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Ansel Adams 1902-1984
 


Country : San Francisco, CA
Profession : Photographer
Date of birth : 1902-02-20
Date of death : 1984-04-22
Cause of Death : Heart Failure

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a_adams portrait

Ansel Easton Adams (February 20, 1902 – April 22, 1984) was an American photographer and environmentalist, best known for his black-and-white photographs of the American West and primarily Yosemite National Park.

For his images, he developed the zone system, a way to determine proper exposure and adjust the contrast of the final print. The resulting clarity and depth characterized his photographs. Although his large-format view cameras were difficult to use because of their size, weight, setup time, and film cost, their high resolution ensured sharpness in his images.

He founded the Group f/64 along with fellow photographers Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, which in turn created the Museum of Modern Art's department of photography. Adams' timeless and visually stunning photographs are reproduced on calendars, posters, and in books, making his photographs widely recognizable.

Life

Childhood

Adams was born in the Western Addition of San Francisco, California to distinctly upper-class parents Charles and Olive Adams. He was an only child and was named after his uncle Ansel Easton. The Adams family came from New England, having migrated from the north of Ireland in the early 1700s, but was not connected with the Presidential Adams family. His grandfather founded and built a prosperous lumber business, which his father later ran, though his father’s natural talents lay more with sciences than with business. Later in life, Adams would condemn that very same industry for cutting down many of the great redwood forests.

His mother’s family came from Baltimore and his maternal grandfather had a successful freight-hauling business but squandered his wealth in failed mining and real estate ventures in Nevada.

Ansel Adams was born in his parents' bed. When he was four years old, he was tossed face-first into a garden wall during an aftershock from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, breaking his nose. Among his earliest memories was watching the ensuing fire that destroyed much of the city a few miles away. His left-leaning broken nose was never corrected and remained crooked for his entire life.

Adams was a hyperactive child and prone to frequent sickness. He had few friends but his family home and surroundings on the heights facing San Francisco Bay provided ample childhood activities. Although he had no patience for games or sports, the curious child took to nature at an early age, collecting bugs and exploring the nearby beach. His father bought a telescope and they shared the hobby enthusiastically. His parents raised him to follow the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson, to live a modest, moral life guided by a social responsibility to man and to nature.

After the death of his grandfather and the aftermath of the Panic of 1907, his father’s business suffered great financial losses and by 1912, the family’s standard of living had dropped sharply. After young Ansel was dismissed from several private schools for his restlessness and inattentiveness, his father decided to pull him out of school in 1915, at the age of 12. Adams was then educated by private tutors, his Aunt Mary, and by his father. During the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, his father insisted that, as part of his education, Adams spend a good part of each day studying the exhibits. After a while, Adams resumed and then completed his formal education by attending another private school until eighth grade.

Career

In 1927, Adams contracted for his first portfolio, in his new style, which included his famous image Monolith, the vertical western face of Half Dome taken with his Korona view camera utilizing glass plates and a dark red filter (to heighten the tonal contrasts). On that excursion, he had only one plate left and he “visualized” the effect of the blackened sky before risking the last shot. As he wrote, “I had been able to realize a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print”. As he wrote confidently in April, 1927, “My photographs have now reached a stage when they are worthy of the world’s critical examination. I have suddenly come upon a new style which I believe will place my work equal to anything of its kind.”

With the sponsorship and promotion of Albert Bender, an arts-connected businessman, Adams’s first portfolio was a success (earning nearly $4,000) and soon he received commercial assignments to photograph the wealthy patrons who bought his portfolio. Adams also came to understand how important it was that his carefully crafted photos were reproduced to best effect. At Bender’s invitation, he joined the prestigious Roxburghe Club, an association devoted to fine printing and high standards in book arts. He learned much about printing techniques, inks, design, and layout which he later applied to other projects. Unfortunately, at that time, most of his darkroom work was still being done in the basement of his parent’s home, and he was somewhat limited by barely adequate equipment.

After a cooling off period with Virginia Best during 1925–6, during which he had short-lasting relationships with various women, many of them students of his mentor Cedric Wright, he married Virginia in 1928. The newlyweds moved in with his parents to save expenses. His marriage also marked the end of his serious attempt at a musical career, as well as her ambitions to be a classical singer.

Between 1929 and 1942, Adams’ works became more mature and he became more established. In the course of his 60-year career, the 1930s were a particularly productive and experimental time. Adams expanded his works, focusing on detailed close-ups as well as large forms from mountains to factories. In 1930 Taos Pueblo, Adams second portfolio, was published with text by writer Mary Austin. In New Mexico, he was introduced to notables from Stieglitz’s circle, including painter Georgia O’Keeffe, artist John Marin, and photographer Paul Strand, all of whom created famous works during their stays in the Southwest. Adams’s talkative, high-spirited nature combined with his excellent piano playing made him a hit within his enlarging circle of elite artist friends. Strand especially proved influential, sharing secrets of his technique with Adams, and finally convincing Adams to pursue photography with all his talent and energy. One of Strand’s suggestions which Adams immediately adopted was to use glossy paper rather than matte to intensify tonal values.

Through a friend with Washington connections Adams was able to put on his first solo museum exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in 1931, featuring 60 prints taken in the High Sierra. He received an excellent review from the Washington Post, “His photographs are like portraits of the giant peaks, which seem to be inhabited by mythical gods”. Despite his success, Adams felt he was not yet up to the standards of Strand. He decided to broaden his subject matter to include still life and close-up photos, and to achieve higher quality by “visualizing” each image before taking it. He emphasized the use of small apertures and long exposures in natural light, which created sharp details with a wide range of focus, as demonstrated in Rose and Driftwood (1933), one of his finest still-life photographs.

In 1932, Adams had a group show at the M. H. de Young Museum with Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston and they soon formed Group f/64, which espoused “pure or straight photography” over pictorialism (f/64 being a very small aperture setting that gives great depth of field). The group’s manifesto stated that “Pure photography is defined as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form”. In reality, “pure photography” did borrow from some of the established principles of painting, especially compositional balance and perspective, and some manipulation of subject and effect. By these standards, not only were “soft focus” lenses prohibited but Adams earlier photo “Monolith”, which used a strong red filter to create a black sky, would have been considered unacceptable.

Following Stieglitz’s example, in 1933 Adams opened his own art and photography gallery in San Francisco which eventually became the Danysh Gallery after Adams commitments grew too burdensome. Adams also began to publish essays in photography magazines and wrote his first instructional book Making a Photograph in 1935. During the summers, he often participated in Sierra Club outings, as a paid photographer for the group, and the rest of the year a core group of the Club members socialized regularly in San Francisco. During 1933, his first child Michael was born, followed by Anne two years later.

During the 1930s, many photographers including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans believed they had a social obligation to reveal the harsh times of the Depression through their art. Mostly resistant to the “art for life’s sake” movement, Adams did begin in the 1930s to deploy his photographs in the cause of wilderness preservation. In part, he was inspired by the increasing desecration of Yosemite Valley by commercial development, including a pool hall, bowling alley, golf course, shops, and automobile traffic. He created a limited-edition book in 1938, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, as part of the Sierra Club's efforts to secure the designation of Sequoia and Kings Canyon as national parks. This book and his testimony before Congress played a vital role in the success of the effort, and Congress designated the area as a National Park in 1940.

In 1935, Adams created many new photos of the Sierra and one of his most famous photographs, Clearing Winter Storm, captured the entire valley just as a winter storm relented, leaving a fresh coat of snow. After courting Stieglitz for three years, Adams gathered his recent work and had a solo show at the Stieglitz gallery “An American Place” in New York in 1936. The exhibition proved successful with both the critics and the buying public, and earned Adams strong praise from the revered Stieglitz. During the balance of the 1930s, Adams took on many commercial assignments to supplement the income from the struggling Best’s Studio. Until the 1970s, Adams was dependent on commercial projects to make ends meet. Some of his clients included Kodak, Fortune magazine, Pacific Gas and Electric, AT&T, and the American Trust Company. In 1939, he was named an editor of U.S. Camera, the most popular photography magazine at that time.

In 1940, Ansel put together A Pageant of Photography, the most important and largest photography show in the West to date, attended by millions of visitors. With his wife, Adams completed a children’s book and the very successful Illustrated Guide to Yosemite Valley during 1940 and 1941. Adams also began his first serious stint of teaching in 1941 at the Art Center School of Los Angeles, which included the training of military photographers. In 1943, Adams had a camera platform mounted on his car, to afford him a better vantage point over the immediate foreground and a better angle for expansive backgrounds. Most of his landscapes from that time forward were made from his car rather than from summits reached by rugged hiking, as in his earlier days.

On a trip in New Mexico weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Adams shot a scene of the Moon rising above a modest village with snow-covered mountains in the background, under a dominating black sky. The photograph is one of his most famous and is named, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. The photograph’s fame was probably enhanced by Adams’s description in his later books of how it was made: the light on the crosses in the foreground was rapidly fading, and he could not find his exposure meter; however, he remembered the luminance of the Moon, and used it to calculate the proper exposure. Adams’s earlier account was less dramatic, stating simply that the photograph was made after sunset, with exposure determined using his Weston Master meter. However the exposure was actually determined, the foreground was underexposed, the highlights in the clouds were quite dense, and the negative proved difficult to print. Over nearly 40 years, Adams re-interpreted the image, his most popular by far, using the latest darkroom equipment at his disposal, making over 1300 unique prints, most in 16″ by 20″ format. Many of the prints were made in the 1970s, finally giving Adams financial independence from commercial projects. The total value of these original prints exceeds $25,000,000; the highest price paid for a single print reached US$609,600 at Sotheby's New York auction in 2006.

In September 1941, Adams contracted with the Department of the Interior to make photographs of National Parks, Indian reservations, and other locations for use as mural-sized prints for decoration of the Department’s new building. Part of his understanding with the Department was that he might also make photographs for his own use, using his own film and processing. Although Adams kept meticulous records of his travel and expenses, he was less disciplined about recording the dates of his images, and neglected to note the date of Moonrise, so it was not clear whether it belonged to Adams or to the U.S. Government. But the position of the Moon allowed the image to eventually be dated from astronomical calculations, and it was determined that Moonrise was made on November 1, 1941, a day for which he had not billed the Department, so the image belonged to Adams. The same was not true for many of his other negatives, including The Tetons and the Snake River, which, having been made for the Mural Project, became the property of the U.S. Government.

Adams was distressed by the Japanese American Internment that occurred after the Pearl Harbor attack. He requested permission to visit the Manzanar War Relocation Center in the Owens Valley, at the foot of Mount Williamson. The resulting photo-essay first appeared in a Museum of Modern Art exhibit, and later was published as Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese-Americans. He also contributed to the war effort by doing many photographic assignments for the military, including making prints of secret Japanese installations in the Aleutians. Adams was the recipient of three Guggenheim fellowships during his career, the first in 1946 to photograph every National Park. This series of photographs produced memorable images of “Old Faithful Geyser”, Grand Teton, and Mount McKinley.

In 1945, Adams was asked to form the first fine art photography department at the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA). Adams invited Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham and Minor White to become faculty members.

In 1952 Adams was one of the founders of the magazine Aperture, which was intended as a serious journal of photography showcasing its best practitioners and newest innovations. He was also a contributor to Arizona Highways, a photo-rich travel magazine which continues today. His article on Mission San Xavier del Bac, with text by longtime friend Nancy Newhall, was enlarged into a book published in 1954. This was the first of many collaborations with her. In June 1955, Adams began his annual workshops, teaching thousands of students until 1981.

By the 1950s, Adams came to believe that he was on the down side of his creative life. He continued with commercial assignments for another twenty years and became a consultant on a monthly retainer for Polaroid Corporation, founded by good friend Edwin Land. He made thousands of photographs with Polaroid products, El Capitan, Winter, Sunrise (1968) being the one he considered his most memorable. In the final twenty years of his life, the Hasselblad was his camera of choice, with Moon and Half Dome (1960) being his favorite photo made with that brand of camera.

In March 1963, Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall accepted a commission from Clark Kerr, the President of the University of California, to produce a series of photographs of the University's campuses to commemorate its centennial celebration. The collection, titled Fiat Lux after the University's motto, was published in 1967 and now resides in the Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside.

In 1974, Adams had a major retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Much of his time during the 1970s was spent curating and re-printing negatives from his vault, in part to satisfy the great demand of art museums which had finally created departments of photography and desired his iconic works. He also devoted his considerable writing skills and prestige to the cause of environmentalism, focusing particularly on the Big Sur coastline of California and the protection of Yosemite from over-use. President Carter commissioned Adams to make the first official portrait of a president made by a photograph.

Death

Ansel Adams died on April 22, 1984, at the age of 82 from heart failure aggravated by cancer. When he died he left behind his wife, two children (Michael born August 1933, Anne born 1935) and five grandchildren.

Publishing rights for the Adams' photographs are handled by the trustees of The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

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