February 20 – Happy Birthday, Ansel Adams

Posted on February 20, 2015

I bet that, at some time, somewhere, you have seen an Ansel Adams photograph.

Maybe on a poster. Or a calendar. Printed on a T-shirt or mug or greeting card.

He's THAT ubiquitous. (Which is a way of saying that his photos can be seen everywhere.)

Self-portrait of Ansel Adams
Born in San Francisco, California, on this date in 1902, Adams was lucky enough to be a part of a well educated and well-to-do family. He loved nature and explored the out-of-doors, collecting bugs, checking out sea cliffs and shipwrecks, and star watching with his dad using a small telescope.

We could say that Adams was “homeschooled” starting at age 12, since he was so restless and inattentive that he was kicked out of several private schools; his dad brought him home to learn from family members and tutors. He learned a lot about Robert Ingersoll and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who were amazing thinkers and writers.

It was at that time that Adams became interested in music, especially the piano. He studied music for 12 years and intended to become a professional musician, but he had another developing passion, as well – which was birthed at age 14 when his family went to Yosemite National Park.

He later remembered that "the splendor of Yosemite burst upon us and it was glorious... One wonder after another descended upon us... There was light everywhere... A new era began for me."

Adams's father gave him his first camera on that trip. He returned the next year with a better camera and a tripod. He began to learn darkroom technique and started working for a photo finisher, reading photography magazines, attending camera club meetings, going to photography exhibits.

He also started hiking and exploring (and of course photographing) the High Sierra, and at age 17 he joined the Sierra Club, a group dedicated to the conservation of the Sierras and other wild places. He was hired as a caretaker of the Sierra Club visitor center in Yosemite Valley, and he took over a gallery in Yosemite Valley with his work.

So, with all that hiking and photography, and all of that conserving and photography, Adams soon found his music practice pushed into the background, and photography became front-and-center.

During Adams's 20s, many photographers were trying to elevate photography to the same level of respect in the art world as painting. Some photographers experimented with effects that made their photographs look more like paintings, including hand coloring the black and white prints. 

Adams did not go that route. 

Instead, he concentrated on keeping his photos realistic, keeping them black and white, but using sharp focus, strong contrast, and the exact right amount of exposure to create beautiful prints.

Adams did experiment with color film, but he didn't like it as well because he had learned so well how to control black and white photography.

Check out more of Ansel Adams's work at his official website.

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