This past weekend I went to the North Caroline Museum of Art to see a photographic exhibit by Ansel Adams, fifty-two his photographs that he thought were among his best.
Ansel Adams (February 20, 1902 – April 22, 1984) was an American photographer and environmentalist. His black and white photographs of the American west, with an emphasis on Yosemite National Park, are instantly recognizable.
He was born in San Francisco, moving with his family when he was four to a home just south of the Presidio Army base. He experienced the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which destroyed the city. He was tossed face-first into a garden wall during an aftershock, breaking his nose, which was never reset. He was a hyperactive child and was dismissed from several private schools for being restless and inattentive (ADHD?). His father decided to pull him out of school in 1915 at age 12, after which he was educated by private tutors, his aunt Mary, and by his father. His father raised him to follow the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson: to live a modest, moral life guided by a social responsibility to man and to nature.
The Grand Tetons and the Snake River
As a child, he studied the piano and intended music to be his adult profession. However, a trip to Yosemite with his family and the gift of a Kodak Brownie box camera changed his goals. He returned to Yosemite on his own with a better camera and tripod and then learned basic darkroom technique working part-time for a San Francisco photo finisher. His first photographs were published in 1921, and his early photos already showed careful composition and sensitivity to tonal balance. In the course of his 60-year career, the 1930s were a particularly productive and experimental time. He expanded his works, focusing on detailed close-ups as well as large forms from mountains to factories. In September 1941, Adams was contracted by the Department of the Interior to make photographs of National Parks, Indian reservations, and other locations for use as decoration of the department’s new building. Part of his understanding with the department was that he might also make photographs for his own use, using his own film and processing.
Half Dome at Yosemite
Adams used the gelatin silver process for his black and white films, in which a suspension of silver salts in gelatin is coated onto glass, paper etc. These light-sensitive materials are stable under normal keeping conditions and are able to be exposed and processed even many years after their manufacture. Adams pioneered a zonal system of eleven shades of gray, ranging from black to white. The resolution in his black and white photos is astounding. He never wanted to take color photographs although he tested color film for Kodak.
This was Adams favorite tree – he photographed it many times. Unfortunately it no longer exists.
Adams lugged his 40 pound view camera wherever he went, taking pictures of whatever struck him from nature to camp children. I’m sure you will recognize some of these iconic images.
Trust me, though, to really appreciate Adams’ artistry, you need to see the photographs in person.