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Ansel Adams
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
San Francisco, CA
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Monterey, CA
One of America’s leading photographers, Ansel Adams’s landscape photographs brought him fame and eventually fortune. An active conservationist, he was a long-time director of the Sierra Club, devoted to preservation of wilderness areas. Adams was born in San Francisco in 1902. His grandfather had become wealthy in the timber industry and his father was a successful insurance agent, but the family's fortune collapsed in the financial panic of 1907, and Adams's father never recovered financially. Unsuccessful in school (attributable to his shyness as well as possible dyslexia and hyperactivity) he reached the equivalent of eighth grade. When he was twelve he taught himself to read music and play the piano, and after lessons devoted to technical excellence by age 18 was his chosen profession was to be a classical pianist. Adams became interested in photography at a young age. His earliest photographs are thought to be of buildings in San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, notably a photograph of the Palace of Fine Arts. Given a Kodak Box Brownie camera during a vacation in Yosemite National Park in 1916, Adams became an avid amateur photographer. He spent time in the Yosemite Sierra every year thereafter until his death. In 1919 he joined the Sierra Club and spent four summers as the custodian of the Club’s Yosemite lodge, taking photographs as a visual diary. His first published photographs appeared in the Club’s 1922 Bulletin. While still earning his living as a musician, in 1927 Adams went on his first Sierra Club High Trip, a month-long trek through the Sierra Nevada with a hundred or more members, which enabled him to take photographs of the high country, such as his well known photograph “Monolith, the Face of Half Dome.” He met the photographer Edward Weston (1886-1958) that year, who would become a close friend, and the San Francisco art patron Albert Bender (1866-1941), who became Adams’s patron and supporter. With Bender’s help Adams published his first portfolio of 18 plates, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras (1927). Adams had met his wife, Virginia Best, in Yosemite in 1921 and they were married in 1928. Also in 1928 Adams had his first one-man photography exhibition at the Sierra Club headquarters in San Francisco. His trip to Taos in 1929, where he met Georgia O’Keffee (1887-1986) and John Marin (1870-1953), among other artists, led to a collaboration with the author Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) on the book Taos Pueblo, with 12 of Adams’s photographs and text by Hunter, published in 1930 in an edition of 108 copies by the Grabhorn Press with Bender’s sponsorship. During a trip to Taos that year Adams met the photographer Paul Strand (1890-1976), whose sharp photographs led Adams to abandon the then-popular pictorialist style, with soft-focus images imitating paintings and drawings, for “straight photography” with clear images focused throughout the entire depth-of-field. Adams and Weston were among the group of photographers who formed the group f/64 in 1932 to promote their vision of “straight photography.” The group was given its first exhibition at the de Young Museum; at the same time, the Museum gave Adams a one-man show. In 1933 Adams went to New York to meet Alfred Stieglitz (1984-1946), with whom he would develop a lasting friendship, and also had his first New York one-man show at the Delphic Gallery. Adams published his influential technical manual Making a Photograph in 1935. In 1936 Stieglitz gave Adams a one-man show at his “An American Place” gallery. Despite his growing reputation, throughout most of his career Adams had to rely on commercial photography to survive financially. He taught frequently and wrote a ten-volume technical manual of photography that remains possibly the most influential work on the subject. Adams organized the exhibit “Pageant of Photography” in 1939 for the Golden Gate Exhibition on Treasure Island. Deeply committed to the promotion of photography as a fine art, he was a key figure in establishing the first museum department of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1940 and the department of photography at the San Francisco Art Institute (then the California School of Fine Arts) in 1946. Recognized for his technical expertise, Adams had a long relationship with Edwin Land (1909-1991) and became a paid consultant for the Polaroid Corporation. Over the next decades, Adams’s photographs were widely exhibited and published. One notable one-man exhibition was at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1979. In 1980 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Adams received honorary doctoral degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Massachusetts and Yale University. Adams died on April 22, 1984, at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, near his Carmel home. (Rev. TNB 10/2014) Selected bibliography: Hammond, Anne. Ansel Adams: Divine Performance. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002. Proger, Phillip. Ansel Adams: At the Water’s Edge. Exhibition catalog, with a preface by Rebecca A. Senf. Salem, Mass.: Peabody Essex Museum, 2012. Szarkowski, John and Sandra S. Phillips. Ansel Adams at 100. Exhibition catalog. Boston: Little, Brown and Company in association with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2001.