If you’ve seen a picture of the Great American Wilderness, chances are it was a piece by Ansel Adams. The man is almost a myth; he is a symbol of the American West, a folk legend, and arguably the man who made photography popular in the United States. He completely altered the techniques of photography at the time, moving away from pictures that tried to look like paintings and towards ones that embraced the directness and clarity found in a photograph. But that is not to say simple, his photographic techniques quite literally pulled additionally depth and complexities out of what was black and white. He, himself, was rather like his photography—outwardly straightforward, honest, and simple with all the inward intensity that usually accompanies genius. Yet, perhaps his most lasting influence was how he inspired the world to see the beauty and power in wilderness, and to believe wilderness was worth preserving.
For the most part, Ansel Adams is most famous for his dramatic vistas—pictures that make a man feel small compared to the sheer vastness of world around us. Gorgeous images of mountain landscapes, cascading falls, or a solitary moon in a vast sky overlooking an isolated gravesite and mountainous ridges. But equally as important (though perhaps less well known) are his intimate photographs of nature. These up-close-and-personal photographs of nature perhaps best encapsulate the important message his direct, precise, and finely detailed style is trying to impart. That a good photographer can inspire with an image that captures the actual experience of nature. That form and texture, experienced through light and shadow, can organically become something almost abstract from something so realistic.
This was a huge departure from the dominant styles at the time. The general attitude was that photography could not be as much of an art as painting, engraving, or sketching because a machine was perceived as doing most of the work—not a human. So many photographers engaged in a “pictorial” style designed to make photographs look as much like paintings or artwork as possible. Ansel Adams, instead, went as far the other direction as possible and delved deeply into embracing the specificity a photograph could deliver in what was deemed “straight” photography. There was no effort to hide the clarity of the machine, and while there was much work performed in the darkroom, it was not intended to make the photo look manipulated, but rather highlight the symbolic power of the image. But whatever you do, do not mistake “straight” photography for “realism.” Adams did not intend to capture the most realistic pine cone or mountain—he intended to capture the most real feeling of experiencing the pinecone or the mountain. An external truth, such as the perfect look of a concrete object, was not as important to him as the internal truth, or the experience of that object.
Adams, the “Zone System,” and Group f/64
Ansel Adams found the harmony between man and nature, and between art and science. He developed a scientific system dubbed the “Zone System” that enabled photographers to pre-visualize the image they want then both take the picture (controlling exposure) and develop the picture (using a variety of techniques including burning and dodging) in a way that would ultimately match their vision. Using his zone system, Ansel Adams could pull a wider tonal range out of black and white, meaning he could develop the whitest whites and the darkest blacks and everything in between in his photographs giving them more depth and complexity in straight photography.
Adams was not alone in his vision of photography; he, along with Imogen Cunningham, Willard VanDyke, and Edward Weston, formed Group f/64. The name was based on the smallest lens opening on the camera, which created photographs with the greatest clarity at all depths if you had time, patience, and a still subject. The group was relatively short-lived, but many of the members would go on to become the most influential 20th-century photographers, and it brought the concept of “straight” photography to the national forefront.
Ansel Adams and the Environmental Movement
Many photographers believed there should be a social impact from their work, however, not as many saw wilderness preservation as a social cause, but rather saw Adams’s love of nature as naïve. Perhaps Ansel Adams was simply influenced by his early experience of the Yosemite Sierra. After all, his work with the Sierra Club as their custodian and then ultimately Club photographer contributed significantly to his early success as a photographer. Or perhaps he was ahead of his time in understanding how important our environments would become to us. Regardless, his photos have been used to lobby for a national park in the Sierra Nevada, he was awarded the Conservation Service Award in 1968 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. Personally, he fought for the Wilderness Act, for new national parks, the Big Sur, the Redwoods, and others. Professionally, however, his works would inspire environmental movements for generations to come with the emotion, clarity, mystique, and depth his photographs would capture. He could put to paper what it felt like to realize the world was so much bigger than you and he could remind individuals why it was so important to protect that experience for all humans.
What Adams taught Future Generations
His public service wasn’t solely focused on the environment, he also worked hard as a lecturer and writer to share his photographic studies and experience for the future. He wrote at least ten books on his Zone System for professionals and amateurs alike. He was well known for the quality and clarity of his instruction in his later years. He worked as a course instructor at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, founded the first department of photography in San Francisco, and was instrumental in the creation of a museum at the University of Arizona in Tucson for creative photography.
Adams himself had a wife, was the life of the party with his friends, worried throughout his life about financial obligations—rather straightforward concerns. He was a man who loved nature and loved to create, and spent his life doing just that. And yet, he’s also a man who rewrote the dialogue on artistic photography, who brought to light the beauty of the wilderness of the American West, and who has a mountain peak named after him. Whether he’s a man or legend, he certainly changed American photography for the 20th century.