Ansel Adams (1902-1984)

By Aliza Wall

Ansel Adams,  Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California,  1944, gelatin silver print (printed 1978), 39.5 x 48.5 cm., Museum of Modern Art, New York. .

Ansel Adams, Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California, 1944, gelatin silver print (printed 1978), 39.5 x 48.5 cm., Museum of Modern Art, New York.

For 20th-century landscape photographer Ansel Adams, nothing was as sacred or profound as nature. Born February 20, 1902 in San Francisco, Adams’ upbringing was socially and emotionally conservative, his father a failing a businessman and his mother constantly lamenting his father’s failure. At the age of four, Adams’ nose was badly broken by an earthquake, distinctly marking him for life. He was removed from school at the age of twelve and tutored at home, allowing him to pursue learning to play the piano, which was his intended profession. This solitary upbringing prompted Adams to look to nature for entertainment and meaning.

In 1916, when Adams was fourteen, the family visited Yosemite, starting Adams’ life-long love affair with the national park. During the trip, his father gave him a Kodak No. 1 Box Brownie camera, which officially began his foray into photography. After this trip, Adams began to educate himself about photography and explored the High Sierra, which allowed him to develop the stamina and skills needed to photograph at high elevation. His first photographs were published in 1921, already indicating a tendency towards realism in favour of pictorialism, a popular style the prioritised beauty over pure representation. 

1927 was a pivotal year for Adams. It was then that he took his first fully visualised photograph, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome (1927). The piece depicts a sheer cliff in black and white, the sharp contrast highlighting striations in the stone. Of the image, Adams remarked, “I had been able to realise a desired image: not the way the subject appeared in reality, but how it felt to me and how it must appear in the finished print.” Soon after, Adams came under the influence of arts patron Albert M. Bender, who would enable his development as a photographer and introduce him to close friend Georgia O’Keeffe. 

The 1930s were a particularly fruitful and experimental time for Adams. His move from technically pictorial photography to “straight photography” was catalysed by photographer Paul Strand. “Straight photography” privileged absolute clarity and showed no evidence of darkroom manipulation. During this period, Adams began to use his photographs to promote wilderness conservation, creating the limited-edition book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. This book, as well as Adams’ testimony, played an integral role in the effort to designate the area as a National Park. In 1935, Adams created many new photographs, the most famous of them, Clearing Winter Storm (1935) epitomising his unique perspective. Unlike other great nature photographers before him, Adams focused on the ephemeral and transient. In Clearing Winter Storm, Adams has captured the moment in which the storm had begun to dissipate, imbuing the photograph with a sort of serene motion.

In 1943, Adams embarked on a project entirely antithetical to his previous work. He requested permission to visit the Manzanar War Relocation Center, an internment camp for Japanese-American citizens. Adams’ purpose was, in his own words, “to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice (…) had overcome the sense of despair by building for themselves a vital community.” The photographs from this project focused on the daily activities of the interned individuals. Adams also took portraits that he titled with the subject’s name and occupation. His 1943 portrait entitled Joyce Yuki Nakamura (eldest daughter) epitomises the intimacy of the project. This collection has, however, been criticised as propagandistic for depicting the interned individuals in moments where they appeared happy, which could create the false impression that these people were not profoundly betrayed and mistreated by the United States Government. During this period Adams continued to produce photographs of nature and established the first academic department to teach photography as a profession. 

By 1950, Adams had essentially completed his oeuvre; very few important photographs were taken during this period. Instead, he focused his energy on the reinterpretation of his earlier work. As photography gained legitimacy as a medium, so too did the demand for Adams’ work. In 1974, Adams had a major retrospective exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for which he curated and reprinted negatives from his vault.  Adams also devoted much of his later life to environmental causes, winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter for his conservation efforts.


Ansel Adams died from cardiovascular disease in 1984, leaving behind a profoundly impactful legacy. He was not only a documentarian, but an innovator, activist, and promoter of the ephemeral beauty of the American wilderness. 


Feeney, Mark. “Let’s be honest, Ansel Adams’s images of a WWII internment cam are propaganda.” The Boston Globe. September 1, 2016.  


Goldberg, Vicki. “Ansel Adams in a New Light.” The New York Times. January 17, 2019.


Szarkowski, John. “Ansel Adams.” Encyclopedia Britannica. April 15, 2018.


Turnage, William. “Ansel Adams, Photographer.” The Ansel Adams Gallery. Accessed February 10, 2019.