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The Life of Ansel Adams

(1902 - 1984)

Ansel Adams
By David Fleet

Ansel Adams is a bit of a hero for most landscape photographers. His work captured the grandeur of the American West, with its mighty canyons, great mountains and wooded valleys. His crisp black and white images, rich in tonal contrasts, are famous the world over as representations of this magnificent part of the world.

As a professional landscape photographer myself, I find it fascinating to look back over Adams' early years and think about how some of his formative experiences helped shape his later career.

 

An Early Love of Nature

 

Born in San Francisco, California in 1902, Adams grew up in a home with a spectacular view of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. As a child, Adams was more interested in spending time in the natural world than playing sports with his peers. He would take long walks exploring the coast along San Francisco, studying the wildlife big and small.

He also dabbled in amateur astronomy with his father, and the two of them shared a telescope. With this tool they admired the stars and planets together, and Ansel's passion for the natural world expanded still further.

 

Musical and Photographic Talent

 

He also showed a real love of music and spent many hours playing piano. Adams, in fact, for some time considered a musical career as a concert pianist, accompanist, or even piano teacher. But ultimately, his growing passion for photography would overtake his musical ambitions.

Ansel Adams' first photography portfolio was released in 1927. The wonderful and famous image, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, was included in this portfolio and represents some of his earliest work featuring Yosemite's unique monolithic mountain faces.

With this portfolio, his work was suddenly subject to external critique, which duly brought acclaim, and his potential as a photographer started to become apparent.

The following year, 1928, he married Virginia Best. While this commitment ended his many casual trysts with women, it also marked the end of his possible music career. His focus on photography grew and grew, as he looked to produce more impressive portfolios.

 

Exhibitions and Publications

Tetons and The Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, c.1942

Tetons and The Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, c.1942, Art Print

Between 1929 and 1942, Adams produced several acclaimed portfolios that featured wonderful images of Californian landscapes. But he experimented a lot during this time, and many of his images of featured buildings, cities, still life subjects and people are perhaps underrated.

1930 he also published his first book with Mary Hunter Austin, Taos Pueblos. It features images that Adams shot whilst living in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

This was a period in which Adams become single-minded about developing as a photographer, leaving other pursuits and hobbies aside.

In 1931 Adams had his first solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. His exhibit included a series of photographs of the High Sierra, which were received very favourably by the critics.

Shortly following this, in 1932, Adams opened his own gallery in San Francisco. A few years later, in 1935, he published a guide to photography, How to Make a Photograph.

In his personal life, Adams' first child was born in 1933, and he continued to celebrate nature without a camera through involvement with the Sierra Club.

 

A Rising Profile

 

In the 1940s, Adams organized a large photography show, The Pageantry of Photography, and published his third book, Illustrated Guide to Yosemite Valley .

Whilst the Yosemite National Park always remained a favourite location for Adams, much of his work also features Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, and several other key sites of the American West.

In 1952 he founded Aperture, a photography magazine concerned with fine art photography. Ansel Adams' next major portfolio, What Majestic Word, was published in 1963.

 

A Photography Legend

 

Adams' sixty-year career was celebrated and remembered in 1974, with a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

By this time, Adams had reached celebrity status, not just amongst photographers and conservationists, but the general public - who came to adore his work.

His photographic skills were in high demand, with commissions for the likes of President Jimmy Carter and the University of California, Riverside.

Adams developed extraordinary skill as a photographer throughout his long career. His great achievements are reflected by the ongoing popularity of his work and the inspiration it provides for today's photographers, including me.

 


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