Dunes, Oceano, California, 1963
Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941
Born in San Francisco, California, on 20 February 1902, Ansel Adams was the only son of businessman, Charles Hitchcock Adams. At a young age he taught himself to read music and play the piano. When his father gave him his first Kodak Box Brownie camera, he slowly gave up the piano and focused primarily on taking photographs, applying the methodical discipline he learned from playing music.
Due to a solitary upbringing and dreamy nature, Adams spent much of his time exploring the local wilderness around the suburbs of San Francisco. In 1915, his parents took him out of school to be educated by private tutors in, at the age of twelve. However, he eventually resumed his formal education, leaving school in 1917.
When visiting Yosemite Valley in California as a child, Adams became transfixed by the dramatic surroundings. At the age of seventeen, he started working for the Sierra Club, the oldest environmentalist organisation in the United States, as the summer caretaker for the visitor centre in Yosemite Valley. Throughout the 1920s, working with the Sierra Club, he spent a considerable amount of time capturing the scenery of the American West, as an amateur photographer. His first photographs were published in 1921 and his first solo exhibition, in 1928, took place in the Sierra Club’s headquarters in San Francisco.
During the 1920s, Adams practised Pictorialism, using soft-focus techniques, heavy manipulation in the darkroom, lens coating and special filters, essentially distorting the sharpness of the photographs. It was an approach that mimicked the Impressionist painting style, still popular at the time. Upon meeting the photographer, Paul Strand, in 1930, Adams’ career changed forever. Strand influenced and encouraged him to adopt a stylistic approach called ‘straight photography’. This sharp-focused method differed dramatically from Pictorialism, aiming to capture scenes in the most objective manner possible. Adams collaborated with a group of like minded photographers including Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskoviak, Henry Swift, Willard van Dyke and Edward Weston, to form the group, f/64′. The members of the group established themselves as photographic purists, in composition, technique and idea. The coming together of such influential photographers quickly ignited a larger interest in the West Coast photography scene and, in 1932, the f/64 Club was granted its first exhibition in the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
When Adams made his first trip to New York in 1933, he was introduced to the renowned Modernist photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, and the two photographers quickly formed a strong bond. Adams was considerably influenced by the philosophy and work of Stieglitz, mastering his rigorous printing technique. In 1933, he was granted his first show at the Delphic Gallery in New York, with the help of Stieglitz and his large circle of friends. A year later, in 1934, he had his first technical article published in Camera Craft Magazine.
Adams’ technical mastery of the photographic medium has made him one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Adams continued to travel across America capturing the country’s natural beauty, becoming an influential advocate for the medium of photography. In the later part of his career, Adams focused on environmental issues and became an ardent activist seeking the preservation of America’s wilderness.
Adams was the recipient of three Guggenheim fellowships during his career and, in 1980, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour. On 22 April 1984, Ansel Adams died of a heart attack in Carmel, California. He left behind an acclaimed body of work, and has become one the most important American landscape photographers of the 20th century.