Ansel Adams was born in San Francisco in 1902. Growing up in a wealthy, upperclass family, Adams first trained as a musician starting piano and composition lessons at the age of 12. One of his composition teachers was American composer Henry Cowell.
As he became increasingly serious about his musical studies, Adams was pursuing a carer as a pianist in his early 20’s.
As Adams states in his autobiography, his love for photography began during the family trips to Yosemite National Park. His first camera was a Kodak Brownie Box camera that his father gave him during one of these trips. Adams became more interested spending time working for a photo finisher in San Francisco and returning to Yosemite in the summer to capture more images. He spent much of his time reading photography magazines and becoming involved with local camera clubs.
By the age of 19 Adams first formal photographs were published and the following year he began selling prints in his girlfriend Virginia’s family gallery called Best’s Studio in Yosemite Valley. The studio was inherited by Virginia in 1935 and is still owned by the family today. It is now known as the Ansel Adams Gallery.
In the mid-1920’s, Adams started to experiment with pictorialist techniques of the time including etching, Bromoil Process and soft focus. Adams used a variety of cameras, lenses and techniques to get different effects, but eventually decided to reject pictorialism for a more modern, highly controlled precision of imaging technologies honing is craft in the darkroom.
Adams was already proving to be a master of promotion and the business of selling his images. His first portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras sold well earning almost $4,000 (over $50,000 in todays economy). Patrons were commissioning Ansel for photographs soon after.
He and Virginia soon got married which marked the beginning of Ansel’s commitment to photography and ended his pursuit of a music career. Also worth noting that at this time his darkroom was still in his parents’ basement with little space and barely adequate equipment.
The 1930’s proved to be a very productive and intense part of Adams career. He began shooting new locations and while in New Mexico, he befriended many notable artists from Steiglitz’s inner circle including Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin and Paul Strand. Strand was an enormous influence on Adams and pushed him to advance his work to an even more intense level.
In 1931 Adams got his first solo museum show at the Smithsonian Institution. The show proved highly successful and reviews from the Washington Post were stellar.
The following year Adams was part of a group show at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Also in the show were works by Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston. The three photographers decided to form Group f/64.
Group f/64 was extremely significant to the advancement of photography. It provided a modern alternative to the Steichen/Stieglitz Camera clubs and opened up attention to a new Southern California school of photographers. Group f/64 promoted “pure” and “straight photography” over the popular pictorialism of the time. In contrast to the pictorialist view of borrowing techniques from painting and other art forms, the Group f/64 manifesto encouraged photography to be pure of itself and not borrow from other mediums for the goal of acceptance.
Adams opened his own art gallery in San Francisco at the age of 31. He pushed his career hard as he started publishing essays and his first instructional books. He also became very active in wilderness preservation and published a book resulting in the designation of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National park in 1940.
A trip to New Mexico in 1941 yielded one of Adams most famous images, Moonrise Over Hernendez. Adams claimed he wasn’t prepared when he came across the scene. He used the luminance of the moon to manually determine the exposure. The negative was still difficult to print, but Adam’s craftsmanship prevailed and the image was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1944. Over a period of 40 years Adams made over 1300 unique prints of the image which by the 1970’s had totaled over $25 million in sales.
Adams sustained a nearly 60 year career as a fine art and commercial photographer. He became known as an author publishing his formal techniques and approaches to photography and printing. He formed the photography department at San Francisco Art Institute. In the 1950’s he was on monthly retainer with Polaroid who was founded by his friend Edwin Land.
In the 1970’s he had a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was commissioned by President Jimmy Carter to make the first official presidential photograph for the White House.
Adams accomplishments were unprecedented in the history of photography. Along with Fred Archer, he pioneered the Zone System which was a technique for transferring light into formal measured densities for negatives and printing processes. This was a major formalized process approach to black and white darkroom photography and is still used today.
Ansel Adams died in 1983 at the age of 82 leaving an enormous legacy and is a house hold name today.