Ansel Adams Biography

This Ansel Adams biography is spread over two pages: this page is about his life and work; the second page is about the zone system, and has Ansel Adams quotes and information about the books he wrote.

The story starts in 1916 when the 14-year-old Adams arrived as a breath of fresh of air on the photographic scene, bringing photography to the American west, out of an attic that was more charming artefact than art.

Ansel Adams Biography Part 1: A Passion for nature

Enamoured with the natural forms and textures of Yosemite national Park and with photographing them, he would continue to return every year and eventually live at Yosemite. It was his muse, encompassing his passion for both photography and nature. His eye captured unembellished images of nature while positioning the photograph as art.

photograph of ansel adams

Above: Ansel Adams - photo by J. Malcolm Greany

Ansel Adams photos achieved what Monet and Cezanne accomplished with paint and canvas. Using a still camera and working in black and white Ansel Adams succeeded in capturing not only the motion of water but also the movement and interplay of light and the gradations of tone of natural surfaces.

Ansel Adams photos of Yosemite National Park in black and white thrust him into national prominence as a documentarian and ecologist. His stated intent was to document the park's natural features, and he did so with a vengeance.

In 1919 he became a member of the Sierra Club, a group dedicated to preserving the world's natural resources.

By the 1930's, Adams had published his first photographs and writings in The Sierra Club Bulletin. His association with the Club allowed Adams to become a political activist via his art. He appeared before Congress in 1936 with portfolio in tow. It was Ansel Adams photos that persuaded Congress to elevate Kings River Canyon in California to national park status.

photo of mcdonald glacier national park by ansel adams

Above: Evening, McDonald Lake Glacier National Park

Ansel Adams Biography Part 2: The f/64 Group

In 1932, Ansel Adams founded a group of photographers in the San Francisco Bay area of California who shared his aesthetic. Calling themselves "f/64," the group derived its name from the smallest possible aperture on the camera. Adams wrote the manifesto himself. Their mission: to create photographs of artistic expression using clean and pure photographic technique without manipulation. Group f/64 was responsible for the founding of the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The group held together until 1935.

Like American architect of the day Frank Lloyd Wright, Ansel Adams was bent upon exploiting the full potential of his artistic medium. What, besides verisimilitude could photography achieve? How could he make it new? Just as painting and other arts wrote manifestos devoted to answering these questions, so too would Adams. His conception was that "there are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer". And had the Modern critic looked past Adams' photographic contributions to conservation and ecology, he would have appreciated the growth of Adams as an artist.

photo by ansel adams taken in yosemite of snow on an apple tree

Above: Half Dome, Apple Orchard, Yosemite by Ansel Adams, 1933

Ansel Adams Biography Part 3: A Contribution to Art

During these admirable and prolific years, however, art critics considered Ansel Adams photos little, if at all. When they did assess his contribution to photography, they could not look past his efforts to create archives of photographs that they off-handedly considered mere depiction. Words such as 'depiction' that hinted at conventional representation amounted to the kiss of death from Modern art critics. They overlooked aesthetic merit out of bias against any taint of commercialism; and most likely disparaged or scorned Ansel Adams photos as Adams' name had become synonymous with the Sierra Club whose primary function was not art.

photo of a geyser in yellowstone national park by ansel adams

Above: Fountain Geyser Pool, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming by Ansel Adams

However, a deeper look at Ansel Adams photos reveals Impressionist technique in the recording of the image at different times of day, amid shadow and light in flux, even at different times of the year. The resulting photographs are rife with visual candor and, simultaneously, abstraction.

Abstraction in Ansel Adams' pictures peaks in photographs of natural intersecting planes, sharp angles, and reflections of natural light and receding shadow. The viewer is drawn into the picture, pondering a series of photographs made of a single object, and left questioning what he or she herself has seen.

Today we are privy to a lifetime of work created by an uncompromising eye. From a commonly-found monolithic tree to increasingly abstract compositions of nature unhampered, Ansel Adams remains an artist of his time.

photo taken in zion national park in 1941 by ansel adams

Above: Rock formation against dark sky, "Zion National Park, 1941," Utah by Ansel Adams

Recommended Reading

Digital Landscape Photography shows you what can be learned from Adams working process, and how these lessons can be applied today. The craft of Adams photography is discussed, and the ZONE SYSTEM is related to the digital age. Sections on light, composition, mood, and the darkroom all show what can be achieved today using and understanding his thinking.

Yosemite National Park and the High Sierra were the places closest to Ansel Adams' heart... Inspired by their grandeur, their wildness, and their primeval mystery, Adams' photos came to represent America's National Parks. During his lifetime Adams published seven books of images from this region; this book brings the best of these early volumes together into a single work.

Click the link to read Part 2 of Ansel Adams Biography which includes a look at the Zone System.

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