature’s monuments, he is regarded by environmentalists as a monument himself, and by photographers as a national institution. It is through his foresight and fortitude that so much of America has been saved for future Americans.”
By 1928, a decade after his first trip to Yosemite, Ansel Adams was the official photographer for the Sierra Club and growing his role in the organization by becoming politically involved, arguing for the improvement of national parks and wilderness. He quickly became known not only as an artist of Yosemite, but as a fierce defender of nature remaining a beautiful place. He was elected as a member of the Sierra Club’s Board of Directors in 1934 and maintained the position for 37 years, becoming an integral part of growing the Sierra Club’s mission of conservation to a global level. Several significant events in Adams’ very early years fostered and shaped the man he was to become.
Adams’ mother, Olive Bray, was almost 40 when she and husband Charles Hitchcock Adams had their only child, Ansel, on February 20, 1902. In 1906, Adams broke his nose when an aftershock of the great San Francisco earthquake threw him to the ground – indelibly marking his appearance. And, while the family derived its wealth from Ansel Adams’ grandfather, a timber baron, the money was lost in the 1907 Bankers’ Panic.
Adams’ parents decided to tutor him at home after he found difficulty fitting in at several different schools. Adams’ childhood house and home environment nurtured his inclination towards the outdoors. The house was situated among the sand dunes of the Golden Gate, and a lack of schoolmates and siblings gave Adams much time and attention to focus on exploring the surf and dunes near his home, and taking long solo nature walks.
As William Turnage, who authored a piece on Ansel Adams for the Oxford University Press’ American National Biography, wrote, Ansel’s father determined “that his son would be free to follow his own interests, wherever they might lead.” To that effect, in 1915, Adams received from his father a year’s pass to the Panama-Pacific Exposition. Thirteen-year-old Adams wandered through the fair on an almost daily basis, taking in the many exhibits he was interested in. Soon after, he began to photograph exhibits and the local area with an Eastman Kodak Brownie Box camera. The resulting pictures would be made into albums that served as visual diaries of his adventures.
Adams continued using his Brownie Box camera on his first trip to Yosemite in 1916, the same year in which the National Park Service was founded. The allure of the valley was such that he came to spend time in the area annually for the remainder of his life. From that first trip, the mountains became a recurring subject and location for Adams’ photography.
In 1927, Adams traveled on the Sierra Club’s annual outing, also known as the High Trip. It was on this trip that he made his first fully visualized photograph, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome. As Adams would later teach others his view of the art that photography can’t exist without the element of visualization. It was with Monolith that Adams first decided in advance how the photo would look, and then used his camera to make it so.
The same year was also pivotal to Adams’ financial support due to the recognition and friendship of Albert M. Bender, a San Francisco insurance magnate and patron of the arts and artists. It was through Bender that Adams’ first portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras [sic], came to be published. Adams passionately believed that a photographer was an artist using the camera as a form of expression. He applied the discipline he learned from his earlier musical training to photography. Adams captured natural beauty throughout the country in images that ended up being influential pieces of American history. Adams’ images and more were used early on for environmental purposes. As part of his lobbying efforts for the cause, he created the limited-edition book, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, influencing both Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and President Franklin Roosevelt to embrace the Kings Canyon Park idea – which they signed into law with the park’s creation in 1940.
Adams helped promote photography as a fine art by establishing the first museum department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Through his museum work, Adams formed relationships that would further the missions of his life, nature and photography, like partnering with photography critic Nancy Newhall. For nearly two-decades starting in the early 1950s, Newhall and Adams teamed up on books and exhibitions that furthered the art of photography and the preservation of nature, including Sierra Club’s This is the American Earth in 1955.
Captured by Adams’ photography, nature’s beauty alone has inspired generations to enjoy the outdoors.
Those who personally knew Adams or studied his life know of his unremitting efforts toward the causes of wilderness and the environment. However, his lasting impression will likely always be his photographs, which serve as icons for many people when visualizing some of the most majestic scenes in America nature has to offer.
But he also had a sense of humor and humility. Just a year before Adams’ passing in 1984, he participated in a televised interview with Roy Firestone. In the interview’s closing, Firestone asked, “What would you like most to be remembered for?”
Adams responded, “Well, a few good photographs. What else can you say?”
While the jewels of Adams’ work are icons of nature, the photographer who expresses the soul of nature itself to an audience of infinite generations is arguably himself, an outdoor icon of the Twentieth Century.