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A Brief Biography Of Ansel Adams (1902 - 1984)

Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams is one of the most respected names in photography. During his lifetime he produced hundreds of images that became familiar across the world, as tributes to the epic landscapes of North America. Since his death he's become an institution, rememebered equally fondly for the quality of his work and the conservationist sentiment with which it is attached.

Adams grew up in California - a hyperactive, intelligent child. Struggling to settle into conventional education, he was dismissed from several schools. Eventually, at the age of twelve, his parents decided to employ home tutors who were largely responsible for the remainder of his education.

During these early years Ansel was introduced to the piano, which became a focus for his talents and restless energy. He improved rapidly and soon came to harbour professional musical ambitions.

At fourteen, Adams was given a Box Brownie camera. He was first able to use it on a family trip to the Yosemite Valley. From the very beginning, these two passions - for the natural world and photography - were inseparably linked.

Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, 1960
Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, 1960 Art Print
Adams, Ansel
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Half Dome, Merced River, Winter
Half Dome, Merced River, Winter Art Print
Adams, Ansel
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Pine Forest in Snow, Yosemite National Park, 1932
Pine Forest in Snow, Yosemite National Park, 1932 Art Print
Adams, Ansel
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As he neared the end of his education, both the piano and his camera occupied Adams intensely, but his professional goals were firmly confined to the world of music. Nonetheless, as early as 1921 he had some success with the sale of images taken in the Yosemite Valley.

During his twenties, it steadily dawned on Adams that his potential as a photographer outstripped his prospects as a concert pianist, and that a shift in focus was inevitable. Whilst this dismayed his mother, who doubted the artistic value of photography, his father remained supportive in this new venture.

Having developed a comprehensive knowledge of the photographic process, and experimented a good deal with technique and style, it was in 1927 that Ansel Adams felt fit to declare:

- My photographs have now reached a stage when they are worthy of the world's critical examination.

This examination bore very positive early reviews after a debut solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in 1931. His images, taken in the High Sierra, expressed a sense of awe for the expanse and scale of the mountainous landscapes that he would become famous for capturing.

Tetons and The Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, c.1942
Tetons and The Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, c.1942 Art Print
Adams, Ansel
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The 1930's were a period of experimentation and refinement, including time spent dedicated to portrait photography, which yielded a few images that Adams later reflected were amongst his best.

ansel adams collection

400 Photographs, by Ansel Adams, is a brilliant way to see some of Adams' most memorable work.

Along with other prominent photographers, Adams co-founded a group called F/64 in 1932. The name refers to an f.stop setting on cameras which produces a high degree of clarity with a large depth of field.

It was an attempt at setting out the stall of photography as an art form in its own right, with a unique aesthetic value. Photographs, for Adams, should be sharp, clear depictions, not blurry abstractions in imitation of paintings.

It was during this decade Ansel Adams began advancing conservationist causes through his photos in earnest. He did not believe, as many other image makers from the Depression era did, that the art of photography was lumbered with some kind of social responsibility. But his environmental agenda was pursued energetically and led to National Park status for Sequoia and Kings Canyon.

Moreover, following the Pearl Harbour attack of 1941, he felt compelled to express his despair at the U.S government's decision to house Japanese Americans in 'War Relocation Camps'. The resulting photo-essay achieved a considerable profile and was published as Born Free and Equal: The Story of Loyal Japanese Americans.

In 1941 Adams took one of his best known images, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. His constant reworking of the shot through many different prints over the next forty years is an insight into his perfectionism.

The negative is comparable to the composer's score and the print to its performance. Each performance differs in subtle ways.
Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941
Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 Art Print
Adams, Ansel
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The same perfectionism had led Adams to develop the famous Zone system for calculating exposure and contrast. It's a methodical, technical approach that shows itself in the range and quality of tonal relationships throughout his photographs.

In a more creative vein, Adams also spoke frequently about the need to visualise, or 'pre-visualise' an image. He held a very clear impression in his mind of the intended shot before anything was captured, and the originality of his work attests to this.

- When I'm ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my minds eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word. I'm interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.

- There is nothing worse than a brilliant image of a fuzzy concept.

In 1952, now very well known, Adams co-founded Aperture magazine, which today remains a quarterly publication devoted to fine art photography. Soon after, he began offering his famous workshops which, over twenty-five years, inspired thousands of photographers.

Two years before his death in 1984, Ansel Adams was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honour.

Drawn to the beauty of nature's monuments, he had become, in the words of President Jimmy Carter, a monument himself, to the worlds of photography and envoronmentalism alike.

Where Next?

List Of Famous Photographers

10 Famous Portrait Photographers

10 Famous Fashion Photographers

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