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Ansel Easton Adams

Born in San Francisco, Adams manifested an early interest in music and the piano, an interest which he initially hoped to develop into a professional career. In 1916 he took his first photographs of the Yosemite Valley, an experience of such intensity that he was to view it as a lifelong inspiration. He studied photography with a photofinisher, producing early work influenced by the then prevalent pictorialist style. Each summer he returned to Yosemite where he developed an interest in conservation.

Adams invented a method of exposure and development called the zone system, which he used to divide the gradations of light in a scene into ten zones from black to white; this allowed him to visualize the different levels of gray in the final photograph with great accuracy. The control he achieved with this system enabled him to capture such subtle changes of tone and light that he could return again and again to the same scene, yet produce images that were always fresh, never repetitive.

By 1920 he had formed an association with the Sierra Club. In 1927 his first portfolio was published, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras. In 1928 he married Virginia Best and began to work as an official photographer for the Sierra Club. His decision to devote his life to photography was influenced by his strong response to the straight photography of Paul Strand, whom he met in 1930. Adams’s first important one-man show was held in 1931 at the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, and in the same year his work was exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1932 Adams and other California photographers, including Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, founded an influential group called f/64, which was devoted to taking straightforward photographs in sharp focus. In 1935 Adams published Making a Photograph, the first of a series of technical manuals. He helped found the photography department of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1940, the first such department in any museum.

After meeting with Alfred Stieglitz in 1933, he began a gallery in San Francisco, the Ansel Adams Gallery. The first of his books dealing with the mastery of photographic technique, Making a Photograph, was published in 1935. Meanwhile, Adams had impressed Stieglitz so much that an important one-man exhibition of his work was shown at An American Place in 1936. With the arrival of World War II, Adams went to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a photomuralist for the Department of the Interior. He work on a wartime photo essay on the plight of interned Japanese-Americans, which was exhibited at MOMA in 1944 under the title Born Free and Equal. During 1944-1945, Adams lectured and taught courses in photography at the museum. This teaching was followed by the establishment of one of the first departments of photography at the California School of Fine Arts (later the San Francisco Art Institute) in 1946.

Following his award of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1948 to photograph national park locations and monuments, there were five productive years of important photographic work. The first of numerous portfolios, Portfolio 1: In Memory of Alfred Stieglitz, was issued in 1948, and in the same year he began to publish technical volumes in the Basic Photo Series. Throughout 1950 he made trips to Hawaii, Alaska, and Maine, and in that year Portfolio 2: The National Parks and Monuments was issued.

In 1953 he collaborated with Dorothea Lange on a Life commission for a photo essay on the Mormons in Utah, and in 1955 he began a photography workshop in Yosemite. Portfolio 3: Yosemite Valley was published by the Sierra Club in 1960. In each of his images Adams aimed to modulate the range of tones from rich black to whitest white in order to achieve perfect photographic clarity. He also developed a knowledge of the techniques of photographic reproduction to assure that the quality of any reproduced work might approach as closely as possible the standard of the original print.

In 1962 Adams moved to Carmel, California, where in 1967 he was instrumental in the foundation of the Friends of Photography, of which he became president. A retrospective show of his work, 1923-1963, was exhibited at the de Young Museum, and in 1966 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In the late 1970s his prints were sold to collectors for prices never equaled by a living American photographer. By that time Adams had given up active photography to devote himself to revising the Basic Photo Series, publishing books of his life’s work, and preparing prints for a variety of exhibitions.

In 1984 the United States Congress established the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, between Yosemite National Park and the John Muir Wilderness Area in California. Mount Ansel Adams, at the head of the Lyell Fork of the Merced River on the southeast boundary of Yosemite National Park, was named for him in 1985. The Ansel Adams Center in San Francisco opened in 1989 to exhibit and promote his work along with that of other photographers.


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