Ansel Adams loved photography and nature passionately. He fused his passions into striking black and white images of the American West, and in the process became one of the best known and most honored photographers in the world. Innumerable books, calendars, and museum exhibitions display his work. Collectors bid for his finest prints--an oversize copy of Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico fetched a record $136,000 in 2002. Unchurched, yet deeply religious, Adams viewed Nature as sacred and the High Sierra as his cathedral. Photography scholar John Stzarkowski states “The thing that Adams most wanted to do as an artist was to photograph his mountains as a holy place.”
Born in San Francisco on February 20, 1902, the bright and hyperactive boy found classrooms dull, music exhilarating (he played piano superbly), and photography fun. Adams took his first snapshots with a Brownie box camera at age 14 on a family vacation in Yosemite Valley. He liked the results. Even an "upside-down" photo of Half Dome and clouds (taken when he fell head over heals, unintentionally clicking the shutter) turned out nicely, auguring success to come. Adams reflected in his autobiography, “I knew my destiny when I first experienced Yosemite.”
He came to Yosemite almost yearly throughout his life. Adams worked at the valley’s Sierra Club LeConte Memorial Lodge, explored the backcountry, camped out, climbed peaks, and took photographs. He met his wife, Virginia Best, at her family’s Yosemite Village store, Best’s Studio, which later became a major outlet for his work. He taught popular photography workshops in the valley. Over a 60 year career, Adams made 40,000 negatives and developed thousands of prints, including famed images like Monolith, The Face of Half Dome,Yosemite National Park, and Winter Sunrise, The Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, California.
Adams’ craftsmanship helped raise photography to the status of a fine art. But his drive for excellence and frequent travel led to exhaustion, infidelity, and absence from fathering his two children. Occasionally cross, but more often cordial, Adams enjoyed cocktails with friends after a long day in the darkroom, his mirthful countenance shining as brightly as the green flash he watched for at sunset from his Carmel Highlands home overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
To earn a living, Adams juggled commercial assignments and personal work. He photographed scenic areas across the country, from Arcadia National Park in Maine to Denali National Park in Alaska. His pictures of the Kings Canyon area influenced legislators to establish Kings Canyon National Park. A longtime director of the Sierra Club and supporter of the Wilderness Society, Adams tirelessly championed natural beauty and biodiversity. He authored many books, including My Camera in the National Parks and This Is The American Earth, with Nancy Newhall. He lobbied four presidents in person (Johnson, Carter, Ford, and Reagan), and penned conservation letters--thousands of them-- until felled by a heart attack at age 84.
To commemorate his legacy, Congress named a wilderness area south of Yosemite National Park in his honor, and the U.S. Geological Survey demarked a 11,760 foot peak on the park boundary “Mount Ansel Adams.” His ashes were scattered on its slopes, becoming one with the mountains he loved and photographed so stunningly.
According to his friend James Alinder, “The spiritual importance of the mountains to Ansel’s evolving understanding of his photography, his environmental ethic, and his personality cannot be overstated...” Amid the “high altars,” as he called the peaks, decked with towering thunderheads, glistening lakes, and raging waterfalls, Adams found the Infinite. “His reverence for these places,” says John Stzarkowski, “illuminates each image.”
Many commentators affirm Adams’ religious evocations. Writer Peter Alexander says Adams photographs express “... a feeling of spiritual oneness with nature...” A Time magazine piece (with Adams on the cover) refers to his photographs as “the cult images of America’s vestigial pantheism.” And noted lensman Jerry Uelsmann calls Adams’ photographs “pantheistic hymns to nature.”
Adams belief in the sanctity of nature derived from several sources.
His father introduced him to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whitman’s pantheism, Thoreau’s faith in nature, and Emerson’s transcendental view of God in Nature set well with him.
On a mountain outing in 1925, Adams carried a copy of English poet Edward Carpenter’s Toward Democracy. The book extolls nature as the ultimate source of spiritual insight. Biographer Jonathan Spaulding states “When Ansel Adams read Carpenter among the granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada, it was the perfect combination of a time and a place, a set of ideas and a receptive mind. Reading Carpenter helped to confirm his growing sense of the spiritual power of nature and its potential for the redemption of society.”
The following year, a friend introduced Adams to the pantheist poet Robinson Jeffers and his wife Una at their home in Carmel. Adams played Bach and Mozart pieces on their piano, which the reticent Jeffers pronounced “good.” Jeffers gave Adams a copy of Roan Stallion inscribed to him. He came to regard the Jefferses as “truly warm friends.” Later he photographed Jeffers, one portrait appearing in Not Man Apart, a Sierra Club Exhibit Format Book featuring lines from Jeffers accompanied by pictures of the Big Sur Coast. Adams considered Jeffers a genius who “...produced much of America’s greatest poetry...Jeffers poetry deeply affected me... Jeffers was a prophet of our age.”
Jeffers regarded the universe as divine, a vibrant whole, with all of its parts expressions of the same creative energy. Adams shared this outlook: "The whole world is, to me, very much 'alive' -- all the little growing things, even the rocks. I can't look at a swell bit of grass and earth, for instance, without feeling the essential life -- the things going on within them. The same goes for a mountain, or a bit of the ocean, or a magnificent piece of old wood.”
Intellectual debts aside, Adams utmost inspiration sprang from untrammeled nature.
“Everything I have done or felt is in some way influenced by the impact of the Natural Scene. It is easy to recount that I camped many times at Merced Lake, but it is difficult to explain the magic: to lie in a small recess of the granite matrix of the Sierra and watch the progress of dusk to night, the incredible brilliance of the stars, the waning of the glittering sky into dawn, and the following sunrise on the peaks and domes around me. And always that cool dawn wind that I believe to be the prime benediction of the Sierra.”
Adams experienced natural wonders as “symbols of spiritual life.” He believed “...people have a profoundly spiritual need for nature,” says writer Alice Grey. “It was this spiritual connection between the earth and its inhabitants that Adams sought to express in his photographs.”
To make the connection, Adams consciously tried to convey the equivalent of what he saw and felt at the moment he released the shutter. He spent countless hours in his darkroom perfecting his images. He wanted “to make a mountain look how it feels.”
Adams devised a “Zone System,” to gain maximum tonal range from black-and-white film. He defined it as “a framework for understanding exposure and development, and visualizing their effect in advance.” Adams called negatives “the score” and prints “the performance.” He altered the ‘straight reality’ of his negatives by intensifying or subduing the dramatic play of light and shadow in his prints, thereby attaining his vision of a scene.
Adams’ compositions drew criticism from some quarters because they exclude human beings and ignore environmental deterioration. He responded that his pictures always included two person, the photographer and the viewer, and he chose to accent the positive in his work. Adams hoped his photography would lift eyes above material concerns:
“We are now sufficiently advanced to consider resources other than materialistic, but they are tenuous, intangible, and vulnerable to misapplication. They are, in fact, the symbols of spiritual life--a vast impersonal pantheism--transcending the confused myths and prescriptions that are presumed to clarify ethical and moral conduct.”
Such pantheistic perception, Adams believed, could lead to a better world: “In contemplation of the eternal incarnations of the spirit which vibrate in every mountain, leaf, and particle of earth, in every cloud, stone, and flash of sunlight, we make new discoveries on the planes of ethical and humane discernment, approaching the new society at last, proportionate to nature...”
Adams’ ability to give viewers a sense of “the metaphysical implied by the physical” informs his best work, says art authority David Robertson. Adams captures “a transforming vision of a cosmic order that contains and maintains our world...No artist in Yosemite history has so effectively as Ansel Adams let us glimpse the majesty of this order; no other artist has so enabled us to sense its glory and partake of its power.”
His “pantheistic hymns to nature” thus sing joyfully to stir deeper appreciation for wildlands and greater reverence for the natural world.
Adams, Ansel. An Autobiography. With Mary Street Alinder. A New York Graphic Society Book. Boston: Little, Brown and Company,1985.
______________. “Seeing Nature With an Inner Eye.” International Wildlife. October, 1997, p. 50. (Reprinted text from My Camera in the National Parks,1950).
______________. Ansel Adams, The National Park Service Photographs. Introduction by Alice Grey. New York: Artabras, Abbeville Press, 1995.
______________. Yosemite and the HIgh Sierra. Edited by Andrea G. Stillman, Introduction by John Stzarkowski. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1994.
Alinder, James and Szarkowski, John. Ansel Adams: Classic Images. Boston: Little, Brown and company, 1985.
Alinder, Mary Street. Ansel Adams: A Biography. New York: Henry Holt & Company, Inc., 1996.
Hughes, Robert, “The Master of Yosemite,” Time, 114 (September 3, 1979, 3,36-40.
Robertson, David. West of Eden, A History of the Art and Literature of Yosemite. Berkeley: Yosemite Natural History Association and Wilderness Press, 1984.
Spaulding, Jonathan. Ansel Adams and the American Landscape, a Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press,1995.
Adams portrait: Nancy Newhall
Adams images: The National Archives
Text Copyright © 2003 Gary Suttle