Born on February 20, 1902, in San Francisco, Ansel Adams was a landscape photographer and environmentalist. Some consider Ansel the most important landscape photographer of the 20th century. The only child of Charles Adams and Olive Bray, Ansel grew up near the sand dunes of Golden Gate. The equivalent of an 8th grade education, Ansel taught himself to play the piano. Ansel’s first job was as a concert pianist and not a photographer. As a shy kid, Ansel took long walks in the wilderness near his home, growing his love of the outdoors. This led to him joining the Sierra Club in 1919 as the keeper of the clubs LeConte Lodge for the first four summers.
Ansel Adams is one of the most important figures in nature conservancy and landscape photography. He is a hero for Yosemite National Park and the western United States. Mostly known for his work around the High Sierras and Yosemite, Ansel made photographs of New Mexico, architecture, portraits, Japanese Americans in Internment Camps, and the landscapes which he is most famous for. Ansel Adams is the most famous black and white photographer in the world.
THE START OF ANSEL ADAMS' PHOTOGRAPHY CAREER
Ansel Adams received his first camera in 1916. Although he was a very gifted pianist, photography was his main passion. During his time as the custodian of the Sierra Club’s Leconte Memorial Lodge, Ansel began photographing Yosemite Valley and the High Sierra mountains. The Sierra Club brought 17 year old Ansel on trips into Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada mountains to produce photographs on their behalf. With these photographs, the Sierra Club published his work and provided a solo exhibit in their headquarters in 1928. In 1931, Ansel had a solo exhibit in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. with 60 of his photographs causing his popularity to soar. This exhibit is the reason photographer's images can be shown next to paintings and portraitures in fine art galleries. With the beauty and expertise of his images, photography became a mainstream art form.
In the 1930s, photography was more pictorialist with soft focus. Meeting photographer Paul Strand and seeing his images were in contrast to what was popular, impressed Ansel. Paul’s images were sharp, in focus, and full of tonality. In 1932, Ansel establish the Group f.64 which favored sharp focus and the entire tonal range from black to white. Most photographers used grey and very little tonality for their images. Unfortunately, the Group f.64 was short-lived.
While honing his craft of photography working for the Sierra Club, the U. S. Dept of Interior hired Ansel to photograph the national parks. With his black and white images of the parks and consistent advocacy, they awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980. This is the highest honor a citizen can achieve from the government. The reason the Sierra Club chose Ansel to be the official outing photographer was to use his images when lobbying congress to establish new national parks like Kings Canyon. Using photographs and his book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, he convinced President Franklin Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Harold Ickes to embrace the idea and establish Kings Canyon National Park in 1940.
INFLUENCE ON MODERN PHOTOGRAPHY
Most painters and art collectors of the time consider photography too realistic for fine art. Using soft focus lenses and brush strokes on their negatives, photographers tried to make their images not look like photographs. Few independent souls like Ansel were taking the complete opposite approach. Their images are sharp, in focus, and printed on glossy papers. Ansel came to realize that black and white photography was very 2 dimensional and did not need more embellishment. He began looking over many old negatives and realized starting over is the only option. The reason for the Group f.64 name was an aperture of f/64 creates an image with maximum definition. Ansel wants all his images sharp and in focus.
Sharp images from front to back is just one of Ansel Adams' contributions to photography. Unless the image is abstract or macro, photographer's want sharp focus. Of course, lenses don't go to f64 and even at f22, they're not sharp from diffraction. To get around this, we'll go to f11 and take multiple images at different focus points. Photoshop will put the images together using the sharpest part of each image.
IS ANSEL ADAMS' STILL INFLUENTIAL?
With the invention of modern digital cameras and the digital darkroom, it’s a different time in photography. We live in a time where many assume they can fix the image in post. Whether it’s cropping, removing distractions, or anything else to “fix” the image. We take 20 images from the same location but with a minor change in focal length, angle of the camera, or “insert change here”. Ansel had to take his time so the images were perfect in camera. Using a large format film camera and an actual dark room, creating and editing images was difficult. And yes, Ansel Adams edited his images by dodging and burning techniques to get the most out of his images. Although Ansel Adams' black and white nature and landscape photographs are amazing considering the time he was around, I prefer modern photographs. Maybe you like the grainy old look. Many people don’t like black and white photographs, that’s fine. But if you’re into black and white photography, his images are still influential, since many modern photographers got their influence from Ansel. Those influenced by Ansel influence the new generation.
Ansel Adams is the reason modern photography is considered a fine art and hangs in galleries. He was one of the first photographers to have this opportunity. He brought the national parks like Yosemite to the public so everyone can see the beauty. Unfortunately, social media does that now and is the cause of many problems at parks but that is for another blog. While many photographers may not be influenced by Ansel, they can appreciate what he did for the art. Going against the norms of soft focus to match the painters of the day. Creating the Group f.64 to promote sharp, in focus images like most photographers create today. I can appreciate his work but I prefer a different style of photography as seen in my Black and White Gallery. I want the viewer to see the subject and not shades of grey. That's not to say mine are better, they're just different.
If you would like to learn how to process black and white images, check out my 1 hour Post Processing lessons.