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Ansel Adams: A Brief Sketch of His Life

Ansel Adams Headshot by James Alinder(An excerpt from ANSEL ADAMS: MASTERWORKS by Robyn G. Peterson, Ph.D. Director of Collections and Research and Research/Curator of Art Turtle Bay Exploration Park, Redding, California.)

Ansel Adams was an only child, born in San Francisco in 1902. Early memories included surviving the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, roaming the seaside near his family’s beautifully situated home, recurrent illnesses, and a decided aversion to school. In early adulthood, Adams was faced with the difficult choice of developing his great talent as a pianist or plunging into the relatively untried world of working as an artist in photography. To the world’s great benefit, he chose photography. From that day forward, Adams worked tirelessly in all areas of the photographic arts. With Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and a handful of other photographers, Adams founded in the early 1930s Group f/64, which was dedicated to straight photography as an art form. Photography at the time was dominated by the “pictorialists,” who created staged, artificial (and now largely forgotten) photographs that imitated the conventions of painting. Adams was instrumental in the struggle to gain for photography recognition as art on its own merits.

Adams is an artist identified with specific places, and Yosemite is chief among them. His involvement with Yosemite began in youth and pre-dated any of his serious work as a photographer. His was not a tourist’s acquaintance with the place; Adams spent many, many seasons living and working in Yosemite, and his early experiences as a Sierra Club employee allowed him to become deeply familiar with the area.

Adams was involved in every aspect of the world of photography, from seeing his best work featured in the world’s finest art museums to taking on rote commercial photography jobs. An early proponent of the Polaroid system, Adams was also frequently involved in the testing of new equipment. His views about photography continually evolved, and his aesthetic preferences also changed with time. Adams had always insisted on printing his photographs himself—a preference that resulted in an enormous burden of work for him—and it is possible to date some of his prints by the different ways in which they are printed, reflecting his changing attitudes toward the aesthetic qualities of the print.

By the time Adams began to enjoy the fame that eventually came to him in the 1950s and 1960s, he had already done his best work. He remained heavily involved in teaching photography, and he devoted time, energy, and his flair for the written word to environmental preservation. By the time of his death in 1984, he had been showered with honors and awards to a degree enjoyed by few American artists.

Image: Ansel Adams by James Alinder

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