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Who is Ansel Adams? - Biography, Facts & Photography

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Explore the life and work of American nature photographer Ansel Adams. Learn about the relationships between photographic representation, landscape photography and conservationism.

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) wasn't just a nature photographer. He was also an innovator and a conservationist. His expertise in black and white photography was due in no small part to the technical mastery of sharpness and contrast. But many of his fans gravitate toward his photography because of the beauty he found in nature. He found a niche in the aesthetic representation of landscapes that, through the eye of an auteur, appear even more beautiful without color.

Adams was born and raised in San Francisco, California. An only child, his passion for the arts was fostered from an early age. His performance in school was poor, so at the age of 12 his father decided to home school young Ansel. Music was among his childhood hobbies. For a time he planned on pursing a career as a pianist. But his love of nature led him down a different path.

Adams picked up his first camera, a Kodak Brownie box camera, in 1916. That same year, he and his parents vacationed at Yosemite National Park. With camera in hand, he explored the natural environment on that trip. That experience proved formative for his lifelong mutual interest in nature and photography. He became involved with the Sierra Club in 1919, and published his first photographs in their bulletin in 1922. Through his continued interest in Yosemite, he met his wife, Virginia Best, and married her in 1928. They had two children.

The Tetons and the Snake River (1942)
mountains

Artistic Style

Even though Adams' photographs may look like straightforward landscapes, he developed a recognizable style across his oeuvre. Along with Fred Archer, Adams is known for his innovative development of the Zone System, a method for determining the relative contrast of a photographic image. Particularly crucial in black and white photochemical post-processing, the Zone System offers photographers a standard map for deciding on the appropriate balance of shading, which is too often underestimated in an age when digital photography and snapshots have become commonplace. The contrast of a photograph can have a significant impact on sharpness and sense of depth.

McDonald Lake, Glacier National Park
ansel adams

Sharpness, contrast, and of course the absence of color characterize his style as one of realism. Adams achieved a distinctive aesthetic style using large format photography in which the sharpness of the image added to the sense of verisimilitude, despite its lack of color. His aesthetic preference of Realism over Pictorialism set him apart in an era in which photographers proved their merit as auteurs. Pictorialism was a prime style in the 1940s, a mode of photography in which the artist intentionally created the image as opposed to the reliance on automatic mechanical representation.

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